Memorial for Jenny Bennett

IMG_8169 b

The Smoky Mountains Hiking club has announced the memorial hike for Jenny on September 13, 2015, on the Porters Creek Trail, with a potluck lunch time of fellowship and reflection at the Porters Creek Pavilion. Times and details will be announced as they are confirmed. Please watch the club’s website for further details:

For those of you who have not already Googled “Jenny Bennett Smoky Mountains hiking”, here is a brief outline of what happened.

Jenny was planning on moving to Vermont to be closer to her sister Betsy at the beginning of June. She had packed most of her belongings and must have decided to make one last hike to her favorite area of the Smokies. She went up Porter’s Creek (setting for her first novel, Murder at the Jumpoff) and never returned.  It was about a week before her landlord went to the house she was renting and realized that she had never left. He called me (Peter) and we were both very concerned. A search was launched, her car was found at the Porter’s Creek trailhead, and her body was found the next morning.

Details of what actually happened to Jenny are unclear. The Park Service launched an investigation after her body was found, but they still don’t know everything. It is likely that we will never really know what happened. We do know that Jenny died in her favorite place in the world, the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

Peter Bennett

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Jenny has passed away


Hello to all readers of Jenny’s blog. Tragically Jenny has passed away. She was following her passion, hiking in the Smoky Mountains, and evidently she had an accident. She was located in one of her favorite hiking areas, Porter’s Creek / Lester Prong.

There will be a memorial hike into this area sometime in the future, probably later in the summer. The hike will involve the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and all of her hiking friends are invited.

This is written by her brother Peter Bennett of Bozeman Montana. I will be posting more information about Jenny and the memorial hike as the plans develop.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Words of endurance: Memoirs of an Infantry Officer

Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917.

Portrait of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpot, 1917.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2013.

Embedded within the pages of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, you will find an account of a British second lieutenant on the Western Front, complete with vivid scenes of the Somme and Arras. But the book’s unique value concerns events off the battlefield, a personal and solitary journey undertaken by Sassoon.

Infantry Officer is the second volume of Sassoon’s trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston, a fictionalized autobiography. Names have been changed, events rearranged. The crux of the book is a description of Sherston’s growing disgust with the conflict and his decision in 1917 to make a public protest against “the War.” These episodes run pretty close to Sassoon’s real experience, and they tell how Sherston/Sassoon was eventually packed off to a mental hospital. The top brass were embarrassed by this protest on the part of a decorated officer, but they feared making a martyr of him. Rather than sending him to prison, they decreed that he suffered from shell shock, and he was quietly removed from public view.

"Group of Hunters." From Vanity Fair, 1905.

“Group of Hunters.” From Vanity Fair, 1905.

Sassoon endowed the character of Sherston with the hearty sportsman side of his own past (fox-hunting, cricket) but omitted the writing of poetry (Sassoon was a successful poet at the time the war started). Sherston does happen to read quite a lot. At one point during the Somme campaign:  “Late that night I was lying in the tent with The Return of the Native on my knee. The others were asleep, but my candle still guttered on the shell-box at my elbow… I felt very wide awake. How were things going at Bazentin, I wondered? And should I be sent for tomorrow? A sort of numb funkiness invaded me. I didn’t want to die—not before I’d finished reading The Return of the Native anyhow.” (79)

The reader of course understands this is a bit of amiable self-mockery, not an insane devotion to Thomas Hardy. The greatest pleasure of reading Infantry Officer is getting to know a character you’d like to have for a friend. He’s brave but willing to admit self-doubt, amused at times by the wartime world but sensitive to its horrors. He can entertain with a bit of devastating social insight, as when he describes a “large dining-room… full of London Clubmen dressed as Colonels, Majors, and Captains with a conscientious objection to physical comfort.” But his take on this sort of thing is never bitter. He goes on to say: “But, after all, somebody had to be at the Base; warfare offered a niche for everyone, and many of them looked better qualified for a card-table than a military campaign.” (135)

An episode at Mametz Wood shows Sherston in his best brave-yet-foolhardy combination. Two companies make a midnight attack on a German position below the Wood. As the battle sputters along, there is considerable confusion on poorly reconnoitered terrain. Sherston is first ordered to take his bombers forward, but shortly thereafter told to bring them back (bombers meaning soldiers carrying Mills bombs). He sends them toward the rear but continues forward himself without really knowing why. A man named Kendle of his company loyally stays with him, and they wander across shell-pitted ground in the pre-dawn hours. They stop for a short rest, and Kendle falls asleep with his head on Sherston’s shoulder before they struggle to their feet once again.

Photo of Sassoon by George Charles Beresford.

Photo of Sassoon by George Charles Beresford.

Along the way, the pair encounter all varieties of human response to the terrors of combat. An unhinged officer runs toward Headquarters in the rear, babbling of not being able to “find the Germans” until Sherston takes out his pistol and threatens to shoot him unless he returns to his position. Sherston knows that if the man reaches HQ in that condition, he will end up court-martialed for cowardice. He and Kendle stagger on until they reach a recently captured trench. Three apathetic officers sit listlessly on the firestep, in striking contrast to an energetic NCO named Fernby who briskly discusses the situation with Sherston. They agree the trench must be dug deeper immediately, as the men are exposed to enfilading fire and the sun will soon rise.

The ever-unfolding contrasts between courage and cowardice fill Sherston with incoherent but intense emotion. They come under fire from a sniper, making out a helmet bobbing up across the valley. Kendle crawls out from behind the bank to fire back, gets off a shot, smiles back at Sherston and Fernby, and is felled by a bullet to the forehead as he turns to fire again.

Burning with rage, Sherston races alone across the valley to “settle that sniper.” Panting with exertion as he climbs the opposite slope, he throws a couple of bombs and reaches the enemy position. “Quite unexpectedly, I found myself looking down into a well-conducted trench with a great many Germans in it. Fortunately for me, they were already retreating. It had not occurred to them that they were being attacked by a single fool; and Fernby… had covered my advance by traversing the top of the trench with his Lewis-gun.”

He sits down in the trench, wondering what to do next, now that he has “occupied” it. Realizing the Germans might return any moment, he calms his thoughts by counting sets of equipment left behind by the fleeing soldiers. “There were between forty and fifty packs, tidily arranged in a row—a fact I often mentioned (quite casually) when describing my exploit afterwards.” (67)

Eventually, knowing he can do nothing more, he runs back to his trench. He stays in the combat zone all morning, ignoring an order to report to HQ, finally returning that afternoon to face the blithering rage of his colonel. His little excursion, it turns out, had forced a delay in a planned artillery bombardment while they waited for “Sherston’s patrol” to come back. So his actions were, in a sense, counterproductive. But how many of his comrades must have felt much-needed encouragement when they learned of the deed?

More and more, as the Somme campaign drags on, Sherston struggles with a sense of helplessness in the face of interminable war. One evening he takes a stroll, watching the pale orange beams of the sun streaming down on a fading, melancholy landscape. “For me that evening expressed the indeterminate tragedy which was moving, with agony on agony, toward the autumn.” (82) As a solitary observer, he can do nothing to stop the war, he feels, but only observe an Armageddon that surpasses understanding.

At the end of the summer he is invalided out with a severe case of enteritis. Given his praiseworthy record—he has by now earned a Military Cross—he is allowed a generous leave back in England. Once there, he finds himself matching the attitudes of civilians back home against the actualities of war. At the hospital he observes a father-son pair who embody this disjunction. The solicitous father comes every day to wheel his sullen son across the lawn. The son has lost a leg, and often glares at his father. But the father is proud of his boy. “I heard him telling one of the nurses how splendidly the boy had done in the Gommecourt attack, showing her a letter, too, probably from the boy’s colonel. I wondered whether he had ever allowed himself to find out that the Gommecourt show had been nothing but a massacre of good troops.” (95)

(c) Portsmouth Museums and Records Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“Autumn, Weald of Kent” by Benjamin Haughton, 1904.

Once released from the hospital, he stays with his Aunt Evelyn at her estate in the Weald, a famous area of woodlands and fields in the southeastern counties of England. He wanders about the grounds, noticing signs of wartime decay: the neglected stables, the overgrown garden. England has progressed from patriotic enthusiasm to fatigue and deprivation—but still, the vast majority of citizens express support for the war.

In late November Sherston is cleared by the medical board and reports to his regiment’s home camp, near Liverpool. For weeks he endures a tedious existence, relieved by the arrival of his friend David Cromlech (a fictional name for Robert Graves). They have contentious literary discussions, Cromlech deliberately taking bizarre positions (Homer was actually a woman, Milton was worthless). This extends to music as well (Northern folk-ballad tunes are superior to Beethoven’s Fifth). These assertions are contested by Sherston even while he realizes Cromlech delights in pushing his buttons.

Robert Graves (1895-1985).

Robert Graves (1895-1985).

In February Sherston returns to France. He moves steadily back toward the inferno, from the divisional base camp at Rouen to his battalion’s camp at Morlancourt, behind the lines, and finally along a series of dilapidated trenches. He is being drawn inexorably into the Battle of Arras. “Stage by stage, we had marched to the life-denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and growl of its bombardments. Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed to us in the zone of inhuman havoc.” (161)

The immediate objective of his battalion is to occupy a portion of the Hindenburg Line, and this is accomplished in a swirling chaos of bombardments and advances past the bodies of earlier casualties. Sherston notes the presence, at this stage of the war, of increasing numbers of ill-trained men in the ranks and a lack of competent NCOs. He finds himself in close quarters with two officers new to the front: an uncouth Welshman and a snobbish Oxford grad. Despite bad table manners and excitable talk, the Welshman will be able to take care of himself, Sherston decides. But he worries that the disapproving Oxonian will become unhinged, and he takes him on a tour of the battlefield during a quiet moment to give him a gentle introduction to the horrors. Both newcomers are killed within a few months.

Captured English tank at Arras.

Captured English tank at Arras.

Sherston is soon wounded himself as he explores along a trench in that sub-battle of Arras known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe. It’s a gift from a sniper: a bullet that neatly drills him through the chest, narrowly missing his jugular and his spine. Soon he is back in England, first in hospital and then, thanks to a little string-pulling, convalescing at “Nutwood Manor,” a Sussex estate.

Advance dressing station at Arras.

Advance dressing station at Arras.

