"" Behind Their Lines: April 2018

Thursday, April 26, 2018


Sunday morning at Cunel by Harvey Dunn
Smithsonian Museum of American History

Alice Corbin Henderson* was co-editor of Poetry magazine for ten years (1912- 1922), and in 1914, she proposed that the magazine sponsor a contest for the best war poem. The editors of Poetry received 738 submissions and selected fourteen to appear in their November 1914 issue.** The winning poem, “The Metal Checks,” was written by Louise Driscoll; other published entries were authored by Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Margaret Widdemer, Richard Aldington, and Maxwell Bodenheim.  The “war poetry issue” also included Alice Corbin’s submission: “Fallen.”


He was wounded and he fell in the midst of hoarse shouting.
The tide passed, and the waves came and whispered about his ankles.
Far off he heard a cock crow—children laughing,
Rising at dawn to greet the storm of petals
Shaken from apple-boughs; he heard them cry,
And turned again to find the breast of her,
And sank confusèd with a little sigh. . . .
Thereafter water running, and a voice
That seemed to stir and flutter through the trenches
And set dead lips to talking. . . .

Wreckage was mingled with the storm of petals. . . .

He felt her near him, and the weight dropped off—
Suddenly. . . .
            —Alice Corbin

The poem expresses what Carl Sandburg praised as Corbin’s “urge for the brief and poignant.”† Capturing a soldier’s last moments of consciousness, “Fallen” compares wounded and dying men with the petals that drop from spring trees. In the dim light of morning following a dawn attack, the cacophony of war fades and is replaced by a vision of home, serenity, and safety. The  rush of soldiers stumbling forward through a hail of bullets settles into memories of ocean waves gently lapping at the shore. Confused, the dying man believes himself to be tenderly held by his mother or perhaps his wife or sweetheart, and he seems to hear her voice whispering to him.  Relaxing into her, he drops the weight of his life, and reality and memory blur as “wreckage was mingled with the storm of petals.”

Three years later, in April 1918—just one year after the US had entered the war—Poetry published Alice Corbin Hendersons’ editorial essay, “Send American Poets.” She wrote,  
Why not send poets to the front? Not to the trenches for active service, where many of them now are, but as official government agents to see and to record this war for future generations? The newspaper correspondent has an official position; there are official camera men, official moving picture photographers; why not poets in a similar capacity?.…What big magazine will be progressive enough to send an American poet to the front as an accredited correspondent?  Mr. Ring Lardner has been over for Collier’s—I wish Collier’s would send 
Carl Sandburg or Edgar Lee Masters or Vachel Lindsay over!††
Corbin’s suggestion affirms the variety of ways in which we know and understand reality; she was ahead of her time in acknowledging that there are no unfiltered facts or accounts of war.
* The writer signed her poetry Alice Corbin, but used the name Alice Corbin Henderson for her prose and editorial work.  Her poems “The Harvest” and “A Litany in the Desert” also appear on this blog. 
** Jennifer Kilgore-Caradec, “When Women Write the First Poem: Louise Driscoll and the ‘war poem scandal,’” Miranda, vol. 2, 2010, journals.openedition.org/miranda/1296, Accessed 16 April 2018.
† Carl Sandburg quoted in T.M. Pearce’s Alice Corbin Henderson, Steck-Vaughn Company, 1969, p. 12.
†† Alice Corbin Henderson, “Send American Poets,” Poetry, vol. 12, no 1, April 1918, pp. 37-38.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

War Horses

British gun team, New York Tribune, c.1918
World War I was a modern industrial war, the first global war to use airplanes, tanks, and machine guns. And so it is easy to forget the vital role that horses played in the Great War.  An estimated sixteen million horses were used on all fronts, while eight million died in service.* Horses were vitally important to military transportation, carrying men, food, supplies, artillery, and heavy guns to the front lines.  Where motorized vehicles were unable to travel, horses found a way: over roads blasted with shell holes, across rivers and flooded streams, up steep embankments, through deep mud, and along stretches of ground where no roads existed. Horses made a major contribution to the Allied victory; due to the naval blockade, Germans were less able to replace their animals lost in action, and the German army “did not attempt to cure or destroy their wounded horses, which were often acquired by Allied troops.  Some historians even hypothesize that if the German equine force had been strengthened with professional veterinary services, they might have been able to defeat the British and French.”**

