"" Behind Their Lines: A Belgian Letter

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Belgian Letter

Kenneth MacLeish, c. 1917

On October 14, 1918, American aviator Kenneth MacLeish, attached to British Squadron 213, was on patrol over Belgium. The squadron encountered German planes, and in the air battle that followed, MacLeish shot down at least one German plane, but he and his Sopwith Camel failed to return to base. For months, no trace of MacLeish nor his plane were found. The squadron and MacLeish’s family and friends held out hope that he had crash landed and been taken prisoner by the retreating German army.

In late January of 1919, two months after the war had ended and more than three months since Kenneth had disappeared, the family received information that had come from a Belgian landowner. Kenneth’s brother Archibald MacLeish wrote of the impact of that news:

A Belgian Letter

Madame, it is my duty to make known
The brave death of a soldier. I had gone
Today, the Christmas morrow, to my farm
Hard by the town of Bruges, to see what harm
This wind of war had made among my walls
And in my garden, where the blackbird calls
First always in the spring. Madame, I went
With two old friends, an architect of Ghent
And one that had a factory of cloth
At Bruges before the war, true Belgians both
And truer friends to me: they'd not endure
That I should go alone. ‘You're never sure,’
They said, ‘what thing the Boche has left behind,’
And so they came. The road was hard to find
Even for me that sixty years or more
Have trudged each market day from Bruges to Schoore,
And all the farm was ruin, and a pool
Of horrid water — not a cart or tool
Nor any wall upstanding, save the stack
That shivered in the wind and warned us back.
In all that place there was no living thing

From The First Yale Unit, by David Paine
Save that the sudden gusts made stir and ring
Within the stark door frame the summons bell,
And on the hearth the water dripped and fell.
We went about the house to where the barn
Had fallen inward and the earth was torn
With shreds of iron; there both the stave
Of broken wood we found — you must be brave,
Madame — we found the body of a man,
An officer, and on his breast the span
Of golden eagle wings. There was a case
With papers and your name, and then the place,
The other side of the world, whence he had come,
And pictures that we thought must be his home.
Madame, we made a casket out of boards
And buried him — the merchant has the words
In Flemish, of the service for the dead,
For all his sons were killed, and these he said,
And then we made a grave above the foss
Within the garden wall, and set a cross
Marked with his name, and when the spring comes North
To heal the land with flowers, and the earth
Is clean again of the war, it will be good
To lie there by the wall, and feel the blood
Of rose and currant stirring in the loam,
And know that in the earth he has come home
Whatever home he sought; and where, one time,
Within his brain old questionings did climb,
Now will th’ unwondering roots of summer’s rose
Thrust, — and the beauty of the world unclose.
        —Archibald MacLeish (1920)

The British authorities who received the news wrote to the eldest MacLeish son that M. Rouse, the Belgian farmer, “had presented the plot on which the grave was situated to your mother, in case she desires to allow the body to remain in its present location…. One of your brother’s former classmates, Lieutenant John C. Menzies, is installing to-day a small headstone, properly marked, which we obtained in Calais. I can assure you that everything that can possibly be done is being done.”*

But everything possible would not bring back Kenneth MacLeish. His brother Archibald MacLeish, who served in the First World War as a field artillery officer with the American army, would go on to become one of America’s prominent 20th-century writers and a three-time awardee of the Pulitzer Prize. But he never forgot his younger brother’s death. In interviews conducted in the last years of his life and published in Reflections (1986), MacLeish shared his personal views of the First World War: 

Archibald MacLeish
What happened in the middle of the twenties was that it became pretty apparent, even to people my age and even to the people who had been involved in the war as I had, that the war, the Wilsonian rhetoric, and the British propaganda which my brother bought, was all an enormous fraud and fabrication; the war was nothing but a commercial war. There was no reason for it except reasons of commercial competition. There were no moral reasons, no humanitarian reasons, no humane reasons. Nothing. It killed millions of men. It slaughtered an entire generation. It's the most disgusting thing that has happened really in the history of this planet. Vietnam is just a smear beside it.**

Poetry helped MacLeish to make sense of his family’s tragedy. In the same end-of-life interviews, Archibald MacLeish spoke of what poetry meant to him: 

…poetry is the inward of the thing that history is the outward of. Poetry is constantly examining the human possibility. It is constantly examining the emotional life, which is by far the most moving part of human life. It's constantly in search of the question of man. What is man? What is man? What is man? History sees the end result. It sees what happens when a Franco collapses power down on a country like Spain. Poetry is inside that and sees what the destroyed possibility would have been, because a great part of our past is the past of failures.*** 

Flanders Fields American Cemetery, 
photo from Beinecke Library, Yale
*Ralph D. Pain,“Kenneth MacLeish’s Path to Glory” in The First Yale Unit: A Story of Naval Aviation, 1916–1919, v. 2, Riverside Press, 1925, p. 363. Kenneth MacLeish was reburied in the Flanders Fields American Cemetery in Belgium. 
**Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, U of Mass P, 1986, p. 232.
***Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, p. 142.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.