In his first days at the hospital, Sherston ponders his nation’s involvement in the war. “I cannot claim that my thoughts were clear or consistent. I did, however, become definitely critical and inquiring about the War.” (187) His experience at Nutwood Manor reinforces these critical thoughts. Although the resident lord and lady do everything they can to care for their four convalescing officers, “Lady Asterix” complacently believes they should be happy to have done their duty and will be rewarded in the afterlife. Sherston does his best to suppress rude thoughts of disagreement, but the difference in their attitudes becomes increasingly apparent. Lady Asterix happens to be present when Sherston opens a letter informing him that two good friends in his battalion have been killed. When he blurts out the news, the lady serenely says, “But they are safe and happy now.”

Sherston has four weeks before he is required to report back for duty. Soon he decides he must make a public statement against the war, even if he will be court-martialed for it. But while he has all the necessary determination and courage, the way to proceed is not so obvious. His first thought is to ask the editor of the “Unconservative Weekly” (“The Nation”) to publish his statement. In a meeting with the man, “Markington” (H.W. Massingham), he is suddenly introduced to a world of political analysis quite foreign to him. Markington speaks of Russia’s request for England to clearly state her “War Aims,” and England’s refusal. “And now Markington had gloomily informed me that our Aims were essentially acquisitive, what we were fighting for was the Mesopotamian Oil Wells.” (209)

Henry William Massingham (1860-1924).

Henry William Massingham (1860-1924).

This episode of a soldier/sportsman’s introduction to the realm of global politics ends up being quite humorous. Sherston wants to hit Lloyd George on the nose, and to “stop strangers in the street and ask them whether they realized that we ought to state our War Aims.” (209) Throughout the following period, Sherston is constantly bedeviled by incongruous doubts—not about his purpose, but about the annoying details. He is advised to meet leading pacifist “Thornton Tyrell” (Bertrand Russell).  Should he first read the works of that famous philosopher and mathematician? He does eventually obtain one of Tyrell’s works, starts underlining what seem to be the important passages, consults the dictionary, scratches his head, and ends up casting it aside as a hopeless enterprise—the book is too “full of ideas.”

But with Tyrell’s help, he is introduced to a sympathetic M.P. who will read Sherston’s declaration in the House of Commons. He sits down to draft the actual statement. After much agonizing labor, he produces something simple and eloquent. “I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest…. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust…”

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

The M.P. will wait to bring up the matter in Parliament until Sherston has submitted a copy of his statement to his colonel, which he will do only when he is required to report for duty. In the meantime Sherston goes through the motions of military procedure, applying for an instructorship with cadet officers as his chosen duty when his leave will expire. In reality, he believes he will go to prison. It is painful for him to chat with fellow officers while the time bomb of his declaration is set to explode. He has to spend two weeks with his Aunt Evelyn without revealing his seething thoughts. At a train station bookstall he searches for something that will give him consolation and grabs a copy of The Morals of Rousseau, a thinker with whom he has no familiarity. But rather than consolation, he finds only that a nonsense couplet by Cowper goes incessantly through his mind: “I shall not ask Jean Jacques Rousseau/ If birds confabulate or no.” “I mention this couplet because, for the next ten days or so, I couldn’t get it out of my head.” (234)

Oddly enough, it is these details and incongruities that get at the essence of the man. He is brave and determined, but always gently mocking himself. You might even say the self-mockery is a matter of principle.

At last his leave expires and he receives the expected order to report to the Liverpool depot. Now he sends off his statement to the colonel, saying he refuses. The military wheels start to turn. He is interviewed first by an embarrassed major and then by the colonel, who demands to know why he isn’t still interested in “crushing the Prussians.” Sherston returns to his hotel and awaits developments.

He doesn’t want to be rescued from his situation, as he is in it by choice. But his friend Cromlech materializes with important news. It turns out Cromlech has spoken with relevant officials and helped to arrange that his case be treated as a medical one. A “big bug” at the War Office has gotten involved, and they will refuse to court-martial him. For Sherston this is a let-down of sorts, but on the other hand, he has made his statement, and he won’t have to go to prison. Waves of relief wash over him.

As he stands before the medical board, the silly couplet about Rousseau comes into his head again, and he feels tempted to say it out loud. “Probably it would be the best thing I could do, for it would prove conclusively and comfortably that I was a harmless lunatic.” (246) A “kindly neurologist” meets his distracted eye, and before long the matter is decided. He will be treated for shell shock at “Slateford War Hospital” (Craiglockhart).

The volume ends there, and Vol. 3, Sherston’s Progress, describes his time at the hospital, where he meets an admirer, Wilfred Owen. Eventually he returns to the Front.

Wilfred Owen.

Wilfred Owen, killed 1918.


Posted in British History, History, Military History | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Words of endurance: All Quiet on the Western Front

Cover of first English edition.

Cover of first English edition.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War.There are many editions of Erich Maria Remarque’s
All Quiet on the Western Front. I used an e-book edition.

This is the best known by far of any of the books I have included in these works of World War I. Yet I had not read it before I began this series. I did so at the very start but put it aside, as I did not like it very much, for the most part, though I couldn’t say exactly why. Now I have reread it, and I understand why it leaves me unsatisfied.

Of the ten works that preceded All Quiet in my “Words of endurance” series, seven were memoirs. The one other novel was The Secret Battle by A.P. Herbert, and that has such a strong autobiographical element that it reads like a memoir. The extraordinary long poem In Parenthesis also contains a lot of autobiographical material. All of these works brim over with the concrete particulars of everyday life in combat—with the random, the arbitrary, and the peculiar elements of real human experience. In fact, these writings are so embedded in the actual moment that often I found it difficult to get a sense of the historical context. A.P. Herbert doesn’t bother to tell us that the major battles of his book were the Third Battle of Krithia at Gallipoli and Beaucourt sur l’Ancre at the Somme. Hans Carossa, in A Roumanian Diary, never identifies the location of his most important experiences—through much study of maps, I determined it was the Csik Mountains of eastern Transylvania.

Not only are these works highly personal and subjective, but the authors seem uninterested in drawing out larger themes as to war’s futility or, conversely, its glory.  The reader comes away with a strong sense of each author’s personality—Fritz Kreisler is patriotic, Carossa is sensitive and introspective, Ernst Juenger lives for adventure—and yet we aren’t reading these people’s opinions or interpretations.

Erich Maria Remarque, 1928.

Erich Maria Remarque, 1928.

Of those ten authors preceding Remarque in this series, only one—the poet Wilfred Owen—universalized his experience. He wasn’t interested in the random, but in the significant. His poems carried the unmistakable message that war is a futile and grotesque experience.

All Quiet was written deductively rather than inductively—going from the general to the particular. Remarque had several themes. They were: the grotesque nature of war; the importance of comradship among soldiers; the pointless nature of conflicts between nations, which after all are made up of fellow human beings; war’s disfigurement of the psyches of soldiers, especially the younger ones who go into combat wholly naive, lacking the steadying experiences of wife, children, and profession. Related to the latter, another theme is the impossibility of returning unblemished to normal civilian life.

All Quiet has to be respected for its depiction of a viewpoint unpopular in Germany after the war. But by the time of its publication in 1929, its themes resonated with many readers, and it is said to have sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in the first 18 months after it went to press.

Remarque’s themes were important ones. They had been addressed in various ways by the British—Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, and others—but they hadn’t been discussed to any great extent in Germany, and readers in other countries hadn’t heard much about the German experience. In the years immediately following the war, many in the Allied nations still languished under the baneful influence of anti-German propaganda. All Quiet told these readers that German soldiers were human beings like themselves.

Why, then, do I not care for this book? It has after all some lovely writing. Take, for instance, this description of a bombardment: “The dark goes mad. It heaves and raves. Darknesses blacker than the night rush on us with giant strides, over us and away.”

But the one thing that really stood out to me on my first reading was the artificial nature of the ending. The protagonist, Paul Baumer, is killed in October 1918—just before the end of the war. His comrades, especially the ones who as schoolmates all enlisted at the same time, have one by one been killed off or seriously wounded over the course of the book. Now Baumer dies—oh, how ironically—within a few weeks of the Armistice. Remarque has to switch awkwardly from first person to third person at the very end in order to let us know this is what happened. And, of course, at the moment our hero dies, a report goes out: “Im Westen nichts Neues”—on the Western Front nothing new—ah! the irony!

First German edition.

First German edition.

The book contains details from Remarque’s own experiences, and those are the parts that, in my thinking, carry more weight. He served on the front from June 12, 1917, to July 31 of the same year. At that time he was wounded and spent the rest of the war in an army hospital. Therefore the book’s scenes of wounded soldiers in hospitals have a special authenticity.

And no doubt many other scenes come from Remarque’s experience, and those ring true: the fixation on food, the stupidity of the dreaded Corporal Himmelstoss, the schemes to seduce French women. But, on my second reading, I perceived a certain blurred quality to much of the writing, as if the experiences were generic rather than particular. No places are mentioned, no battles are named, no regiments are identified: not because the subjective particulars are more important than the objective, but because Remarque’s fictional world simply lacks detail.

It was the chapter about the camp of Russian prisoners that affected me the most. They are practically starved, and they pathetically carve wooden figures that they offer in exchange for better rations of food from the Germans. They are so feeble that they no longer masturbate—now, that is a detail you won’t see in many depictions of war. The prisoners sing hymns when any one of them dies, as happens every day. “The prisoners say a chorale, they sing in parts, and it sounds almost as if there were no voices, but an organ far away on the moor.”

With the ugly details—the mention of masturbation, or the description of men suffering from dysentery who sit on poles over the open-pit latrines—one can easily see why the book was banned by the Nazis. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels arranged for copies to be publicly burned. And eventually a dreadful thing happened. Remarque had gone to live in Switzerland, and then to the U.S. His sister, Elfriede Scholz, still in Germany, was arrested for “undermining morale.” After a farce of a trial, she was beheaded—and the costs of her imprisonment and execution were billed to her family. The president of the court said to her, “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach, but you will not escape us.”

With these outrageous circumstances surrounding the book, one must acknowledge the courage of the author in daring to express an unpopular viewpoint. Yet there is a reason why All Quiet is so commonly assigned to students in high school. The language is simple, the message is obvious—the author explains it to us many times. And the ironies within the  plot creak loudly on their hinges.

German soldier, Western Front.

German soldier, Western Front.

Posted in History, Literature, World War I | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Words of endurance: The greatest WWI poem—In Parenthesis

David Jones, 1895-1974.

