Saturday, June 20, 2020

Rendezvous with Death


 “Of all the poets who have died young, none has died so happily,” said William Archer, describing Alan Seeger in the “Introduction” to Seeger’s posthumously published poems.* Seeger, sometimes called “the American Rupert Brooke,” was an American living in Paris when war broke out in July of 1914. Within weeks, he had volunteered to fight with the French Foreign Legion, and less than two years later, he was killed at the Somme on July 4, 1916 in a French attack on German lines at Belloy-en-Santerre. According to Archer, on the evening of July 4th,

Alan Seeger advanced in the first rush, and his squad was enfiladed by the first of six German machine guns, concealed in a hollow way. Most of them went down, and Alan among them—wounded in several places. But the following waves of attack were more fortunate. As his comrades came up to him, Alan cheered them on; and as they left him behind, they heard him singing a marching-song in English: “Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée.” They took the village, they drove the invaders out; but for some reason unknown—perhaps a very good one—the battlefield was left unvisited that night. Next morning Alan Seeger lay dead.**

Best-known for his war poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” Seeger wrote extensively about the glory of war and the honor of dying in battle (in this, he can perhaps be more readily compared to the British poet Julian Grenfell). In Seeger’s poem “The Hosts,” he writes,
 
Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
Friend or foe, it shall matter nought;
This only matters, in fine: we fought.
For we were young and in love or strife
Sought exultation and craved excess:
To sound the wildest debauch in life
We staked our youth and its loveliness.
Let idlers argue the right and wrong
And weigh what merit our causes had.
Putting our faith in being strong—
Above the level of good and bad—
For us, we battled and burned and killed
Because evolving Nature willed,
And it was our pride and boast to be
The instruments of Destiny.

In October of 1914, while halted on march to the front lines, Seeger wrote his mother from outside Reims: “I am feeling fine, in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience.”*** He grew increasingly impatient with American neutrality, and in June of 1915 wrote,“Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden…. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.”**** In Seeger’s poem “A Message to America,” he was even more direct:

You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard,
But your honour ends with your own back-yard;
Each man intent on his private goal,
You have no feeling for the whole….

Never one to retreat from confrontation or his sense of his duty (Seeger was a founding member of Harvard’s Socialist Club and a friend of journalist John Reed†), Seeger condemned those who refused to fight. In “On Returning to the Front after Leave,” he also celebrates the “intrepid brotherhood” that soldiers share.

Sonnet XI
Seeger's likeness, Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
On Returning to the Front after Leave

Apart sweet women (for whom Heaven be blessed),
Comrades, you cannot think how thin and blue
Look the leftovers of mankind that rest,
Now that the cream has been skimmed off in you.
War has its horrors, but has this of good—
That its sure processes sort out and bind
Brave hearts in one intrepid brotherhood
And leave the shams and imbeciles behind.
Now turn we joyful to the great attacks,
Not only that we face in a fair field
Our valiant foe and all his deadly tools,
But also that we turn disdainful backs
On that poor world we scorn yet die to shield—
That world of cowards, hypocrites, and fools.
            —Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger, by John Elliott
Smithsonian American Art Museum
William Archer says of the soldier-poet, “But, devoted though he was to his art, he felt that to live greatly is better than to write greatly.”†† Seeger has no known grave. 

The soldier depicted on the memorial to American Volunteers of the Great War in the Place des États-Unis in Paris was modeled on Seeger’s likeness, and an excerpt from his poem “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” is inscribed on its base. His posthumously published poems were reviewed by Harvard classmate T.S. Eliot in The Egoist: “Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping.”†††
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* William Archer, “Introduction,” Poems, by Alan Seeger, Charles Scribner, 1916, p. xi.
** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xliv.
*** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxi.
**** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxvi.
† Shortly after their graduation from Harvard, John Reed wrote a short comic verse describing Seeger: “A timid footstep—enter then the eager Keats-Shelley-Swinburne-Medieval Seeger; / Poe’s raven bank above Byronic brow, / And Dante’s beak—you have his picture now; / In fact he is, though feigning not to know it, / The popular conception of a poet. / Dreaming his eyes are steadily alight / With splendours of a world beyond our sight.” [John Herling, “Harvard’s Class of 1910 Rode Comet’s Tail to Fame,” Congressional Record, Appendix, 23 June 1960, p. A5423.]
†† Archer, “Introduction,” p. xv.
††† T.S. Eliot, “Short Reviews,” Egoist, Dec. 1917, p. 172.