Illustration by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere
As Michael Morpurgo has vividly portrayed in his novel War Horse, horses suffered terribly in the First World War.  They were targeted by enemy machine guns and shell fire; they collapsed and drowned in mud and shell holes; thousands died of exposure; they were driven past the point of exhaustion and often went without adequate food and water—so hungry that they ate blankets and uniforms.***

Gilbert Frankau was a British officer in the Royal Field Artillery. His poem “Gun Teams” was published in his collection A Song of the Guns, written under what he described as “the most remarkable conditions… at the battle of Loos, and during a lull in the fighting” and completed after his artillery brigade was ordered to Ypres, “within sight of the ruined tower of Ypres Cathedral.”† As an artillery officer, Frankau worked closely with the horses he describes in his poem, the six-to-twelve horse teams required to pull heavy field artillery to the battlefront. 


WWI postcard by C.T. Howard
Their rugs are sodden, their heads are down, their tails are turned to the storm.
(Would you know them, you that groomed them in the sleek fat days of peace,—
When the tiles rang to their pawings in the lighted stalls, and warm, —
Now the foul clay cakes on breeching-strap and clogs the quick-release?)

The blown rain stings, there is never a star, the tracks are rivers of slime.
(You must harness up by guesswork with a failing torch for light,
Instep-deep in unmade standings; for it’s active-service time,
And our resting weeks are over, and we move the guns to-night.)

The iron tires slither, the traces sag; their blind hooves stumble and slide;
They are war-worn, they are weary, soaked with sweat and sopped with rain.
(You must hold them, you must help them, swing your lead and centre wide
Where the greasy granite pavé peters out to squelching drain.)

There is shrapnel bursting a mile in front on the road that the guns must take:
(You are nervous, you are thoughtful, you are shifting in your seat,
As you watch the ragged feathers flicker orange flame and break) —
But the teams are pulling steady down the battered village street.

You have shod them cold, and their coats are long, and their bellies gray with the mud;
They have done with gloss and polish, but the fighting heart’s unbroken.
We, who saw them hobbling after us down white roads flecked with blood,
Patient, wondering why we left them, till we lost them in the smoke;

Who have felt them shiver between our knees, when the shells rain black from the skies,
When the bursting terrors find us and the lines stampede as one;
Who have watched the pierced limbs quiver and the pain in stricken eyes;
Know the worth of humble servants, foolish-faithful to their gun!
            —Gilbert Frankau

Fortunino Matania
A memorial to First World War horses in Hampstead’s church of St. Jude-on-the-Hill is inscribed, “Most obediently and often most painfully they died—faithful unto death. Not one of them is forgotten before God.”††  Another poignant image of the bond between horses and the soldiers who served with them is the painting by Fortunino Matania, “Good-bye Old Man,” reproduced and used by charities to raise funds for animals serving in the war. The illustration is often associated with Henry Chappell’s poem “A Soldier’s Kiss,” which depicts a soldier’s farewell to his faithful companion:
Only a dying horse! He swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh
Kisses his friend while down his cheek there steals
Sweet Pity’s tear; “goodbye old man, goodbye."°
------------------------------------------------------------------------Ernest Harold Baynes, Animal Heroes of the Great War, Macmillan Company, 1927, p. 22 and
Dion Dassanayake, “Never Forget: Incredible tribute to the 8 million hero horses killed in First World War,” Express, 28 Oct. 2015,  www.express.co.uk/news/history/615101/World-War-One-horses-killed-Remembrance-Day-November-11, Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
** Elizabeth D. Schafer, “Veterinary Medicine,” The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, Routledge, 2013, p. 723.
*** Elizabeth D. Schafer, “Animals, Use of,” The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Spencer C. Tucker, Routledge, 2013, p. 53.
† Gilbert Frankau, author’s “Note,” A Song of the Guns, Houghton Mifflin, 1916, no page.
†† “The War Horse Memorial,” St. Jude-on-the-Hill, stjudeonthehill.com/the-war-horse-memorial/, Accessed 18 Apr. 2018.
° Henry Chappell, “The Soldier’s Kiss,” Our Dumb Animals, vol. 49, no. 5, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, October 1916, p. 76. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

