Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Our dead are coming home again





“Every visible and invisible creature is a theophany, or appearance of God,” Evelyn Underhill wrote, quoting John Scotus Erigena in the introduction to her 1916 book of poetry, Theophanies.

A Common Grave, Natalia Goncharova

The Return

Our dead are coming home again:
Softly they come, on silent feet.
Even as with joy we gave our men,
            So their return is sweet. 

Together they went forth.  Now one by one
They slip into the ancient place;
And we, that thought ourselves alone,
            Glimpse the remembered face—

Meet in the shattered homestead of the heart
The old familiar touch, the faithful ways,
The dear known hands, that still possess the art
            To mend our broken days. 
                        —Evelyn Underhill

Evelyn Underhill
Evelyn Underhill was an established writer when war was declared, the author of Mysticism (1911) and The Path of Eternal Wisdom (1912). But Underhill’s spiritual understanding was deeply shaken by the First World War.  In a letter written in 1921 she confessed it was a time during which she “went to pieces.”* In the years that followed, Underhill became increasingly committed to pacifism. Shortly before her death in 1941, she wrote a friend, “Christianity and war are incompatible, and… nothing worth having can be achieved by “casting out Satan by Satan.”**  She acknowledged in another letter that year, “Not everyone can face the results of an air raid with an unshaken belief in the lovingkindness of God…. But all these various obstacles and difficulties are simply part of the circumstances in which God requires us to serve.”***
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* Evelyn Underhill, letter to Friedrich von Hügel, 21 Dec. 1921, qtd. in Fragments from an Inner Life, p. 108.
** Robert Gail Woods, “The Future We Shan’t See: Evelyn Underhill’s Pacifism,” Religion Online, https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-future-we-shant-see-evelyn-underhills-pacificism/.
*** Evelyn Underhill, Fruits of the Spirit, letter for Eastertide, 1941, quoted in The Soul’s Delight, Upper Room, 1999, p 67.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

How I Won the V.C.



While the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon speaks eloquently of the pity of war, soldiers also used humor to cope with the trauma and tragedies of the conflict.  The ANZAC Book is a collection of poems, stories, jokes, and sketches created by men who fought at Gallipoli in 1915.  One of the poems included is a comic ballad in the style of Robert Service and his pre-war poems, such as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."   

To the following poem, I’ll add only two notes: the asterisks and vocabulary notes are included in the original text – and this is a poem best read aloud.

How I Won the V.C.
(The sort of thing we must expect to hear after the war is ended)

Yes, that’s the red ribbon I’m wearing—
      Just a small strip of scarlet, you see,
But there’s no one can tell how I prize it
      Nor the glow it occasions to me.
For it speaks of the broad fields of honour
      Which we wrung from the red jaws of hell—
And my eyes grow bedimmed for the cobbers*
      Who battled and conquered and fell.

Yes, that’s the V.C.  How I won it,
      It isn’t for me to relate.
(We heroes are always so modest,
      And boasting’s a thing that I hate.)
Well—seeing you write for the papers,
      I’ll make an exception of you;
Don’t mention my name if you write it,
      Tho’ every partic’lar is true.

It was during a fight for an outpost—
      It was called the Green Knoll, I believe—
And the Turks on the top dealt out slaughter:
      They’d a week of defeat to retrieve.
It was five thousand feet to the summit,
      And almost as steep as a wall;
And they met every charge as we rushed it
      With bayonet, shrapnel, and ball.

‘Twas defended by nine tiers of trenches
      (That’s strong for an outpost, you’ll guess),
With twelve 42 centimetres,
      Which kicked up the deuce of a mess.
We’d been fighting five days without resting,
      When the eighth line of trenches we took;
For ev’ry man there was a hero—
      From me to the company’s cook.

And there was the knoll just before us—
      Some two hundred paces or more;
With barb-wire and bayonets bristling,
      And the parapets sloppy with gore.
And the howitzers roared like perdition
      And vomited fire and death;
Till we saw it was madness to charge them,
      And halted a moment for breath.

Ah, stranger, imagine the picture,
      And then stand with horror aghast—
We had fought for a month without sleeping,
      And we stood facing failure at last!
We had squandered the best of our Army,
      We had “stuck” to our ultimate gasp;
And there, in the moment of triumph,
      The prize was to slip from our grasp.