Friday, May 29, 2020

The Glory of War

Thiepval, Dead German Soldier, by Ernest Brooks © IWM Q 1284
Bertram Lloyd was a member of the Humanitarian League* and a conscientious objector during the First World War. In 1919, he edited the anthology of war poetry, The Paths of Glory, including poems that protested “the false idealization of war.” Lloyd wrote that it was absurd to celebrate the peace while continuing to glorify war, “as if one should celebrate the return of soberness after a bout of drunkenness, while insisting none the less that the drunkenness too was magnificent.” The anthology included poems written by Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Margaret Sackville, Fredegond Shove, and Alec Waugh. Lloyd stated in the book’s preface, “The writers whose poems are included in this collection may hold very diverse views on war. But they are nevertheless all agreed in believing that however much individual gallantry and self-sacrifice it may incidentally call forth, war must be regarded to-day as an execrable blot upon civilization.”**  One of the poems included was H.F. Constantine’s “The Glory of War”:  

The Glory of War

What does it matter if men are torn, and a village razed to desolation?
’Tis a little thing for men to die, and houses can be built of brick and stone;
The glory of a just war surely spreads its mantle over all.

Ruins, Battle of the Scarpe
by Ernest Brooks © IWM Q 1998
The battle is ours: our men rest where yesterday lay the enemy;
The village is ours (for torn earth and smoking bricks were once a village).
What is the cost? A thousand men are killed who did not want to die.
What does that matter? Their country needing them, they gave their lives,
Happy ones, though ignorant of their happiness, they died to make the battle ours;
And their bodies lie grotesquely on the torn slopes about the village.

A lad was shot, just as we started to move forward;
Perhaps you saw him where he lay, with eyes still open,
With eyes still looking out upon the world, dazed and horror-struck.
There lay a hero—who did not want to die.
My sergeant-major’s dead, killed as we entered the village;
You will not find his body tho’ you look for it;
A shell burst on him, leaving his legs, strangely enough, untouched.
Happy man, he died for England;
Happy ones are they who die for England.

Paths of Glory by CRW Nevinson
 © IWM Art. 518
Did he, did that poor lad, truly die for England’s sake?
Did all those thousands who are gone, did they all die for that bright cause?
All England wages war:
The flower of her manhood lies waiting in the cold pale days of Springtime,
Waiting for the harvest that reaps so many souls,
Some are brave and unafraid, some shrink in mortal apprehension;
But all are happy, for they know that by their efforts they are helping
So many of their fellow-countrymen to make their fortunes.
                                                February, 1918
            —H.F. Constantine

“The Glory of War” was first published by the English Review in September of 1918 and attributed to “Major H.F. Constantine.” The name is almost certainly a pseudonym, as no record of a man† serving under that name appears in the records of the British army lists nor in the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War. Directly below “Glory of War” appeared a second poem by Major Constantine, “William of Germany,” which blamed the Kaiser for “all that huge parade of soldiers, dead because of you.”†† A third poem, “The Use of War,” seems to have been the extent of his published work.††† 
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*  Founded in London in 1891, the Humanitarian League sought “Greater Kinship” in its broadest sense: its members opposed capital and corporal punishment, advocated for animal rights, and campaigned against hunting for sport. The manifesto of the Humanitarian League proclaimed, “it is iniquitous to inflict suffering, directly or indirectly, on any sentient being, except when self-defence or absolute necessity can be justly pleaded.” Famous supporters included George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant, Leo Tolstoy, John Galsworthy, and Thomas Hardy.
** Bertram Lloyd, “Preface,” The Paths of Glory, Allen & Unwin, 1919, pp. 7, 6, 10.  
† Although unlikely, it is possible that the author was a woman; in the November 1919 review “Soldier Poets” published in The American Review of Reviews, Constantine’s work is mentioned, along with that of other “living soldier poets,” including “W.M. Letts (author of “The Spires of Oxford”).” Winifred Mabel Letts was a British writer who served as a VAD and masseuse for wounded soldiers.
†† Major H.F. Constantine, “William of Germany,” English Review, Sept. 1918, p. 164.
††† Major H.F. Constantine, “The Use of War,” English Review, Nov. 1918, p. 318.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Spring Song 1917

