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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bringing the war home


Homecoming, Queenslander 6 Dec 1919 

What was it like to survive the trenches and return from the First World War?  Australian Leon Gellert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force just eighteen days after Britain declared war in August of 1914.  He was part of the 10th Battalion’s landing force at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 and described the experience:
Leon Gellert in 1920s, photo by May Moore
National Library of Australia P653/46
I can remember crawling over the side and fixing my bayonet as I stood in water up to my waste [sic] and I can remember wading to the coarse land and stepping over dead men as I raced to the cliff face. Everybody was rushing madly up the cliffs. Rifles were snapping; shells were bursting; in front bayonets were glistening in the half life; and behind us was the roar of the ships…. It was nothing but charging black bushes and dark valleys for me, stumbling through streams of mud, tripping over fallen branches and hearing hurried warnings…. Everybody seemed to be getting hit. Men that we had lived and laughed with were crawling red and torn upon the grass, or lying in ragged pools of wet blood. Men touched me as they twisted and died. A man cried for a stretcher bearer near me, and asked me to kill him.  Then the reinforcements came. We had a great victory, but the sight of the dead next morning was awful—hundreds and hundreds lying in bunches near the trenches.*

Wounded by shrapnel and weakened by blood poisoning and dysentery, Gellert was evacuated to Malta in July and then sent to England for further medical attention.  There, he was diagnosed with epilepsy and declared unfit for further military service.  Gellert’s biographer, Gavin Souter, writes, “Although epilepsy was never diagnosed later in his life, Gellert had certainly been exposed to the risk of shell shock, for which ‘epilepsy’ sometimes served as a synonym.”*  Still, almost unbelievably, upon his return to Australia in November of 1916, Gellert re-enlisted in the army, but was discharged after only four days when his medical history was discovered.**
            In another account of his time at Gallipoli, Gellert related that he was part of a burial detail for a close friend of his who had been “hit by a shell when drying himself on the beach after a swim.” Gellert recalled, “All that was left we put into a sack with a shovel.  His head alone was untouched; the shell had burst on his stomach.  Every day brings its horror but no one seems to care.”* His poem “The Husband,” published in 1917, offers a disturbingly honest account of the war that soldiers brought home with them and the ways it changed them. 

1928 film poster
The Husband

Yes, I have slain, and taken moving life
From bodies.  Yea! And laughed upon the taking;
And, having slain, have whetted still the knife
For more and more, and heeded not the making
Of things that I was killing.  Such ’twas then!
But now the thirst so hideous has left me.
I live within a coolness, among calm men,
And yet am strange.  A something has bereft me
Of a seeing, and strangely love returns;
And old desires half-known, and hanging sorrows.
I seem agaze with wonder.  Memory burns.
I see a thousand vague and sad tomorrows.
None sees my sadness.  No one understands
How I must touch her hair with bloody hands.
            — Leon Gellert, February, 1916

Published eighteen years later, British writer Elizabeth Daryush also wrote of the “impassable gulf”† that the First World War erected between the men who had fought and the women who loved them.

Subalterns††

Brunswick, Australia, post-war
She said to one: ‘How glows
My heart at the hot thought
Of battle’s glorious throes!’
He said: ‘For us who fought
Are icy memories
That must for ever freeze
The sunny hours they bought.’

She said to one: ‘How light
Must your freed heart be now,
After the heavy fight!”
He said: ‘Well I don’t know…
The war gave one a shake,
Somehow, knocked one awake…
Now, life’s so deadly slow.’ 
            — Elizabeth Daryush

In May of 1916, while recovering from his injuries, Leon Gellert wrote a poem that anticipated the struggle of returning home; here are the first and last stanzas of that poem:

The Return

Graves at Gallipoli
I have come home again!
Dawn is a dream to me
Lying here, soon to be
Clinging, awaking;
See where ‘tis breaking
Mockingly, mistily!
I have come home again!

I must away again!
Since I have lived this day
Here, now I cannot stay
Back with the changing sky,
I must away to die;
Die in the proper way.
I must away again!
            —Leon Gellert

Both poets attest to the fact that the war lasted long after the Armistice was signed in November of 1918. 
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Leon Gellert quoted in Gavin Souter’s A Torrent of Words: Leon Gellert: A Writer’s Life, Brindabella Press, 1996, pp. 9-11.
** Gavin Souter, “Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892-1977),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gellert-leon-maxwell-10288, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 May 2018.  
† Edmund Blunden quoted in Claire M. Tylee’s Great War and Women’s Consciousness, Springer, 1989, p. 54.  
†† A junior officer in the British army below the rank of captain (most often, a second lieutenant).


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