In a lonely forest

Rancourt German Cemetery
In August of 2017, the World War One Centennial Commission blog shared Patricia Hammond’s story of a haunting First World War song and the search that led to the identification of the forgotten composer’s body and his reburial. Hammond is a British musician who has performed and recorded  songs of the Great War with Matt Redman, such as “Pack Up Your Troubles,” “Over There,” and “Roses of Picardy.”*  Wanting to include German songs on a CD they were preparing, they purchased from a German antiquarian a 1917 collection of forgotten tunes, Weltkrieglieder (World War Songs),  and were immediately struck by the beauty of one tune: “Bald, allzubalde” (“Soon, all too soon”).  The sheet music provided the information that the melody had been written on April 20, 1916 by Ernst Brockmann, who was killed at the battle of Verdun just weeks later, on June 7, 1916. 

Hammond’s search for the composer’s grave led to the discovery by the German War Graves Commission (the Volksbund Deutsce Kriegsgräberfürsorge) that while Ernst Brockmann had no known grave, a soldier with the same death date and the initials E.B. had been buried outside Verdun.  Exhuming the grave led to the positive identification of the unknown soldier; he was Ernst Brockmann, and in 2016, he was reburied in a ceremony at which Hammond and Redman sang the tune he had composed.

Soon, all too soon (Bald Allzubalde)                                     

From Josef Rust's photo album
Alone in the woods, a flower blooms red
Soon all too soon, I too will be dead.
Flying somewhere is a small piece of lead
Coming to take away all my care
Today or tomorrow, all is the same. 

Far down in the valley three spades are digging
A stone-cold grave for a soldier who’s gone.
In the distance of twilight lies a small town
Where a young girl weeps in her lonely room,
Alone in the woods a flower blooms red
Soon all too soon, I too will be dead.†
            —music by Ernst Brockmann, 
                lyrics by Josef Rust

But what of the song’s lyricist, Josef Rust?  I contacted Patricia Hammond, who said that she had found mention of a Joseph Rust (spelled with a “ph” and not a “f” as on the sheet music) on the German village of Eissen’s website, where he was referred to as a “teacher, writer, and poet” who had lived from 1895 – 1981.  The dates seemed right, and the village of Eissen lies in northern Germany, not far from Paderborn, the area where Brockmann was from and where the 1917 book of war songs was found— but there was no conclusive evidence linking this man to the song. 

Josef Rust
I began my own search and discovered that the website Europeana Transcribe lists a German soldier by the name of Josef Rust and provides 186 images from his photo album, as well as a handwritten copy of his war-time diary.  It was encouraging to find in the diary’s preface the note, “This is a war diary; my poems, insofar as they have been published, are intentionally omitted” – but if the poems had been omitted, so too might be any evidence linking this Josef Rust to the song “Bald Allzubalde.” And yet this man was almost definitely the Joseph Rust that Patricia Hammond had found on the Eissen website: while the names were spelled differently, the photo album of Josef Rust includes a telegram with several mentions of “Eissen,” and a typed timeline of his war service gives the dates of his birth and death: 1895-1981.  And so the outlines of this German soldier-poet began to appear: a studio image of a stern young soldier, as well as a more relaxed photo of a young man leaning against a hedgerow, carrying a small book and pen (perhaps his diary).  But was this the same man who had written “Bald Allzubalde”? 