Raised in Cambridge until she was 16, Margaret Postgate recalls the loveliness of spring in the university town: “you cannot be brought up within a mile of the Backs and the Bridges, seeing the weeping willows year by year coming into leaf and the spring flowers waking in St. John’s Wilderness, or be taken, even occasionally, to King’s Chapel when the morning sun is shining through the clear reds and blues of the east window, or even walk to school along the gracious curve of Trumpington Street, without some sense of beauty seeping into you.”*  

But then in 1914, the unthinkable happened, and it changed the world forever.

Spring Song, 1917
            “The Spring is gone out of the year.”
            Pericles on the young men who fell in the war.

O April’s running out and out
   With strong wind’s blowing,
And every day we wait and look
   For green things growing.
      But every day that wakens, sees
      The thrush still plain in the barren trees,
      Singing his puzzled melodies
         Where once were leafy places
            In this strange leafless spring.

O was there ever a spring like this
    With thrushes singing,
And shining sky and May at hand
    And no green springing?
         Ah, there never was a spring like this,
         For when was there a year like this,
         Or a people desolate as this,
            Whose captains in high places
               Have stolen away the spring?
                        —Margaret Postgate

In 1916, following her brother's imprisonment as a conscientious objector, Postgate left her teaching position at St. Paul’s school for girls. She accepted a full-time position at the Fabian Society Research Department, where she met George Douglas Howard Cole, a conscientious objector and socialist (they later married in 1918). Postgate remembers the foreboding that overwhelmed the world:

"Gate of Goodbye" by Francis James Mortimer
© National Media Museum, Bradford UK
Leave-trains from Victoria, packed with soldiers, were seen off by wives and sweethearts bidding what might easily be a last farewell, for within forty-eight hours you might receive the War Office telegram announcing that the man was dead. This narrow margin between vigorous life and muddy and gangrenous death produced an atmosphere heavily charged with emotion—for many years afterwards I could not hear a gramophone playing “Pack Up Your Troubles” or “Ev’ry Little While” without a catch of the breath, so often had they been put on “once more before it’s time to go.”

In Postgate's view, attempts to manage the emotional strain too often resulted in artificial cheer or censure: “the terrible recruiting speeches, the nauseating letters to the Press from people who wanted to ‘give their sons’—or other people’s sons—to shoot strikers, or to send conscientious objectors to the Front, and to shocking statements by prominent gentlemen to the effect that the war was a “crusade of Christ against the Devil.”**

Margaret Postgate Cole 1938
After the war, Postgate Cole remained active in politics as a writer and lecturer, serving for thirteen years as an alderman on London City Council and campaigning in support of comprehensive education. She wrote extensively on labour history and social issues, and was awarded Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 for her work in education. She was created Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1970 for her lifetime achievements. 

Margaret Postgate's only book of poetry was published in 1918, about which she commented, “I like what poetry I have written. But others, save a few of my friends, do not; and Naomi Mitchison (who should know) once explained to me why it wasn’t poetry at all. So I suppose it isn’t.”***
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* Margaret Postgate Cole, Growing up into Revolution, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1949, p. 16.
** Cole, Growing up, p. 54 – 55.
*** Cole, Growing up, p. 47. Naomi Mitchison, novelist and poet, has been called the doyenne of Scottish literature.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Rules for Influenza