David Jones, 1895-1974.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to David Jones,  In Parenthesis. New York: New York Review Books, 2003. Originally published 1937.

A reader who can’t let go of literal and linear modes of thought will have trouble with In Parenthesis by David Jones. Everything about the work blurs the categories. It was published by a man known as an engraver and printer, not a writer. He had served in the war from 1915 to 1918 but seemed at the time more like a child than a soldier. The photo of him above shows him looking frail and vulnerable. How could this person fight at the Somme and at Ypres?

It’s hard to know even what to call this work. I’ve seen it labelled as an epic poem, a prose poem, and a “deconstructed novel.” But the likes of Yeats and Eliot peered into its pages and liked what they saw. Eventually it won the Hawthornden Prize. In the 21st century world of corporate editors, I don’t think it would have been published at all. I say that, even though personally I think it is a great work.

I first learned of Jones in an essay by the poet Tom Sleigh in Poetry magazine, November 2013. Sleigh homed in on Jones’ use of Cockney rhyming slang, his standing shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary foot soldiers in their struggles with “the Brass.” He drew a contrast between Jones and Wilfred Owen, an officer, man of a genteel social class. Sleigh admired Owen as well, but he argued that Jones was the one who gave us the true feel of the moment, the grind and fatigue and the wise-ass banter among the men. There was no elegiac elegance in Jones (a thing Owen did so well), there was no overarching interpretation, no wringing of hands at the horror of war. Just the smell of it, the very taste and smell of the fleeting here-and-now.

Moving up for the Mametz attack. From the Knatchbull Collection. Jones fought at Mametz.

Moving up for the Mametz attack. From the Knatchbull Collection. Jones fought at Mametz.

And so, on the very first page, we are plunged into the predicament of Private John Ball—Jones’ alter ego. No setting of the scene, no introduction. We hear the barking of the captain as he hustles the untested men into parade ground order. They are about to sail to France.

” ’49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ’em up, pick ’em up—I’ll stalk within your chamber.
Private Leg. . . sick.
Private Ball. . . absent.
’01 Ball, ’01 Ball, Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball—you corporal, Ball of your section.”

Now Jones goes into a different voice as he describes the sounds of the men moving in formation.

“Heavily jolting and sideway jostling, the noise of liquid shaken in a small vessel by a regular jogging movement, a certain clinking ending in a shuffling of the feet sidelong—all clear and distinct in that silence peculiar to parade grounds and to refectories. The silence of a high order, full of peril in the breaking of it, like the coming on parade of John Ball.

“He settles between numbers 4 and 5 of the rear rank. It is as ineffectual as the ostrich in her sand. Captain Gwynn does not turn or move or give any sign.

“Have that man’s name taken if you please, Mr. Jenkins.
Take that man’s name, Sergeant Snell.
Take his name, corporal.
Take his name take his number—charge him—late on parade—the Battalion being paraded for overseas—warn him for Company Office.” (1)

Jones’ father was Welsh, and Jones chose to enlist with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Wales, to him, was a land of myth and tradition subjugated by the dominant order—the speakers of English. He spoke only English himself growing up (he taught himself Welsh later on), as his grandparents believed that the speaking of Welsh handicapped a person in making progress in the world. As a sensitive lad who saw the world differently than most people, Jones had a sympathy for the downtrodden and the conquered.

His regiment consisted partly of Welshmen and partly of those Londoners born within earshot of the Great Bell of Bow. As Jones said in his preface, “As Latin is to the Church, so is Cockney to the Army, no matter what name the regiment bears.” (xii)

By tradition. a true Cockney is born within earshot of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London.

By tradition. a true Cockney is born within earshot of the bell of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, London.

Bits of Cockney rhyming slang crop up like vigorous weeds: “Get ready, me china-plate” (158), as a fellow says to his neighbor in the trench—“plate” = “mate.” You can hear the voices singing in your ear. As when an officer calls into the trench to the men to clean their rifles:

“Get on those rifles at once—get on with it.
Orl right Corp—got any gauze.
Wot we want is gauze.
Wot we want is boiling water,
Boiling bleedin’ water.”

The man is coming to inspect, but they have neither hot water nor oil to do the job:

“Got any oil.
Why don’t you go to Sergeant and get
for yourselves,
Why didn’t you ask the Quarter-bloke
back there.
Only a drop, china, just for the bolt—just a spot—be a kind virgin—he’s coming round the bend—he’s doing No. 5—just a spot.” (63)

This rough talk makes its own poetry, if poetry can be described (as I think it can) as loose and allusive, concrete and vivid, rhythmical, repeating in refrains. And underneath all this chanting, bantering talk flows an underground stream of legend and myth, for Jones gives us stories of ancient Wales and Britain. As he tells us in his own notes to the poem, he speaks of:

—frozen regions of the Celtic underworld, which Jones associates with “intense cold and yet lights shining”
—King Arthur’s descent into Hades to obtain the magic cauldron which would hold the drink of no coward
—the raid of 300 Welsh of Gododdin into the English kingdom of Deira, when only three survived. Of one brave Welshman it was said, “His sword rang in mothers’ heads.” Jones gives the Welsh, which has an inscrutable look: “Seinnyessit e gledyf ym penn mameu.”

The Gododdin, one of the earliest Welsh texts to mention King Arthur.

The Gododdin, one of the earliest Welsh texts to mention King Arthur.

So we have the transcriptions of soldiers’ talk with the gleaming strands of myth interwoven all through. Atop that, like urns or bowls found in an archeological layer of Troy, we have objects and words from the ordinary lives of the troops. “Gooseberries” were arrangements of barbed-wire hoops. “Johnson hole”—large shell hole called after a mythical Jack Johnson. “Cushy”—any easy time or comfortable place. “Wipers”—Ypres, but “only proper in the mouth of a man out before the end of 1915”. “Square-heads”—Germans. “Toffee-apples”—English trench-morter projectiles. “Ox-blood kid”—officer’s servant who uses ox-blood polish to clean Sam Browne belts, etc. “S.R.D.”—stamped on every ration rum-jar, interpreted by the troops as “Service Rum Diluted.” “Woolly Bears”—heavy German shrapnel.

And atop that in turn lies a layer of description that is intense color and movement seen not according to the way anyone else would have seen it. Take this moment from Mametz Wood, when John Ball encounters an enemy in the brush. The enemy has a stick bomb; he has a grenade.

“You loose the thing into the underbrush
Dark-faceted iron oval lobs heavily to fungus-cushioned dank, wobbles under low leaf to lie, near where the [enemy’s] heel drew out just now; and tough root-fibres boomerang to top-most green filigree and earth clods disturb fresh fragile shoots that brush the sky.
You huddle closer to your mossy bed
you make yourself scarce
you scramble forward and pretend not to see,
but ruby drops from young beech-sprigs—
are bright your hands and face.
And the other one cries from the breaking-buckthorn.
He calls for Elsa, for Manuela for the parish priest of Burkersdorf in Saxe Altenburg You grab his dropt stick-bomb as you go, but somehow you don’t fancy it and anyway you forget how it works. You definitely like the coloured label on the handle, you throw it to the tall wood-weeds. So double detonations, back and fro like well-played-up-to service at a net, mark left and right the forcing of the grooves.” (169)

That colored label on the stick bomb: does this mean Jones is so indifferent to the death-cries of his foe that he focuses on a trivial detail? Shouldn’t he have said something to excuse himself, to explain himself? But the whole point of this work is that it has no explanations, only the honest recounting of experience.

Slightly wounded at Mametz (Knatchbull Collection).

Slightly wounded at Mametz (Knatchbull Collection).

You can reduce the whole poem to a simple sequence, if you like. Part 1—John Ball’s battalion goes to France. Part 2—They move to the front. Part 3—They make their way by road and trench to the front line. Part 4—A typical day on the front line. Part 5—They go into reserve and march toward the Somme. Part 6—They take their positions in preparation for the Battle of Mametz Wood. Part 7—They fight a severe battle. Many are killed and many wounded, including Ball, who is wounded in the leg.

Jones returned to the front after a period of convalescence. But his poem ends with Mametz, as that undoubtedly formed the hardest hour of his war experience. It was a place of vicious combat such as the wood where the last king Llewelyn of Wales was killed. As Jones wrote in a note, “His contemporary, Gruffyddap yr Ynad Coch, sang of his death: ‘The voice of Lamentation is heard in every place… the course of nature is changed… the trees of the forest furiously rush against each other.” (22)

Read it if you can. Don’t try to understand every reference, though much is explained in the notes. Just read it for its truth to one man’s experience of the war.

Memorial at Mametz Wood commemorating the 38th Division, of which the RWF were a part.

Memorial at Mametz Wood commemorating the Welsh 38th Division. It depicts a Welsh dragon tearing at barbed wire.

Posted in History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Words of endurance: War Story of a Violinist

Fritz Kreisler.

Fritz Kreisler.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist can be found here.

This short account by an officer in the Austrian Army tells of his experience fighting on the Eastern Front in the Battle of Galicia—a drawn-out affair that resulted in a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Russians.

The subtitle War Story of a Violinist  is mainly a publisher’s hook: Fritz Kreisler was an accomplished violinist who had already won international fame. Seeing this title, the reader might expect a theme of contrasting identities: sensitive artiste versus soldier in combat. But Kreisler’s two selves harmonized surprisingly well, and at one point in the battle his musical ear played a military role, one of the most interesting incidents in his story. I’ll come to that a little later.

Kreisler produced this memoir at the publisher’s urging. He had never intended to author an account. His prose flows smoothly enough but it isn’t the writing of someone who seeks to express original ideas via the written word. He expressed himself in music rather than language. As a result, he tended to lapse into stereotypes. All the officers were “brave” and all the orderlies were “faithful.” People were always behaving splendidly under trying circumstances. This also came from his personal ethic. He strongly believed in a stoical adherence to duty—which made him a good soldier.

Kreisler as an officer of the Austrian Reserve and his wife as nurse.

Kreisler as an officer of the Austrian Reserve and his wife as nurse.

On July 31, 1914, the 39-year-old Kreisler and his wife are vacationing in Switzerland when they learn that the Austro-Hungarian troops are mobilizing. As a former officer in the Austrian Reserve, Kreisler immediately returns to Vienna to report for duty. He finds the city transformed. “Feverish activity everywhere prevailed. Reservists streamed in by thousands…. Autos filled with officers whizzed past. Dense crowds surged up and down the streets.”