Then suddenly out sprang the Major,
      His face lighted over with bliss—
“Pass the word there for Lance-Private Wilson;
      He’ll find us a way out of this!”
(If there’s one thing I hate, it is skiting*
      When I hear it I always feel sore,
So you won’t think I boast when I tell you
      He ought to have done it before!)

And a great cheer arose as I faced him
      And nodded (I never salute),
And said to him: “I’ll see you thro’, sir,
      And win you some glory to boot.
The chaps of the 16th Battalion
      Are not easy snoozers to beat;
I’ve a notion (I says) that will lick them—
      ‘Arf a dollar I line them a treat!

“I don’t want no red-tapey orders,
      And I don’t want no kudos nor pelf;
You get back to your own little dug-outs,
      And I’ll tackle the knoll by myself!
I’ll lay down my life for my country,
      For old England, the land of the free;
And you’ll find that the bloke called Horatius
      Was only a trifle to me!”

Then I shook hands with all the battalion
      (There were only thirteen of us left),
And they cheered me again till the foemen
      Must have thought us of senses bereft.
And I gathered my arms and my rations,
      And girded myself for the fray—
If I live to be ninety or over,
      I will always remember that day!

I had five hundred rounds for my rifle,
      And of hand bombs I took forty-one;
A machine-gun was slung to my shoulders,
      And I carried a periscope gun.
As for rations—well, all I took with me
      Was a tin of Fray Bentos* or two,
And in my breast pocket I planted
      A nice Army biscuit to chew.

Then I waved a farewell to my cobbers—
      I was much too affected to speak;
There are times when the bravest of soldiers
      Have feelings that render them weak.
One tear—then I turned to the trenches,
      And charged like a lion at bay
As I caught the last words of our Colonel,
      Crying: “Bonzer* … Gorstrafem … Hooray!”

You talk of charmed lives –I’d a thousand;
      As I rushed up that hill like a goat
I got thirty-two shots thro’ my trousers
      And nine shrapnel balls thro’ my coat;
And a Japanese bomb burst beneath me
      —For a moment I gave up all hope,
But it proved the best thing that could happen,
      For it pushed me half-way up the slope.

Then a fifteen-inch shell came straight at me
      —I hadn’t a moment to shirk—
But it struck on that hard Army biscuit
      And rebounded—and blew up a Turk!
You doubt it? Well if you want proof, sir,
      The truth of this tale to endorse,
Here’s the biscuit—that dent in the middle
      Is where the shell struck it, of course!

Ah yes, ‘twas a terrible moment;
      I was then slightly wounded, ‘tis true—
Just a bayonet stab in the gizzard
      And a crack from a bullet or two.
But I gathered new strength for the conflict,
      And, just as the darkness came down,
I was under their parapets, resting,
      And I knew I had beaten them brown!

For this was the scheme I had worked on,
      ‘Twas a little bit mean, you may say—
But I knew that the Turks were half-famished,
      And fought on one biscuit a day;
And the tins of Fray Bentos I carried,
      I chucked in the trench then and there;
And I heard the poor beggars pounce on it,
      And I knew they were caught in the snare!
            *       *       *       *       *       *
The morning broke, smiling and peaceful—
      Ah, shame, that we soldiers must fight—
‘Twas a piteous scene met my vision
      With the first rosy quivers of light.
When I peeped in the trench, not a Turk, sir,
      Was left of that legion accurst—
For they’d whacked the Fray Bentos among them,
      And each man had perished from thirst.

That’s the yarn.  If you know the 16th, sir,
      You’ll know how our Colonel can smile.
He said to me: “Corporal Wilson,
      You’ve dished up the beggars in style.”
Promotion! Some say I deserve it,
      But that’s really nothing to me;
I don’t want no honour or glory,
      But—that’s how I won the V.C.
                        —“Crosscut,” 16th Battalion, A.I.F.
--------------------------------------------
*Cobber is Australian for a tried and trusted friend.
*Skiting—Australian for “swanking” in speech.  “Skite” – blatherskite.
*Fray Bentos is a brand of tinned meat.
*Bonzer—Australian for “excellent.”