Red Cross, St. Louis October 1918 (National Archives)
In September of 1918, a physician wrote from Camp Devens, Massachusetts, “It is only a matter of a few hours … until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand to see one, two, or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths a day, and still keeping it up.”* Colonel Victor C. Vaughan, former president of the American Medical Association,  also visited the US military camp and reported, “In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood. This picture was painted on my memory cells at the division hospital, Camp Devens, in the fall of 1918, when the deadly influenza virus demonstrated the inferiority of human interventions in the destruction of human life.”*
 
Some Americans thought that the 1918 influenza virus was a German weapon of war, released by enemy agents who had arrived in Boston with vials of the germs; others suspected that the German pharmaceutical company Bayer had mixed the virus into aspirin.* German propaganda  blamed the illness on Chinese laborers employed by the Allied Powers.”**

By the end of the world-wide pandemic, at least 20 million had died; estimates range from 20 – 100 million, with most experts believing more than 50 million were killed by the virus. What became known as Spanish Influenza was particularly fatal to healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

With no known cure, most efforts were directed at stopping the spread of the illness. Historian David McCullough writes, “In Boston the stock market closed. In Pennsylvania a statewide order shut down every place of amusement, every saloon. In Kentucky the Board of Health prohibited public gatherings of any kind, even funerals.”*** And an Albuquerque New Mexico newspaper wrote,  “the ghost of fear walked everywhere, causing many a family circle to reunite because of the different members having nothing else to do but stay home.”†

In the chaos and uncertainty that accompanied the virulent pandemic, lists of practical health guidelines were published in nearly every major newspaper. One writer used poetry to spread the message:

Rules for Influenza

Oh, shun the common drinking cup,
            Avoid the kiss and hug,
For in them all there lurks that Hun,
            The influenza bug.

Cough not, nor sneeze when in a crowd;
            ‘Tis neither kind nor neat,
Because it scatters germs around.
            So try to be discreet.

Lick not the thumb in turn o’er
            The papers in your file,
And wear your health mask, though you look
            Like time. Forget it. Smile.

Remember doorknobs harbor germs,
            So wash before you eat.
Avoid the flying clouds of dust
            While walking on the street.

Most anything you do—or don’t—
            Is apt to cause disease,
So don’t do anything you do
            Without precautions, please.
                                    —Dr. Waters (Chemistry)

Nurses in Boston, National Archives
The poem’s author, Dr. C.E. Waters, worked during the First World War at the Bureau of Standards as chief of the Organic Chemistry section. Prior to the war, he had taught at Connecticut Agricultural College and Johns Hopkins University. The poem appears in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt. In a letter dated October 25, 1918, Holt’s fiancée, Lois Crump, included the verse with the note, “I am enclosing some stuff which may make you laugh” (Crump worked at the Bureau of Standards).††

Little has changed in preventing the spread of viral pandemics. Dusty streets and common drinking cups are no longer common, but hand-washing, avoiding close contact, staying at home, and using humor to cope with uncertainty and fear remain very much the same.
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* Gina Kolata, Flu, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, p. 14; p. 16, p. 3.
** J.N. Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics, ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 390
*** David McCullough, “Foreword” in Lynette Iezzoni, Influenza 1918, TV Books, 1999, foreword, p. 7.
† Kolata, p. 23.
†† Maclyn P. Burg and Thomas J. Pressly, editors, The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, Sunflower UP, 1998, p. 263.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Song

Parade to War, Allegory by John Steuart Curry, 1938
Few have heard of Lola Ridge, the modernist poet who has been compared to Emily Dickinson, Siegfried Sassoon, and the Georgian trench poets. She was an anarchist who protested the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; she was arrested with Edna St. Vincent Millay; and she was an immigrant who defended the poor and oppressed, challenging readers to confront the ugly realities of prejudice and suffering. When Ridge died in 1941, her obituary in the New York Times described her as “one of the leading contemporary poets” who “found in the meeting of many races in America the hope of a new world.”* Ridge’s 1918 poetry collection The Ghetto included her war poem “The Song.”