A patriotic fervor spreads through the city in a way we haven’t seen since WW2 and perhaps hard for the contemporary reader to understand. Kreisler notices a young couple seated at a sidewalk cafe, a reservist in uniform and his young bride or sweetheart. They sit, “hands linked, utterly oblivious of their surroundings and the world at large.” Suddenly someone in the crowd recognizes this fundamental scene of wartime and calls out words of encouragement. People throng around the table, applauding and waving handkerchiefs and hats. When the couple realize they’ve become the center of attention, they are at first embarrassed and confused, but the young man soon rises to his feet and bows, to further applause. He struggles for words. Finally raising his hand to his cap in a salute, he begins to sing the Austrian national hymn.

“In a second every head in that throng was bared. All traffic suddenly stopped, everybody, passengers as well as conductors, joining in the anthem… soon it was a chorus of thousands of voices…. We were then on our way to the station, and long afterwards we could hear the singing, swelling like a human organ.”

Officers and wives.

Officers and wives.

Concert given in support of the Red Cross, shortly before departure for the front. Kreisler with violin.

Concert given in support of the Red Cross, shortly before departure for the front. Kreisler with violin.

Kreisler joins his battalion at Leoben, near Graz. He is to command a 55-man platoon.

Kreisler's battalion.

Kreisler’s battalion, at Leoben.

After a week of drilling and organizing, they join the rest of the regiment and board trains headed through Budapest to an unknown destination. They soon learn they are bound for Galicia, an eastern province of Austria-Hungary, now part of western Ukraine. They deboard at Strij, south of Lemberg (now Lvov or L’viv).

Lemberg in 1915.

Lemberg in 1915.

Reports filter through that Austrian forces have driven back the Russians so far that they now occupy Russian soil. Because the Russian border is far away, Kreisler and the others believe they are to remain at Strij for some time, training and maneuvering. They are in for a rude surprise. In fact, the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, is about to rush his armies forward in the hope of engaging and defeating the Russians before they can mobilize forces greatly superior in number.

I should note that it is difficult to coordinate Kreisler’s account with histories of the fighting in Galicia. He himself apologizes for the lack of clarity, noting that he didn’t keep a diary. “My memories are uneven and confused,” he pleads, but it’s clear that he remembers quite well the things that interest him. His place names are another source of confusion, since they are largely extinct. We are visiting that mysterious Central European region with its malleable boundaries and its complex ethnic mix, little known by most people in the West.

So I can’t tell whether the reports of Austro-Hungarian success heard by Kreisler and his comrades were simply false or perhaps stemmed from advances in what is called the Battle of Krasnik in the area of Lublin (then part of Russia, now Poland). The timing seems off for that. I have to bear in mind that his account is meant to describe the inner experience, not to serve as a chronology.

At any rate, the men receive no information about the situation or the strategy, only orders to march out immediately. By night, troops of the entire Third Army march 20 miles, pause to feed themselves and their horses, then march on through the next day another 22 miles. The unconditioned men stagger along under their heavy loads that include rifle, bayonet, ammunition, spade, canned foods, cooking utensils, spare boots, winter overcoat, and part of a tent. Kreisler later estimated the weight at 50 pounds. Men drop out of the line, rest a few minutes, and struggle on once more.

The second night, they camp beside a monastery in the midst of a forest. I quote at length the description of a scene that touches deep recesses of imagination: “It made a weird and impressive picture in the wonderful starlight night, these soldiers sitting around the camp fires softly singing in chorus; the fantastic outlines of the monastery half hidden in the woods; the dark figures of the monks moving silently back and forth amongst the shadows of the trees as they brought refreshments to the troops;… the snorting and stamping of the horses nearby; an occasional melodic outcry of a sentinel…. That night I lay for a long while stretched near the smoldering ashes of the camp fire, with my cape as a blanket, … my soul filled with exaltation and happiness over the beauty around me.”

In the morning they march another 22 miles. By now the men are exhausted. They rest another night, and the following day, they hear what sounds like thunder. Still imagining the front to lie beyond the Russian border, they never suspect they are hearing the rumble of artillery until the colonel summons his officers and says, “Gentlemen, accept my congratulations. I have good news for you, we may meet the enemy today.” This comes as a shock: “We were thunderstruck at the sudden realization that the Russians had penetrated so far into Galicia.” But they press forward and soon come under the fire of shrapnel shells accurately aimed by gunners guided by a spotting airplane. Eventually the Austrian artillery responds and the Russian shellfire is diverted in that direction. The troops advance to a line of hills and take up a position there, digging a line of trenches.

It is here that Kreisler’s musical ear comes into play. While advancing between the positions of Austrian and Russian artillery, he at first notices that Austrian shells have a dull sound while Russian shells are shrill. As his unit continues to advance, the difference dissolves and the sounds reverse—Austrian shells become shrill and Russian ones dull. He confirms his perceptions by observing flashes of the guns. He concludes that as the shell rises in an arc it produces a dull whine in a falling cadence, followed by a rising shrill after it reaches the acme of the arc and descends.

He speaks about this with an artillery officer, who of course knows about the changing sounds, “but this knowledge was not used for practical purposes…. I told him I could actually determine the exact place where a shell coming from the opposing batteries was reaching its acme.” He is sent on a reconnoitering tour, marking on a map the precise spots where the hostile shells hit the high point of their arc. He’s later told that he had succeeded in giving the exact range of the Russian guns.

They are soon ordered to relieve an isolated detachment struggling to hold out against a surrounding Russian force. As they make their way in that direction, Kreisler sees a small drama unfold, so poignant that if I saw it in a movie, I would consider it  contrived, a tearjerker. He happens to ride beside the colonel commanding the brigade, a man he hadn’t met before. The colonel speaks proudly of his two sons serving in the Third Army. One of them is with the regiment under attack. As they proceed, wounded men are carried back from the fighting on stretchers. One passes by, and the colonel jumps down, recognizing his son. The boy says nothing of his wound. “He cried out, ‘Father, how splendid that the relief should just come from you! Go on… don’t stop for me. I am all right.’ The old colonel stood like a statue of bronze.”

The father-son exchange was recollected much later by Kreisler without benefit of a diary, and it is fair to ask whether he embellished the scene. Of course there is no way of knowing, but I hazard a guess that his account is essentially true. The ethos of stoical self-sacrifice was very strong among these men.

The Austrians engage the Russians and eventually force them into a disorderly retreat. They take 240 prisoners, who seem not overly distressed about their capture. Kreisler forms no conclusion here, but the reader suspects conditions in the Russian army might be less than ideal. Later observations by Kreisler bear this out.

Russian prisoners in Galicia.

Russian prisoners in Galicia.

That evening Kreisler visits the field hospital in search of the colonel’s son. He arrives at the bedside too late. The young man lies looking peaceful, a bouquet of wildflowers placed on his chest. Cause of death: a shot to the abdomen. Together with the young man’s orderly, Kreisler goes to convey the terrible news to the father, who is busy conferring with other officers. As soon as the colonel sees Kreisler with the “faithful orderly,” he knows what has happened. He says nothing. The orderly sobs as he hands over the son’s personal effects. The colonel dismisses them without a word and resumes his conference.

Later that night Kreisler passes the colonel’s tent. “I saw a dark figure lying on the floor, seemingly in deep sleep…. Then I saw that his shoulders were convulsively shaking and I knew that the mask of iron had fallen at last. The night was chilly so I entered his tent in search of his overcoat and laid it around his shoulders. He never noticed it.”

For some days the troops remain quiet in their position, until a scouting airplane brings word that five Russian army corps are approaching. Soon they come under bombardment. Shells burst around them hour after hour. “Suddenly there appeared a thin dark line on the horizon which moved rapidly toward us…. It was Russian cavalry, swooping down.” Just as the Cossacks reach the range of Austrian rifles, they swerve to left and right, revealing advancing infantry. They “moved forward in loose lines, endlessly rolling on like shallow waves overtaking each other, one line running forward, then suddenly disappearing by throwing itself down and opening fire on us to cover the advance of the other line, and so on.”

Just as the waves of Russian troops threaten to engulf the defenses, Austrian reserves succeed in performing a flanking movement. Caught in a cross-fire, the Russian line finally falls back. That evening Kreisler watches Red Cross parties visiting the piles of Russian casualties heaped up against barbed wire defenses. “These grotesque piles of human bodies seemed like a monstrous sacrificial offering immolated on the altar of some fiendishly cruel, antique deity.”

The tide soon turns, for Russian troops continue to advance in overwhelming numbers. If my inferences are correct, these are the Russian Third Army under Nikolai Ruzsky and the Eighth Army under the famous Aleksei Brusilov.


Aleksei Brusilov.

Aleksei Brusilov.

The Austrian Third Army commander, General Rudolph von Bruderman, determines that the only course is to fall back in a series of retreating battles. A period of gloom and hardship follows, when drenching rains turn the roads to sludge incessantly churned by wagons and artillery. Supplies of food become sparse and infrequent: at one time Kreisler goes three days without anything to eat.

The strategy of “retreating battles” has the sound of preserving a modicum of honor, but in reality the Austrians do little fighting—mostly fleeing. After some weeks they reach the swamps of Grodeck, south of Lemberg. Here the decision is taken to make a stand. After bouts of skirmishing, the two sides dig lines of trenches only 500 yards apart. By using field glasses, the Austrians come to recognize individuals in the opposite trench, “the favorite of my men being a giant red-bearded Russian whose constant pastime consisted in jumping like a Jack-in-the-box from the trench, crying over to us as he did so. He was frequently shot at, but never hit.”

A remarkable fraternization develops. The red-bearded Russian grows bolder and finally springs out of the trench, shouting and waving his cap. The Austrians stop shooting. One of Kreisler’s men, inspired by this bravado, jumps out of his trench and stands facing the Russian. They beckon to each other and draw closer until they stand at arm’s length. Neither one has carried his rifle, and Kreisler expects a fist fight—with a crushing result for the much smaller Austrian. “But lo, and behold! The big Russian held out his hand which held a package of tobacco and our Austrian, seizing the tobacco, grasped the hand of the Russian, and then produced a long cigar, which he ceremoniously presented.”

After the tide turned: Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia.

After the tide turned: Austro-Hungarian prisoners in Russia.

