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Monday, January 15, 2018

Only a Boche

French soldier, German POWs, volunteer ambulance driver
“It was eerie never to see Germans, or almost never,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.* Fussell relates a British soldier’s first impression on seeing German prisoners of war:
Germans!....Even in the tumult of a few hours ago they had been distant and such very ‘unknown,’ mysterious, invisible beings….One felt, “So this is the Enemy. These are the firers of those invisible shots, those venomous machine guns, all the way from Germany and here at last we meet.”* 

In David Jones’ epic poem of the Great War, In Parenthesis, the Welsh soldier dedicates his work to friends and fellow soldiers, but also includes “the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.”** 

“So this is the Enemy”—venomous brutes or comrades in misadventure? Soldiers and civilians on all sides wrestled to define their adversaries in terms that would make the killing easier and the war justifiable.  Actual meetings between adversaries complicated the stereotypes.

Only a Boche†

We brought him in from between the lines: we’d better have let him lie;
For what’s the use of risking one’s skin for a tyke that's going to die?
What’s the use of tearing him loose under a gruelling fire,
When he’s shot in the head, and worse than dead, and all messed up on the wire?

However, I say, we brought him in.  Diable! The mud was bad;
The trench was crooked and greasy and high, and oh, what a time we had!
And often we slipped, and often we tripped, but never he made a moan;
And how we were wet with blood and with sweat! but we carried him in like our own.

Now there he lies in the dug-out dim, awaiting the ambulance,
And the doctor shrugs his shoulders at him, and remarks, “He hasn’t a chance.”
And we squat and smoke at our game of bridge on the glistening, straw-packed floor,
And above our oaths we can hear his breath deep-drawn in a kind of snore.

German WWI postcard
For the dressing station is long and low, and the candles gutter dim,
And the mean light falls on the cold clay walls and our faces bristly and grim;
And we flap our cards on the lousy straw, and we laugh and jibe as we play,
And you’d never know that the cursed foe was less than a mile away.
As we con our cards in the rancid gloom, oppressed by that snoring breath,
You’d never dream that our broad roof-beam was swept by the broom of death.

Heigh-ho! My turn for the dummy hand; I rise and I stretch a bit;
The fetid air is making me yawn, and my cigarette’s unlit,
So I go to the nearest candle flame, and the man we brought is there,
And his face is white in the shabby light, and I stand at his feet and stare.
Stand for a while, and quietly stare: for strange though it seems to be,
The dying Boche on the stretcher there has a queer resemblance to me.

It gives one a kind of a turn, you know, to come on a thing like that.
It’s just as if I were lying there, with a turban of blood for a hat,
Lying there in a coat grey-green instead of a coat grey-blue,
With one of my eyes all shot away, and my brain half tumbling through;
Lying there with a chest that heaves like a bellows up and down,
And a cheek as white as snow on a grave, and lips that are coffee brown.

Photo captured at Amiens of German children
Australian soldier wrote, "A souvenir like this
I think helps us to remember that
there is another side to war."
(Australian War Memorial P00167.002)
And confound him, too! He wears, like me, on his finger a wedding ring,
And around his neck, as around my own, by a greasy bit of string,
A locket hangs with a woman's face, and I turn it about to see:
Just as I thought . . . on the other side the faces of children three;
Clustered together cherub-like, three little laughing girls,
With the usual tiny rosebud mouths and the usual silken curls.
“Zut!” I say. “He has beaten me; for me, I have only two,”
And I push the locket beneath his shirt, feeling a little blue.

Oh, it isn’t cheerful to see a man, the marvellous work of God,
Crushed in the mutilation mill, crushed to a smeary clod;
Oh, it isn’t cheerful to hear him moan; but it isn’t that I mind,
It isn’t the anguish that goes with him, it’s the anguish he leaves behind.
For his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain,
And the death he dies, those who live and love, will die again and again.

So here I am at my cards once more, but it’s kind of spoiling my play,
Thinking of those three brats of his so many a mile away.
War is war, and he’s only a Boche, and we all of us take our chance;
But all the same I'll be mighty glad when I’m hearing the ambulance.
One foe the less, but all the same I’m heartily glad I’m not
The man who gave him his broken head, the sniper who fired the shot.

No trumps you make it, I think you said? You'll pardon me if I err;
For a moment I thought of other things . . .Mon Dieu! Quelle vache de guerre.
            —Robert Service

German POWs
In the dim, shabby light of the dug-out, Robert Service illuminates the paradoxes of war.  Stretcher-bearers struggle to save men who will die – as well as aiding those who will live, only so they can be sent back to the front to be killed.  Survival often seems to hinge upon cultivating an indifferent blindness.  The stretcher-bearers try to lose themselves in a card game, laughing away their own danger and ignoring the dying German soldier they have recently risked their lives to save.

French and Germans alike are “crushed in the mutilation mill,” but the poem asserts that the real dangers are not physical but psychological.  The French soldier in his coat of grey-blue is distracted not by the thought of the dying German, but by the image of his enemy’s family: “his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain.”  While a soldier can die only once, survivors are doomed to re-live his death over and over – haunting both his family and loved ones, as well as the sniper who shot him.

Canadian writer Robert Service is best known for his rollicking, comic ballads of the Yukon, poems such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “the Cremation of Sam McGee” (another of his war poems is here).  But while volunteering as an ambulance driver at the front, Service penned accounts of his war experience that were published in the Toronto Daily Star.  In an excerpt titled “The Baptism of Fire,” Service describes arriving at an aid station where he is told of “two men wounded, by a grenade.  There is a third, but we want you to wait a little for him.  We think he is dying.”  When the aid station comes under attack from German shellfire, Service crawls beneath his ambulance, seeking shelter. His narrative continues,
“Every shell-scream is an interrogation; the answer—what?”
...Then the doctor hails me from his shelter.
“Ah, the Boches will have their little joke. This place is not quite safe.  You must not stay here too long.”
I agree.  It is not exactly the place I would choose for a picnic. I am not lingering just for the fun of the thing.  I am waiting for a man to die. (In my heart I believe I wish he’d hurry up and do it.”)
When the shelling stops, Service quickly drives the two wounded men away from the front-line aid post, writing, “I cannot help looking back.  There, a corrugated line against the sky is the German trench, more silent, more deserted, more innocent-looking than ever.”††  

Questions without answers, the wait for men to die, and an awareness of one’s own callousness and affinity with the enemy: Robert Service understood the complexities of war.
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 *Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, 2000, p. 76. 
**David Jones, In Parenthesis, Faber & Faber, 1978, n.p. 
†Derogatory slang term for Germans.
††Robert Service, cited in Canadian Poetry from World War I, edited by Joel Baetz, Oxford, 2009, pp. 162-163. 


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