The Song

That day, in the slipping of torsos and straining flanks on the bloodied ooze of fields plowed by the iron,
And the smoke bluish near earth and bronze in the sunshine floating like cotton-down,
And the harsh and terrible screaming,
And that strange vibration at the roots of us …
Desire, fierce, like a song …
And we heard
Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917, Childe Hassam 
(Do you remember?)
All the Red Cross bands on Fifth avenue
And bugles in little home towns,
And children’s harmonicas bleating

            AMERICA!

And after …
(Do you remember?)
The drollery of the wind on our faces,
And horizons reeling,
And the terror of the plain
Heaving like a gaunt pelvis to the sun …
Under us—threshing and twanging
Torn-up roots of the Song …
            —Lola Ridge

In a series of concentrated images, the poem juxtaposes the suffering of soldiers with the patriotic music that sent them to war. As muscles scream with the effort of moving through mud, blood, smoke and artillery fire, soldiers feel a fierce desire to live as a “strange vibration at the roots of us,” resonating like song. And that desire evokes the memory of send-off parades accompanied by the notes of bugles and the sound of children playing patriotic tunes from New York City to “little home towns,” all “bleating,” as if piping sheep to the slaughter: “AMERICA!”
The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne,
by John Steuart Curry 

In the aftermath of an attack, some soldiers find themselves alive, and even the touch of the breeze seems whimsical. But terror lurks just beneath the surface, and the old songs, mutilated by war, can never be heard in the same way again. As in many of her other poems, Ridge describes individuals “stretched to the limits of existence” and she “confronts the bystander as complicit in the suffering of others by virtue of the gaze.”**

A review of The Ghetto published in Poetry magazine in 1918 predicted, “Ridge will be charged with lunacy, incendiarism, nihilism, by the average American who reads her book. The everlasting minority will proclaim her another free singer, another creator of free form.***  Conrad Aiken wrote of The Ghetto, ““it is singular to come upon a book written by a woman in which vigor is so clearly a more natural quality than grace.”†
 
Lola Ridge
Lola Ridge died of tuberculosis in 1941; shortly before her death she wrote, “Nice is the one adjective in the world that is laughable applied to any single thing I have ever written.”††
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*”Lola Ridge, Poet, Dies in Brooklyn,” New York Times, 21 May 1941, p. 23.
** Anna Hueppauff, Lola Ridge: Poet and Renegade Modernist, thesis, Edith Cowan University, 2012, pp. 14–15.
*** Alfred Kreymborg, “A Poet in Arms,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 6, March 1919, p. 336.
† Aiken, “The Literary Abbozzo,” Dial, vol. 66, no. 782, 1919, p. 83.
†† Ridge, qtd. in Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda, Schaffner Press, 2016.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Slow Madness of Annihilation



On the night of January 19, 1915, the first German zeppelin attacks in England targeted cities and towns on the Norfolk coast. London’s first zeppelin attack occurred on May 31, 1915 when 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades fell on the city. Seven people were killed and thirty-five were wounded. By war’s end, the death toll in London from zeppelin raids neared 700, and an estimated 2,000 people had been seriously wounded. Nancy Cunard’s poem “Destruction” speaks of the devastating powerlessness felt by many.

Destruction*

I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thought to kill.
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags, royally, and stamped his feet.

The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town
Most where the poorer, humbler, houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.

And many died and hid in unfound places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night.
Yet Death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked, in imitation of their faces ….

But in the morning, men began again
To mock Death—laughing at their bitter pain.
            —Nancy Cunard (from Wheels, second edition, 1917)

Iris Tree, Nancy Cunard’s friend, wrote that during the war the two women were bound by “loneliness and death”:
Together we had braved the panic of first bombings over London, and watched their fires redden on sky and river, ourselves burnt out by the terrible gaieties of last encounters, now made unreal by the unrealities of war—all the metal and struggle, trains, ships, mourning, noise of unknown distances from which we were excluded as figures of illusion—a theme that left its shadow on us both in different ways.**