Similar incidents occur over the next days. One night, a Russian officer and his orderly come under a white flag, asking in broken French whether the Austrians can spare any food—they are starving. The visitors offer in return a small barrel of water and a little tobacco. Seeing the two emaciated faces, the Austrian major decides to comply with the request even though food is nearly as scanty on his own side. Contributions are collected from the trenches, and soon the two Russians are seated among the Austrians, feasting on canned beef, cheese, biscuits, salami, and chocolate. They return to their trench carrying a sack of the stale bread with bits of moldy cheese that the Austrians can afford to spare.

The very next day, the Russians storm a hill on the Austrian flank. In keeping with the fundamental paradox of war, this is not for a moment seen as a betrayal of the previous night’s generosity. Now we fight—now we have a truce—now we fight again. It’s all part of playing by the rules of an enormous and terrible game.

The Russian flanking movement cuts off Kreisler’s unit from the main body of the army. They soon find themselves in an impossible position. They run out of food and water, and ammunition is used up. To make matters worse, swampy water constantly oozes into their trench. They resort to bailing it out with their caps.

After four days a decision is made to evacuate the trench. But before they can accomplish this, they hear galloping hoofbeats: the Cossacks attack. The defenders seize swords and bayonets. A dark figure swoops down on Kreisler, a horse’s hoof strikes him hard on the shoulder, and he feels a sharp pain in his thigh. He passes out.

Over the next four weeks, Kreisler is transported in stages to a hospital in Vienna, where his own wife works as a Red Cross nurse. Naturally, their reunion is joyous. By November he has recovered sufficiently to appear before a medical board, which rules that he is unfit for further service. Perhaps they are also considering his age. He and his wife decide to leave overcrowded Vienna, where prices have skyrocketed. They go to New York, where Kreisler already has connections in the world of music, arriving late November.

In the meantime, Russia has decisively defeated Austria-Hungary in Galicia. It lays siege to the Austrian fortress of Przemysl in the Carpathian mountains until the fortress capitulates in March 1915.

Aftermath of the Siege of Przemysl.

Aftermath of the Siege of Przemysl.

In the summer of 1915 Austria-Hungary joins forces with Germany in the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive, pushing the Russians back behind their own borders. The Russians advance again in the Brusilov Offensive of 1916. They are gradually halted, but at a cost of 650,000 casualties for Austria-Hungary. Casualties for Russia amount to 1.4 million. Neither side ever recovers. The loss of men and material on the Russian side factors heavily in the discontent leading to the 1917 revolutions.

#    #    #

Austria-Hungary coat of arms.

Austria-Hungary coat of arms.


Posted in Military History, Russian History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Words of endurance: Toward the Flame

"Fighting Trim" by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge from his book of words and pictures, "I Was There with the Yanks on the Western Front."

“Fighting Trim” by Cyrus Leroy Baldridge from his book of words and pictures, “I Was There with the Yanks on the Western Front.”

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Hervey Allen, Toward the Flame. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

At last, an American memoir! I’m glad I read Hervey Allen’s book only after I’d read ones by Europeans who’d started fighting much earlier—most notably the poilu Louis Barthas, whose service began August 1914 and went through the whole war. As I pored over those books, the voices of British, German, Russian, and French soldiers eventually combined in a chorus, a minor-key mass—mingled voices singing of their years of fighting and suffering.

The optimism and innocence of the Johnny-come-lately Yanks seemed striking to me by contrast, just as it must have seemed to Europeans at the time. Even a sensitive observer like Lt. Allen came on the scene undaunted by the immensity of the situation, wholly occupied with the small tasks of the day—making sure the men of his unit had enough hot food to eat and a decent place to sleep, or navigating a route for them across the open countryside.

"He Used to Hunt Rabbits in Kentucky."

“He Used to Hunt Rabbits in Kentucky.”

As Allen’s 111th Infantry regiment from Pennsylvania marches toward its destiny—they will fight in the Second Battle of the Marne—they pass through towns that are physically unscathed by war but whose residents bear mental scars. Most likely all of them have lost family members. “The whole population turned out to see us. Women held up their babies to Les braves Americains as we went by down the streets between the shuttered stone houses. We remarked the absence of any cheap cries or ‘home town’ cheers; only a tense exclamation once in a while, or the fierce exhortation of some wounded poilu. For the most part there was complete silence, except for the everlasting ring of steel boot-nails on hard stones.” (6)

Though Allen is far from a chauvinist, he goes on to say with pride: “There was a sameness, a uniformity, about our army that was new to the French, used to so many different styles of uniforms; a Saxon vigor and sternness, too, which for all their dash and gallantry, our Latin allies lacked. This was a bigger race of men passing, company after company, regiment after regiment, brigade and division.” (6)

It was the familiar Old World – New World contrast. These Europeans not only had their past four years of war but their endless history of enmities. You could look back past the Franco-Prussian to the Crimean to the Napoleonic wars, and on and on through the dim centuries.

Not that Americans were innocent of war. Fathers of some of these doughboys had fought in that imperialistic venture, the Spanish-American War, and the generation of their grandfathers had been severely blighted by the Civil War. Yet these young men thought about how capable they were, not about the trauma that might lie ahead.

Within six weeks, Allen and others from the 111th were to enter into a small but horrific conflict, the Battle of Fismette. The “Flame” of his title is the “Flame” of Fismette, and his book has the unusual feature that it ends quite abruptly in the midst of the battle, when men are literally being consumed by the German Flammenwerfer. It is the moment when Allen descends into Hell. He is wounded, and the rest of his company is virtually wiped out. The whole situation comes about because of a certain general’s shortsighted strategy—a French general, by the way.

I Know a Girl at Home Who Looks Just Like You"

“I Know a Girl at Home Who Looks Just Like You”

The book is full of homey American colloquialisms: “mad as a hornet,” “in a dead heat,” “I tried to use all the brains I had,” “the bigwigs had a powwow,” “a gossiping bee.” My favorite, describing a scene early on when the men didn’t realize the danger of enemy fire when halted for the night: “The Yanks went wandering around like a plumber’s picnic until they had enough men killed off to get wise.” (13)

They pitched pup tents and played baseball—at least, when not in enemy range. When they passed another American unit along the road, they’d call out, “What outfit, boys?” They were “anxious to get a swat at Fritz.”

All this is deliberate on the part of Allen, who wrote novels, poetry, and biography throughout his life. (He is best known for the historical epic Anthony Adverse, made into a Hollywood movie.) He speaks to the reader in the same casual way he’d speak to a friend. He could have used a tonier diction, but as he says in his preface, he wanted to write “a narrative, plain, unvarnished, without heroics, and true.” (xix) He shares his fears and hesitations, for instance: “After a little struggle with myself I determined to go and try to locate the two battalions.”  (135) This is a guy you’d like to have for a pal.

It is not until Fismette that Allen experiences close combat, though his battalion often comes under shellfire. Early on, two platoons are selected to provide support for an assault on Hill 204 at Chateau-Thierry, but Allen’s is not one of them. The chosen men, untested in battle, shake hands excitedly with their comrades and go off hardly understanding what lies ahead. The ones left behind hold little notes and keepsakes given to them for delivering to the families, if need be. Hill 204 turned out to be an important victory for the Allies, but just two-thirds of the men from the platoons come back. It is only after two weeks that the dead on Hill 204 can be buried. “They… lay just as they had fallen, some had evidently being trying to help a wounded comrade. One man, a fine young bank clerk… had been killed after being wounded…. Others had been shredded by shrapnel beyond recognition, and all were in terrible condition. The flesh had adhered to the identification tags which were corroded white, and hard to read. They smelled dreadfully in the envelope in which my friend delivered them to me.” (98-99)


"Veterans of the Marne"

“Veterans of the Marne”

Fighting in the Marne sector featured long marches along roads and across fields and woods, quite a contrast to the stationary trench warfare that paralyzed armies for years across the Western Front. Allen faces a perpetual challenge in keeping his men together and on the correct route. As they march through a town of twisting streets, some men go left and some go right. Or a long convoy of French army wagons rumbles through, cutting the file in half. Or they find themselves wandering by night through a dense wood, hearing strange voices here and there: French, American… and German. The front isn’t clearly defined.

One night, as they march across a “moonlit tableland” under sporadic enemy shellfire, someone gives a false gas alarm and the men hasten to put on their masks. The small, clouded goggles make for a strange undersea view. When the masks are removed, Allen finds that the leading platoon of the company has marched on with the guide and left the others behind. He explores ahead along dark roads to try to find the way. He comes to a telephone station and has to throw a bucket of water on the sleeping operator to wake him up and ask directions. He gropes his way along to a regimental headquarters and meets a chatty officer who wants to compare notes on acquaintances in Pittsburgh. Exasperated, Allen finally learns he should go “somewhere along the Paris road.”

He continues through a ghoulish landscape littered with corpses in gas masks. “Some had been blown to pieces two or three times; others lay as if asleep; some were just torsos. There was a head with glasses still on.” (38) He stumbles over the stiff legs of a dead mule. “Here I was ghastly sick of heart and body for a while.” (38) By a miracle, he eventually finds battalion headquarters. What causes even more frustration is that in these dark, unfamiliar places his superiors have textbook ideas of military science about proper marching procedure, for instance requiring a triangular-shaped advance formation with the top-ranking officer keeping position at the exact point of the triangle.

"Cut Off from Rations for Three Days in the Woods, With One Can of Tomatoes for both Food and Drink"

“Cut Off from Rations for Three Days in the Woods, With One Can of Tomatoes for both Food and Drink”

They come to abandoned houses, melancholy and despoiled. Allen wanders through their rooms, noting the odd, poignant remains of the inhabitants’ lives: an old swimming medal, family photographs and letters scattered on the floors, ruined items of clothing. “One’s chief impression of these looted houses was the litter of plaster, glass, and tramped articles on the floor. The heavy hobnail shoes ground everything to powder and came out slightly whitened after each trip. It was not hard to tell where a man had been. All you had to do was to look at his shoes.” (81)

Allen’s battalion operates in the vicinity of Chateau-Thierry for a month. Eventually he is told that the Germans are making a stand on the Vesle River, near the town of Fismes, and they are to proceed to the Vesle. When they arrive at Fismes, they find it is mainly held by Allies, save for a few snipers concealed in the houses. But the Germans are strong on the other side of the river, around the smaller village of Fismette. From the hills behind Fismette, the Germans keep up a steady bombardment of targets on both sides of the Vesle. Part of the 111th’s sister regiment, the 112th, is holed up in Fismette, under tremendous pressure.