The diary records that on August 8, 1915 after completing three months of training, Rust left Berlin and crossed the Russian border.  His first impression of the war was of mass graves and transports of the wounded. Over the next two months, he and his unit fought the Russian army in what is now Poland and Belarus.  From August 22nd until the 24th, Rust and his unit were caught in a fierce battle near the town of Orla: fired on by both the Russians and their own artillery, Rust records that “bullets whined like hornets, shells exploded, and every second man was a casualty.” Officers fell and group leaders were wounded, while Rust attended to a dying officer from his hometown, transcribing the man’s last words so they could be sent home to his parents.  In the same diary entry, Rust writes, “One year later, I sent to the young recruits of the 2nd Guards Res. Rgt. 6 a keepsake – a poem about the events of 24 August 1915 that had been printed in Garde Feldpost: “Einsam im Wald.”  The title of Rust's poem is the first line of the song “Bald Allzubalde.”

Josef Rust
In September of 1915, Rust and his men endured a grueling march from the Eastern Front to the trenches of the Western Front.  Stationed at Cambrai— if any doubt remains that this is the Josef Rust who authored the lyrics—he records in his diary, “In October I wrote, ‘Einsam im Wald’ (‘Lonely in the forest’).††  On April 20, 1916, my well-known colleague wrote a suitable melody, and afterwards it was sung repeatedly. J. Hatzfeld took the song in his collection: ‘Tandaradei,’ see page 143.”  And in pencil, appearing above the words “well-known colleague,” is written E. Brockmann. Here was the lost lyricist. 

Echoing the words of the song/poem, Rust’s diary in November of 1915 describes a solitary walk he took in Cambrai. Alone in the city, looking through the weak rays of November sun toward the battlefield, Rust saw rain clouds gathering, a harbinger of the bullets and death his comrades were facing and which he was convinced would soon find him. He thought of his home, his loved ones, and the former days of peace and happiness that had been sacrificed to the bloody war, and he gave himself over to an "All Soul’s mood" of despair. 

Rust’s diary preserves an astonishing and frank account of the war. He writes of the Somme in October of 1916, “It's raining. Tomorrow is our third time to the Somme. We sing only songs of dying.”
Josef Rust

But Josef Rust, unlike his musical collaborator Ernst Brockmann, survived the war.  Seriously wounded in early June of 1918 in Belleau Woods near Chateau Thierry, Rust spent over four months in hospital, returning to military service only to witness Germany’s surrender.  Though he frequently longs for peace in his diary entries, when he learned of his country’s defeat, he writes that he cried bitterly: his unit had endured four years of war; their commander had lost an arm, yet officers were required to surrender their weapons and remove the insignia that denoted their rank. Rust wrote, “I will not forget the day and this shame,” and commented, “The world, if it can free herself from the burden of this war, can be redeemed only with love, but not by force.”
* Patricia Hammond’s CD recording Songs of the Great War is available on her website, as well as on Amazon and iTunes.
† Translation by Danita C. Zanré. Here is the original German:
Einsam im Walde blüht wohl ein Blümlein rot, bald, allzubald bin ich tot, bald, allzubalde.
Fleugt wo ein Stückchen Blei, nimmt mir mein Sorgen. Mir ist halt einerlei: heut oder morgen.
Weit, wo das Tal hinab graben drei Spaten, graben ein Kühles Grab für ein Soldaten. Drüben im Dämmerschein, allwo im Städtchen weint wo im Kämmerlein irgendein Mädchen. Blüht wohl ein Blümlein rot einsam im Walde, balde, gar bald bin ich tot, bald, allzubalde.
†† It appears that the song was sometimes referred to by the poem’s title “Einsam im Walde”: in its 14 September 1934 issue, London’s Wireless World magazine reports the song “Einsam im Walde” was broadcast from Hamburg on Sunday, September 9th, 1934 (page ii).

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