A VAD nurse living in north London remembers being awakened in the night by her landlady’s cry “For the love of God, Miss McAllister, get up!” Agnes McAllister recalls, “you could see for miles around and with all the searchlights there it looked like a big silver cigar in the sky. And it fascinated me beyond everything.” With her son, Agnes’s landlady crawled under the bed and pleaded with Agnes to come away from the window, but she refused saying, “‘If anything’s happening to me, I’d rather see it coming.’ And then as it got near, it was like an express train over your head it was the incredible noise that it made. But, you know, they were fascinating with the light on them like big silver cigars coming along.”***

The first lines of Cunard’s poem “And If the End Be Now?” express the surreal changes that confronted civilians at war:   

The rooms are empty and the streets are bare,
No lovers meet at midnight under the stars,
And the past pleasures of congenial hours
Forgotten lie; yet now these flowers that fade
Once dressed the gardens with gay delight.
Ah, patiently we must grow friends with grey,
Put out of mind the colour of the flame
And the triumphant songs of inspiration;
Obliterate adventure, memory.
The silence of desertion has begun
And the slow madness of annihilation….

By 1916, at least seven of Nancy Cunard’s friends had been killed in battle, among them Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Julian and William Grenfell. She struggled with survivor’s guilt, and by 1919 “her intense awareness of the war and its costs in human lives … led to a nervous breakdown.”****
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* The poem, with alterations, was later published as “Zeppelins” in Cunard’s 1921 collection, Outlaws.
** Iris Tree, We Shall Not Forget, p. 21, cited in Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist by Lois Gordon, Columbia UP, 2007, p. 59.
*** “Voices of the First World War: Zeppelins over Britain,” Imperial War Museum, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/voices-of-the-first-world-war-zeppelins-over-britain.
**** Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, Columbia UP, 2007, p. 52.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

In Flanders Fields: An Echo


African American troops near Verdun 1918
(Library of Congress cph 3c16442) 
John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was one of the most popular poems of the war and continues to be read, recited, and studied today. A recent student study guide argues that the poem is “adaptable to any number of circumstances beyond the occasion for which it was written,” because anyone who has been defeated or known others who have sacrificed for a cause “can relate to the speaker’s desire that the ‘torch’ will be carried on by someone else who finds the cause, or the defeated combatant, honorable.”*

In 1920, the Dunbar Entertainer published “In Flanders Fields: An Echo,” a poem that challenged Americans to uphold the light of justice and extinguish the burning crosses and flames of hatred that scarred the landscape of post-war America.

In Flanders Fields
An Echo

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
   That mark the graves where black men lie;
   Their souls, long wafted to the sky,
Look down upon the earth below.

E’en while we mourn their loss, we see
Their brothers hanged upon a tree   
   By whom they saved. Their pain fraught cry
   Mounts up to those who stand on high
And watch the scarlet flowered sea
   In Flanders fields.

In Flanders fields they shall not sleep!
No! For their murdered kin they keep
   A vigil through the day and night,
   ‘Til God Himself shall snatch from sight
Such scenes as make our heroes weep
   In Flanders fields.
            —Orlando C. W. Taylor (1920, Dunbar Entertainer)

The Tuskegee Institute estimates that in the 86 years between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,743 people were lynched in the United States; 3,446 of them were African Americans. As African American troops returned home from the war that had “promised to make the world safe for democracy,” they confronted a new battle:
Many black veterans were denied the benefits and disability pay they’d been promised. In the first summer after the war, known as the Red Summer, anti-black riots erupted in more than twenty American cities, including Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. “This is the right time to show them what will and what will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in the future,” one Louisiana newspaper opined, in an editorial titled “Nip It In the Bud.” In the years after the war, at least thirteen black veterans were lynched. Countless more survived beatings, shootings, and whippings.***
The poem’s author, Orlanda Capitola Ward Taylor, was born in Texas in 1891 and witnessed a lynching as a young teen. An educator, journalist, and radio host, he is best known for co-founding in 1925 New Orleans' first African American newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly, and for his pioneering work in black radio broadcasting. He died in 1979.
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*Gale, Cengage Learning, A Study Guide for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,”2016.
**Amanda Betts, In Flanders Fields: 100 Years Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, Knopf, 2015.
*** Peter C. Baker, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans,” The New Yorker, 27 November 2016.