Imagine a town separated from its satellite village by a river 45′ wide and 15′ deep. The bridge across has been continually shelled, and a hole gapes in the middle, extending halfway across the roadway. Soldiers crossing can peer down and see the river flowing underneath. One section narrows to a two-foot-wide bottleneck, forcing troops to go single file.

It’s hard to imagine a place more ideally suited for defense. Crossing the bridge is suicidal by daylight, and even by night, enemy flares light up the crossing at unpredictable moments. From the heights, the Germans have a clear view of any approaching force.

So why did the Americans throw away so many lives in this hopeless place? Because they were ordered to do so by Major-General Jean Degoutte, commander of the French Sixth Army. He had the idea that capturing and holding the bridgehead was essential. It wasn’t until shortly thereafter that an independent American army was formed under the command of General John J. Pershing. Meanwhile, the fighting raged on at Fismette, where Allen’s company soon found themselves locked in vicious house-to-house combat.

The orders upon arrival in Fismes: they must cross the Vesle and relieve their comrades in the 112th. The flames, smoke, and rattle of machine-gun fire over there do not especially encourage Allen. But an order is an order, and he leads his company over the bridge after dark. Once across, they are supposed to proceed to a tannery a mile downriver and join a second battalion. When Allen speaks of his orders to a lieutenant of the 112th, he is greeted with incredulous laughter. “‘Mile! nothing! You can only go another block. We have only half the town; ‘Fritz’ owns the rest. The Prussian Guard is right across the street.'” (239)

"Warming up the Canned Willy"

“Warming up the Canned Willy”

But Allen’s captain orders them to attack up the hill behind Fismette, where a nest of machine guns has been spewing bullets into the village. They make their way precariously, moving house-to-house, until they reach an open area. There, they make perfect targets. The captain and many others are killed: the situation seems insane. The survivors retreat to a dugout and talk things over. It is an impossible place to make an attack. Someone must go back across the river to battalion headquarters and explain what a mess they are in.

Since Allen is the best swimmer among surviving officers, he volunteers to cross back to Fismes. He inches along under the bridge, going hand over hand using the bridge supports until he reaches the gap in the middle, where he has to swim. Just underneath the water’s surface lie big coils of barbed wire. He tears off his gas mask when it fills up with water—there is plenty of “mustard” along the banks. At the far end he is stymied by an area raked by machine gun fire, until he discovers a culvert he can crawl through. At last he reaches headquarters and staggers in, finding the major telephoning to the colonel that the attack in Fismette is going well. Allen quickly corrects this notion before he collapses in a corner, overcome by the effects of the gas—and by simple exhaustion.

He rests only a few hours before he is awakened and told he must guide reinforcements back across the river. By now it all seems a nightmare. Somehow he manages to recross the bridge, reentering fierce combat on the other side. Another participant in the fight recalled the vivid sight of German infantry running down the street: “Clumpety-clump, they were going, with their high boots and huge coal-bucket helmets. I can see them coming yet—bent over, rifle in one hand, potato-masher grenade in the other; husky, red-faced young fellows, their eyes almost popping out of their heads as they dashed down the street, necks red and perspiring.”*

Under orders from the French general Degoute that they must continue to attack and to clear the enemy from the hills, the men try to force their way up the slope, only to come immediately under relentless shellfire. They are forced to retreat to cellars under the village houses, where they collapse, men crying out from wounds and from shell shock.

The German bombardment continues from that morning to the next. Throughout the night Allen watches a strange, melodramatic scene: “A shell fell in the garden, and by its red flash I saw a picture of Christ on the wall. The thorn-crowned face leaped suddenly out of the frame at each devil’s candle. Simple-hearted Catholic peasants had lived there once.” (274)

In the morning, an ominous silence sets in. It can only mean that the Germans are about to attack. The survivors straggle out of the cellar to improvise a ragged line of defense behind a wall. And then the German flamethrowers advance, bearing tanks of fuel  on their backs and carrying hoses that spew fire many yards ahead.  “Suddenly along the top of the hill there was a puff, a rolling cloud of smoke, and then a great burst of dirty, yellow flame. …The men along the crest curled up like leaves to save themselves as the flame and smoke rolled clear over them. There was another flash between the houses. One of the men stood up, turning around outlined against the flame—‘Oh! my God!’ he cried. ‘Oh! God!'”

And so, with that cry of  horror and agony, Allen’s account ends. He was evacuated August 12, 1918, with burns, shrapnel wounds, gas poisoning, and shell shock. The Americans eventually won control of the village August 22, but the Germans still held the heights. On August 27, the Germans retook Fismette.

#    #    #



*Account by Lt. Bob Hoffman, quoted in “Tragedy at Fismette” by Edward G. Lengel.


Posted in Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , | 21 Comments

Words of endurance: Storm of Steel

Ernst Juenger after WWI

Ernst Juenger after WWI.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers below refer to Ernst Juenger, Storm of Steel. Translated by Michael Hofmann. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

If you bring up the subject of Ernst Juenger, you are more or less obliged to use the word “controversial.” He has been denounced so often—and admired so much—that anyone who writes about him feels the invisible presence of persons ready to pounce upon words that run counter to their opinion. Those are strong opinions, as something about the man either fascinates or repels.

I will only say that the conservative nationalist views he expressed during the Weimar period are sometimes described as fascist. I haven’t studied his writings on the subject and have formed no opinion about that. I do know that he distanced himself from the Nazis in several ways, for instance writing a “Letter of Rejection” to Nazi publication Voelkscher Beobachter telling them not to use his writings. Men like Joseph Goebbels saw him as the ultimate German war hero and wanted to appropriate him for their Party. Juenger was too independent for that.

No one could question that he was an outstanding soldier: he won Prussia’s highest military decoration as a 23-year-old lieutenant. It’s his other pursuits that tip you off that he might be hard to categorize. He was a distinguished entomologist, a photographer, and a writer of books that could be described as works of science fiction and magical realism. He experimented with drugs, including LSD in its earliest days. He lived to be 102 and wrote about 50 books altogether. Storm of Steel was revised significantly several times, starting out as a simple diary published 1920 and metamorphosing over the years into an intricate literary construction. The 1924 revision has been described as especially nationalistic and “bloodthirsty.”

Critics say of Juenger that he glorifies war. I feel strongly this is not true of Storm of Steel—at least not the version that I read. He glorifies human courage in war. At the same time, he expresses disgust, fascination, horror, awe, and weariness with events. It’s dangerous and ultimately hopeless to try to pin overarching themes on this book. It lives in the moment, in sequences of scenes and experiences perpetually shifting in a dreamlike way. Its integrity lies in a commitment to the transitory truth as each moment looms up, engulfs, and gives way to the next.

German troops relaxing, Arras front, 1917.

German troops relaxing, Arras front, 1917.

The book’s very first sentence starts us abruptly along the winding pathway: “The train stopped at Bazancourt, a small town in Champagne, and we got out.” And so, with the slam of a railcar door, we are on our way. The paragraph continues: “Full of awe and incredulity, we listened to the slow grinding pulse of the front, a rhythm we were to become mightily familiar with over the years. The white ball of a shrapnel shell melted far off, suffusing the grey December sky. The breath of battle blew across to us, and we shuddered. Did we sense that almost all of us—some sooner, some later—were to be consumed by it, on days when the dark grumbling yonder would crash over our heads like an incessant thunder?”* (5)

As Juenger describes the churning colors and sounds of the front, he likes to tunnel down through the perceptions for an insight. For instance, describing the layout of the trenches: “The whole thing should be pictured as… a secret hive of industry and watchfulness, where, within a few seconds of an alarm being sounded, every man is at his post. But one shouldn’t have too romantic an idea of the atmosphere; there is a certain prevailing torpor that proximity to the earth seems to engender.” (42)

He is always describing the incongruous moments, for instance when a comrade uses a cigar clipper to cut a piece of British wire. Or the time, during a prolonged and furious bombardment, he suddenly hears his friend Kius singing “fragments of ‘The Black Whale at Askalon’… everyone has his own particular idiosyncratic methods [of dealing with the stress].”#  (171)

Houses destroyed at Vraucourt (Juenger was in this area).

Houses destroyed at Vraucourt (Juenger was in this area).

Of course many of the incongruities concern the randomness of life and death: a shell drops directly between his feet but turns out to be a dud; a soldier is fatally wounded in the throat by a falling splinter when he tilts his head back to watch the planes of Richtofen’s squadron. The dead are constantly present. “I jumped over them with every stride—without horror. They lay there in the relaxed and softly spilled attitude that characterizes those moments in which life takes its leave.” (214)

There are moments of pastoral beauty, as when he takes an evening walk: “Occasional trees stood beside the paths, under which a farmworker might have taken his ease in peacetime, bearing white or pink or deep-red blossoms, magical apparitions in the solitude. Nature seemed to be pleasantly intact, and yet the war had given it a suggestion of heroism and melancholy; its almost excessive blooming was even more radiant and narcotic than usual.” (143)

Ruins of cathedral of St. Quentin.

Ruins of cathedral of St. Quentin.

Over the course of Juenger’s years on the front, the villages and the fields, the trees and the church towers, are obliterated, replaced by a post-apocalyptic landscape of shell craters. He was on the front from December 1914 to August 1918. His service ended when for the fourteenth time the storm of steel hurled a fragment into his body, this time a bullet in the chest, a severe lung wound. He served with the 73rd Hanoverian regiment, starting as private and finishing as lieutenant commanding elite shock troops. He fought in major battles: at the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, Cambrai, and the Spring Offensive of 1918.

German supply column near Etricourt, Spring Offensive.

German supply column near Etricourt, Spring Offensive.

He refers to the Spring Offensive as the “Great Battle.” It’s when his storm blows up into a fiery hurricane. All along, the flames have made mesmerizing patterns: “Frequently yellow rockets were shot off that blew up in the air, and sent a rain of fire cascading down, of a color that somehow reminded me of the tone of a viola.” (114) “Our situation was now such that we were sitting under the bowl of fire, as under a tightly woven basket.” (147) On the morning of March 21, 1918, “a flaming curtain went up.” (228)

The offensive is intended to be a game-changer, a huge push against Allied lines before American troops can fully throw in their support. Juenger’s battalion will fight at Mory and Vraucourt, near Bapaume, at the northern end of the German line. Two nights before the synchronized attack, his company suffers a disaster that fuels a fighting rage. En route to their position, they are resting in a large crater when they receive a direct hit from a shell. It kills or wounds 87 of their 150 men. By the light of burning machine-gun belts, Juenger sees where “a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for an instant tore open the extreme abysm of terror.” (225) The stretcher-bearers rush in. When a young member of the company stoically begins moving heavy munitions boxes so that they can continue on their way, Juenger sees this small instance of fortitude, and it somehow does him in. He throws himself to the ground and sobs convulsively.

"Gas Attack," by A. Y. Jackson.

“Gas Attack,” by A. Y. Jackson.

At last they reach their place behind the line and spend the next day “in pretty low humor, much of it sleeping… A few remarks that I addressed to the men gathered on the dugout steps, to try to cheer them up, seemed to have little effect. I was hardly in a cheer-bringing mood.” (227)

They awake at 3:00 a.m. and have breakfast. A flask is passed around. Shortly before 5:00 they receive a flash signal that “His Majesty the Kaiser and Hindenburg are on the scene of operations.” The men applaud. At 5:05 the barrage begins, Juenger’s “flaming curtain.”

It was a monstrous barrage on a scale unprecedented in the war. A South African colonel named Deneys Reitz with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, sitting not far from opposite Juenger, was later to write:  “All our front stood wrapped in a sea of smoke and flame, and the earth heaved and twisted beneath our feet.”

Juenger’s men stand atop their dugout and watch the barrage, cracking crude jokes to relieve the tension. At precisely 9:40, with cries of “Revenge for the 7th Company!”, they go over the top. Filled with rage and determination, the attackers speedily advance. “Ponderous, but unstoppable, they advanced on enemy lines. It was as though nothing could hurt them any more… The immense desire to destroy that overhung the battlefield precipitated a red mist in our brains. We called out sobbing and stammering fragments of sentences to one another, and an impartial observer might have concluded that we were all ecstatically happy.” (232)

A manic intensity pervades the next hours. Juenger encounters his first enemy of the day: a wounded officer on hands and knees. Juenger advances toward him with pistol drawn, but when the man pulls out a photograph of his family, Juenger lets him go. Now he dashes through enemy fire and reaches a railway embankment that serves as a British defense. He runs along the top of it, dropping grenades into machine-gun emplacements. There is an odd mood of hilarity. Amidst all the chaos, he encounters his friend Kius. “He had been chasing a British soldier through a section of trench with hand-grenades. When he ran out of missiles, to keep his opponent on the run, he continued the chase with lumps of earth, while I stood up above, splitting my sides with laughter.” (235)

British troops retreat, Spring Offensive.

British troops retreat, Spring Offensive.

Hilarity in the heat of battle: this is something not often described. In narratives of war experience, you expect to find anecdotes about lighter moments during periods of rest—but not during deadly combat. That is supposed to be described within a framework of valor, grim determination, and tragedy. I think it is passages like the one above, more than anything, that make people hate Juenger.

Is this a glorification of war? Or, perhaps, does it trivialize war? Personally, I conclude it is simple honesty.

Over the next days, the Germans succeed in their advance. Eventually, they capture an estimated 1,200 square miles of France, pushing forward up to 40 miles. Yet in the end the offensive does little to improve Germany’s strategic position. The territory won, already devastated during the Somme, is difficult to defend. They have failed to take the key towns of Arras and Amiens. The elite shock troops, such as Juenger’s, have suffered heavy casualties—he himself is sent home for two months with a head wound, returning only in June. Despite the capture of many enemy artillery pieces and tanks, Britain continues apace with production of machine guns and tanks. By May and June, American troops are making a significant contribution to the war.

Map of Spring Offensive showing lines of advance at different dates.

Map of Spring Offensive showing lines of advance at different dates. Click for zoom.

When Juenger rejoins his regiment, he experiences a mood unusual for him. “The seasons followed one another, it was winter and then it was summer again, but it was still war. I felt I had got tired, and used to the aspect of war, but it was from this familiarity that I observed what was in front of me in a new and subdued light…. I felt that the purpose with which I had gone out to fight had been used up, and no longer held.” (260)

During his period of recuperation, he’d learned from the newspapers that the offensive had bogged down. “The Great Battle was a turning-point for me, and not merely because from then on I thought it possible that we might actually lose the war. The incredible massing of forces in the hour of destiny, to fight for a distant future, and the violence it so surprisingly, stunningly unleashed, had taken me for the first time into the depths of something that was more than mere personal experience. That was what distinguished it from what I had been through before; it was an initiation that had not only opened the red-hot chambers of dread but had also led me through them.” (255)

#   #   #

* A lot of credit goes to Hofmann for his beautiful translation.

# An old university beer-drinking song. The Black Whale was a tavern.

'English tank struck 1918,' by Fritz Fuhrken.

‘English tank struck 1918,’ by Fritz Fuhrken.

Posted in History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Words of endurance: Poems of Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen. Born March 18, 1893. Died November 4, 1918.

Wilfred Owen. Born March 18, 1893. Died November 4, 1918.

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War.

This is a short selection of poems by Wilfred Owen, who served as second lieutenant in the 2nd Manchesters. After suffering a severe concussion, he was diagnosed with shell shock and spent months recovering at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon. They inspired each other in their work. He returned to France in July 1918 by his own decision—he could have stayed on home duty. He was killed exactly a week before the Armistice at the Sambre-Oise Canal. For gallantry during an attack on the Fonsomme Line October 1-2, 1918, he was posthumously awarded a Military Cross.

He is probably the best-known among British poets of the First World War. I will not make much commentary here. I will just note that he was a serious reader of the Romantic poets of the late 18th and early 19th century (Keats, Shelley, Byron, Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth). He often preserved the type of poetic structure they used, for instance an iambic pentameter form with rhymes. He wrote in the period shortly before the modernist explosion in poetry led by writers like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, so in that sense his verse seems somewhat traditional. And yet even a superficial glance at his work shows that he had the distinctive vision essential to a poet, the ability to see things in a non-literal way that paradoxically becomes more accurate, more precise, than a literal account.


"Dressing Station," by Ugo Matania.

“Dressing Station,” by Ugo Matania.

This first one is a bit atypical for Owen, written in the foot soldier’s dialect. It reminds me of Kipling.

“The Chances”

I mind as ‘ow the night afore that show

Us five got talking, — we was in the know,

“Over the top to-morrer, boys, we’re for it,

First wave we are, first ruddy wave, that’s tore it.”

“Ah well,” says Jimmy, — an’  ‘e’s seen some scrappin’ —

“There ain’t no more nor five things as can ‘appen;

Ye get knocked out; else wounded — bad or cushy;

Scuppered; or nowt except yer feeling mushy.”

One of us got the knock-out, blown to chops.

T’other was hurt, like, losin’ both ‘is props.

An’ one, to use the word of ‘ypocrites,

‘Ad the misfortoon to be took by Fritz.

Now me, I wasn’t scratched, praise God Almighty

(Though next time please I’ll thank ‘im for a blighty),*

But poor young Jim,  ‘e’s livin’ an’  ‘e’s not;

‘E reckoned  ‘e’d five chances an’  ‘e’s  ‘ad,

‘E’s wounded, killed, and pris’ner, all the lot —

The ruddy lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad.


"Destruction of Arras, 1916," by George Washington Lambert.

“Destruction of Arras, 1916,” by George Washington Lambert.

The next one is so intensely pathetic that I can scarcely read it without weeping. Yet it is an honest account, not a tearjerker.


He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,

And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,

Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park

Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,

Voice of play and pleasure after day.

Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay

When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees

And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,

— In the old times, before he threw away his knees.

Now he will never feel again how slim

Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,

All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,

For it was younger than his youth, last year.

Now he is old; his back will never brace;

He’s lost his colour very far from here.

Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,

And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,

And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,

After the matches carried shoulder-high.

It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,

He thought he’d better join. He wonders why

Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.

That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,

Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,

He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;

Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears

of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts

For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;

And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;

Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.

And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.

Only a solemn man who brought him fruits,

Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,

And do what things the rules consider wise,

And take whatever pity they may dole.

To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes

Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.

How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come

And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?



"A German headquarters," by Muirhead Bone.

“A German headquarters,” by Muirhead Bone.

In the following, I especially like “the clays of a cold star.”


Move him into the sun —

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields unsown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds —

Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.

Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, — still warm, — too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?


Self portrait with steel helmet

“Self-portrait with steel helmet,” by Friedrich Karl Stroeher.

The painting above is of a German soldier, not a British one, but I think the feeling depicted here is universal. It perfectly captures the vulnerability of a human being even though supposedly protected by his war gear—his steel helmet.

This next and last selection is probably Owen’s most famous poem. You can puzzle out the Latin.

“Dulce et Decorum est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots.

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;

Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the boots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. —

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Bitter as the cud

of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.



"Thiepval," by William Orpen.

“Thiepval,” by William Orpen.

* A “blighty” was a wound serious enough to remove the injured soldier from combat but not a terrible wound, such as the kind that would require amputation of limbs. In other words, it was the ideal wound.


Posted in British History, History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Words of endurance: Roumanian Diary

British poster welcoming Romania's decision to join the Entente

British poster welcoming Romania’s decision to join the Entente

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Hans Carossa, A Roumanian Diary, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1930.

Hans Carossa’s Roumanian Diary is a somber yet lyrical account by a medical officer with the German army. He was also a published poet, an explorer of deep levels of interior life. The book sometimes frustrated me as I sought external points of orientation. Yet it transported me to a place magically remote that called to mind old-fashioned tales for children, the kind that would have woodblock illustrations of a woodcutter in the forest, a hunchbacked peasant, or a little hut with a puffing chimney beside a stream.

Romanian peasants near a well, 1921.

Romanian peasants near a well, 1921.

It begins October 4, 1916 in France and ends December 15, 1916 in the mountains of Transylvania. The edition I have, a handsomely printed hardbound, contains no preface. There is nothing to explain why these three months were chosen out of what must have been a longer journal—Carossa noted his perpetual need to leave words behind him as a trail of breadcrumbs. And no background is given about his personal circumstances or about the historical situation of the Romanian campaign of the First World War.

So as I began reading, I felt as though I’d walked into a movie half an hour after it started. I puzzled through the references to “Vally” and “Wilhelm,” finally determining they were Carossa’s wife and son. Adding to the mystery, he often writes about his dreams, so we drift between the real and the unreal. It didn’t help that I knew next to nothing about the Romanian campaign. I consulted history sources and looked at maps. Carossa mentions many place-names. I could find only one or two of them on any maps. This is either because these villages are too small to appear or because the army of Germany, as Austria-Hungary’s ally, used maps with Hungarian versions of place-names since replaced by Romanian.* That is related to the central reason for Romania’s participation in the war: its determination to wrest Transylvania from its place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Transylvania was populated mainly by ethnic Romanians.

Romania didn’t enter the war until 1916, and it might have fought on either side. When the war started, King Carol I of Hohenzollern wanted to participate as an ally of Austria-Hungary, while the Romanian populace mostly favored an alliance with the Triple Entente.

Sketch pleading Romania to fight Austria-Hungary for a Greater Romania.

Sketch pleading Romania to fight Austria-Hungary for a Greater Romania.

King Carol died and was succeeded October 1914 by King Ferdinand I, who was married to the Princess Marie of Edinburgh. With her influence added to diplomatic persuasion from Britain, Romania signed a pact with the Allies August 17, 1916, and declared war on Austria-Hungary August 27. In accordance with the cascading effect of WWI alliances, Germany declared war on Romania the next day, and that was swiftly followed by parallel declarations of war by Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Russia became Romania’s most important ally, providing troops of many origins: Carossa mentions Ukrainians and Kirghiz. Bosnian troops assisted on the Central Powers side.

As Roumanian Diary opens, Carossa is at the Somme with the 19th regiment of the Bavarian Infantry Reserve (as I learned from other sources). A 36-year old physician, he serves as medical officer of his battalion.

The Allies had assumed that Germany would be too involved at the Somme and with the Brusilov Offensive in the Ukraine to send troops to Romania. But after Romania attacked Austro-Hungarian troops in Transylvania, Germany sent in eight divisions and an Alpine Corps under the command of General Erich von Falkenhayn. Bavarian divisions were included because they were considered suitable for mountain warfare.

At the Somme, Carossa receives orders indicating that a transfer is imminent, but the destination is kept secret. The order for innoculations against cholera tips him off that they will shift to the Eastern Front. Soon a rumor circulates that it will be Romania. On roads clogged with troops, they march to Aubigny-sur-Bac, east of Arras, and board a train.

I would have thought that a transfer from Western to Eastern Front would occasion ruminations about contrasts in combat environments, or at least about the immediate escape from the nightmare of trench warfare. But Carossa doesn’t write about that, and he didn’t add anything along those lines when the diary was prepared for publication in the 1920s. He focuses throughout on small daily incidents and personal acquaintances.

Hans Carossa, 1912.

Hans Carossa, 1912.

One of those acquaintances is a man in his battalion identified only as “Glavina.” We learn that Carossa shares the duty of censoring outgoing letters and has become familiar with Glavina’s thoughts through what he writes home. As the battalion prepares to leave France, Carossa writes in his diary, “No letter can be passed which gives any hint of our coming departure. Almost involuntarily I looked for the bold, clear writing of young Glavina, who often writes such wonderful letters to his friends.” (6)

It gradually becomes clear that Carossa forms a deep attachment to this young man, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, a fellow inquirer into the deeper truths of life. And yet, strangely enough, it is not an actual friendship. Later on, in Romania, Carossa writes, “To-day I could not get Glavina out of my mind; he must be breathing at the bottom of that misty sea [the fog-shrouded valley where they are camped] where the moon penetrates only as a pale silvery radiance. I would like to read one of his sentences again, or to speak with him; but he is inaccessibly shy, and his letters no longer pass through my hands.” (70) Carossa remains a silent admirer, finding something consoling in the very existence of this idealistic young soldier, a brightness that sustains him amidst the ugliness of war.

As I see it, his acquaintance with Glavina, and the latter’s eventual death, form the actual framework of Roumanian Diary. This explains why the published diary cuts off abruptly at a date long before Carossa’s service actually ended.

The Bavarian troops trundle eastward by rail through Germany, Austria, and Hungary, bypassing the cafes and the sights of Budapest, much to the troops’ disappointment. They enter Transylvania at Arad, one of the few recognizable place-names in Carossa’s account. As they continue east, they encounter refugees fleeing the conflict. Three children had found a live hand-grenade and accidentally touched it off, wounding themselves and killing their mother. They are carried in stretchers, trailed by their wailing grandmother. By chance, at that moment, “The sun had all at once cleared the mists, and lit up a high mountain which struck us all with amazement. Its lower slopes were of a bleached green intersected by rocks, then came a narrow girdle of fir trees, which looked as if it had been carefully fitted round, and above that soared a mighty peak of glittering snow… dare I admit that in a second the heart-rending sight of the three wounded children was blotted out?” (26)

In the remote villages of the Transylvanian mountains, the houses are all painted the same shade of blue, with steeply pitched roofs “notched unequally like saws.” (31) The soldiers settle near a village where “people returning from Sunday Mass with enormous prayer-books under their arms came flocking from all sides, the men hesitatingly, the women with an airy and confident step. The latter… suddenly darted into their houses and brought back baskets of fruit and pitchers of milk.” (32) The village men start bartering for tobacco, and “one soldier got a dozen eggs for three cigarettes, and another a fat goose for two packets of pipe tobacco.” (33) To the tune of folksongs played by the regimental band, soldiers and girls dance together on the village green.

Romanian peasants dancing.

Romanian peasants dancing.

But now they approach the furthest extent of hostilities, and they see harsh results of the conflict. An elderly woman, naked to the waist and evidently insane, hurls clods of dirt at them—apparently men in her family, serving as frontier guards, were killed by Romanian troops, and she makes no distinctions between sides in her howling at the world. A bit further on they encounter a wounded Romanian soldier, his face swaddled in bloodsoaked bandages. Carossa stops to give him a fresh bandage, observing that fellow members of his unit cruelly laugh at the man.

By the time Carossa and his comrades arrived at their destination in late October, much had already transpired. The fighting had started immediately upon Romania’s declaration of war with its offensive against Austro-Hungarian border units. Germany swiftly moved in with a counterattack starting September 18, clashing with Romanians at Sibiu and pushing them south to the spine of the Fagaras Mountains. There they battled at the Turnu Rosu (Red Tower) and Vulcan passes. Fighting continued there until late November, when the Romanians were forced into the plains south toward Bucharest. One noteworthy figure present at Vulcan Pass was Lieutenant Erwin Rommel of the Wuerttenberg Mountain Corps, the future field marshal.

German post at Turnu Rosa (Red Tower) Pass.

German post at Turnu Rosa (Red Tower) Pass.

Carossa’s battalion fought in the Csik Mountains, further east. You won’t find the name of those mountains anywhere in his book. But it’s possible to deduce from two or three references that they fought at the headwaters of the Maros (Mures) River, near Gymes Pass. They had followed the long course of the Maros from Arad as it winds across Transylvania. Of course, Carossa doesn’t speak of regions or campaigns but prefers to talk about individual mountains and individual soldiers.

Carossa’s mountains offer scenes of beauty, though their scree slopes and forests are filled with corpses. “The mountain we climbed was a mountain of blindness and death…. Like a swarm of hornets the shells dashed against the rocks, tearing the flesh from the limbs of the living and dead.” (90)

His entries for November 25-28 describe a different kind of cruelty. A 15-year-old boy acting as an attendant to the unit is instructed to destroy a motherless litter of kittens in a house where the soldiers are resting behind the lines. He takes them one by one and hurls them against the wall of a shed, then returns to the kitchen whistling a tune, unconcerned. One of the kittens survives, gets up, and totters forward with blood dripping from its chin, eventually arriving at the table where its would-be murderer is eating. The boy sees it and offers it food, suddenly overcome by remorse. Over the next days, a growing circle of people attend to it, now all intent that it should survive. It alternately nibbles at its food and tries to wash itself or to nap, growling softly in its sleep. They give it the name of “Matchka.” Carossa places it next to his feet and watches over it, observing a unique dignity in this insignificant animal. But it dies, and the boy who had earlier tried to kill it kneels beside the small corpse and weeps.

Romanian troops in Transylvania.

Romanian troops in Transylvania.

Late one day of fierce battle, Carossa walks the stony side of a mountain, attending to the wounded. He finds Glavina, leaning against a granite block:  “He was still breathing, but on his face already was the prescient look of the dead…. Fighting down our sorrow and apprehension, we searched for the wound and found at last a tiny splinter driven into the nape of the neck. Soon his breathing ceased.” Carossa finds next to Glavina “a few closely written sheets of paper, which must have fallen out of his pocket.” (91)

Whenever he has a spare moment, Carossa studies these writings. Glavina had composed a poetic text, a call for the survival of spirit in the face of death. One afternoon as the battalion stops for rest in a village, Carossa sits and quietly murmurs the text to himself as if memorizing a sacred text. Noticing that others are listening, he explains that it was found on the dead soldier Glavina, and reads it from its beginning in a clear voice. Its first line goes: “Let us build up a cairn on the mountain of Kishavas, a trophy to the slain on its icebound floor of rocks and juniper!”

The others listen silently. Continuing for 23 short passages of despair and renewal, it says among its concluding lines: “Faith garnered like star-seed, shall glow with a steadfast light. After moons and years it may strike perchance on the clear crystal of the frozen soul, which remains ice, nor will ever melt, but like a curved glass unwittingly may bend the many-colored rays on to a far-off point, where new flame will start from the ancient earth.” (172)

In an inexplicable fit, one of the soldiers abruptly leaves the room and runs toward a building destroyed by Russian shellfire just hours before. He is struck and killed by a shell fragment. As darkness falls, they bury him and fashion a cross with the soldier’s name and the date. Then they continue on their journey, through falling snow. And there the book ends.

"Mountains in Csik" by Nagy Istvan.

“Mountains in Csik” by Nagy Istvan.

*This seems evident from the frequency of “sz” combinations in Carossa’s place names: “Szentlelek” or “Szekely-Udvarhely,” for example. I see the “sz” combinations in Hungarian words and not in Romanian. The two languages belong to different linguistic families. I should also note that in the Csik Mountains, there is a large minority Hungarian population. Yet I cannot find Carossa’s place names even in that area.

Posted in Balkan History, History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments