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

Words of endurance: A Passionate Prodigality

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

Recruiting poster for Royal Fusiliers.

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 Guy Chapman,
A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography. Fawcett Crest Books: Greenwich, CT, 1966.

It’s an odd little book—the edition I have—a mass-market paperback of the kind sold everywhere in the 50s and 60s. I bought it secondhand. Cover price: 60 cents. Yellowing paper, brittle spine. This American edition was printed 1966, with what the publisher (not the author) called “a special preface for American readers.” It was first published in London, 1933.

In fact, Guy Chapman makes no references to much of anything near and dear to an American of 1966 or even to one of 1916. For me, an American of 2015, there’s much that’s inscrutable here, and yet, in my contrary way, I am drawn to the inscrutable and find this book fascinating. I can see right away that he really doesn’t give a hoot if he loses some of his readers along the way. What matters is his memory of the men who shared his experience, the ones who would have understood. He cared immensely about them.

Guy Chapman.

Guy Chapman.

The book isn’t bitter in its tone, only honest. It is by and large a story of the moral exhaustion that sets in over more than three years on the Western Front. The only real target of cynicism is England, which he describes on the final page as “a country fit only for profiteers to live in.” (223) Over the course of the war England has receded far into the distance, alien and unreal. He finds he has nothing to say in letters home. On leave in London, he has a strange feeling: “As the war trailed its body across France, sliming the landscape, so too it tainted civilian life. London seemed poorer and yet more raffish. Its dignity was melting under the strain. It had become corrupted.” (112) After the Armistice he joins the Army of Occupation rather than return home.

Here are some of the assorted things he throws into his account: references to events in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars, odd mentions of dusty places in colonial India, the sudden fleeting appearance of fictional characters from Alexander Dumas; names of miniscule villages in France; endless abbreviations from British military jargon. I had no problem with CO, ADC, GHQ, or TM, but could only guess at SAA, RTO, and FOO. Eventually I printed a list from the Internet.

The obscurity doesn’t come out of one-upmanship or the desire to impress with insider knowledge. The literary and historical references are the kind effortlessly internalized by an intelligent, well-educated man of the period. The French micro-geography and the torrents of abbreviations come out of the everyday things soldiers experienced. Chapman wants to report that daily experience without moving to a level of detached interpretation.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman's 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

4th Bttn. Royal Fusiliers resting before Battle of Mons, August 1914. Chapman’s 13th Bttn. did not arrive on the front until July 1915.

He joins the Royal Fusiliers, known historically as the City of London Regiment, in December 1914 as a junior officer. He feels very much an amateur but discovers that his own ignorance blends in with the general blundering. His New Army battalion spends the months until July 1915 in an improvised training: “Except for our second-in-command, who had retired ten years earlier and was well over fifty, and our quartermaster, we had no regular officers. It was therefore a co-operative undertaking of amateurs in which we had to learn the hard way.” (i)

He commands a platoon and eventually a company, but for a time is transferred against his wishes to serve as an aide on the divisional staff, running errands, organizing lists of supplies and maps, making reports. Some humorous episodes result. He accompanies a senior officer to the combat line: “His specially padded and exceptionally clean tin hat, his glowing boots, his thick manly stick, made one think of dowagers slumming.” (115) The elegant officer cringes at the noise of every passing shell even as nearby soldiers calmly clean their rifles, cook, or write letters. Finally a 5.9 roars overhead, and “my companion… took to his heels and galloped with the grotesque gait of a terrified foal through the water covering the duckboards.”

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area.

Road to Pozieres at the Somme, August 1916. The 13th were in this area…

Chapman loathes these staff responsibilities and flubs the performance of his chores. This leads self-important, high-ranking types to bully him, as certain people do when they sniff out uncertainty. One of the generals interrogates him, brandishing a set of aerial photos. “‘I want a definite answer. In which of those trenches did you see flares?’  ‘I think…’ I began feebly. The general’s tremendous forehead, furrowed as a bull’s, contracted furiously. For a moment I thought he would gore me. ‘You’re not to think,’ he bellowed. ‘You’ve got to be sure. I can think.’ ” (129) Chapman is at a distinct disadvantage here, having observed from the ground amidst a gas attack, denied access to the photos.

Finally, when he is requested to report to the general at nine o’clock in the morning, he finds himself running behind schedule, rushes in to the general’s hut, and salutes. “I caught a glimpse of a bulky figure in wide striped blue and white pyjamas and gumboots, gentling its hair at a mirror. With the roar of the wounded gorilla, the figure turned and swept down on me, shouting: ‘What the devil d’ye mean by coming to see your General in his pyjamas?” (139) Chapman is delighted when the general banishes him back to his battalion.

He sees the world in his own way and stays true to its contradictions and ambiguities. He links things no one else would consider related, so that his writing sends out little electrical flashes as new connections are wired together. He can see the wasteland of a battlefield as having “the austere beauty of a dying planet” and describe a burst of shrapnel in terms of antique illustrations: “It would suddenly appear in the atmosphere, a flash, a tight black cloud, which slowly unrolled like the engravings on the title-pages of eighteenth-century French books, supporting a lyre or a basket of pomegranates and ears of corn.” (63)

...and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)...

…and here at Mouquet Farm, Pozieres (painting by Fred Leist, 1917)…

He ventures into the macabre at times. Newly arrived in the trenches, he is shown to a dugout where he can sleep. Hearing scamperings and rustlings, he realizes the place is infested with rats. Still, he dozes off. “I came back to the surface with a jerk… I turned my head and caught a glimpse of what looked like a small pink monkey, clambering up the wall. With a spasm of disgust, I threw myself off the bed.” (25) Small pink monkey! It made me think of someone suffering from the d.t.s. Later, Chapman tell us how one of his companions energetically bayonets any rats that come his way. The fat ones that had been feeding on corpses are easier to kill than the younger, more agile fry. This observation would seem gratuitously horrible except that accounts of the Western Front universally mention rats and corpses along with mud, duckboards, and shellholes as an unavoidable part of the scenery.

...and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

…and here on the Menin Road, 1917.

Chapman constantly finds himself in the ghostly company of the dead—“slung carelessly on top of each other, sprawled in obscene attitudes”—sees a body frozen stiff with rigor mortis, like “a statue knocked from its pedestal.” Strangely, for him the most gruesome sight is not a mutilated corpse. “My eye caught something white and shining. I stopped. It was the last five joints of a spine. There was nothing else, no body, no flesh. This apparition overcame me. I turned away and choked back a sudden nausea.” (152)

He survived the Somme, Arras, and Ypres, sustaining injuries to his eyes when he was gassed. He didn’t write about his experiences right away, but years later, after reading Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, felt he might have something to say on the subject. He dedicated his book “to the memory of certain soldiers who have now become a small quantity of Christian dust.”

#   #   #

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

Royal Fusiliers memorial, High Holborn Street, London.

Posted in British History, History, Military History, World War I | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

Words of endurance: Russian Hussar

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Littauer attended.

The Nicholas Cavalry School, which Vladimir Littauer attended.

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 Vladimir Littauer’s
Russian Hussar, Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1993.

On July 24, 1915, somewhere in Latvia, German forces advanced against a Siberian infantry regiment. The Russian commander ordered in a cavalry division to support the exhausted Siberians. The division consisted of Dragoons, Cossacks, Uhlans, and Hussars.* Vladimir Littauer of the Sumsky Hussars recalled: “The Hussars’ squadrons were assembling at a gallop and opening formation, with my unit on the left flank. Some 1,600 horses drawn up in four rows with hundreds of lowered lances formed a beautiful and menacing sight. The scene was dramatically lighted by the setting sun. Our battery opened fire to soften the Germans while the regiments moved ahead. The Germans ran even before our charge started…. It seemed to us that the threat of a large cavalry attack had decided the outcome of the battle.” (192)

A body of cavalry moving in orderly formation in the heat of battle: that achievement of discipline must have been impressive to see. As also, for instance, the limbering of the guns in an earlier battle, East Prussia: “The horses galloped to their guns. With great skill and seemingly without halting their horses, the artillerymen hooked the guns to the limbers and pulled away. This was the result of endless drills.” (160)

Or, soon thereafter, when the Germans had nearly surrounded them: “I imagine they already considered us their prisoners…. Then Gourko galloped forward and, as if on parade, gave the command: ‘The division, from the right, by regiment, at regimental distances, forward, walk, march,’ and pointed east with his sword to indicate the direction. The thick column moved forward; almost immediately orders to trot, and then to canter, were given.” (161) The Germans were so surprised that they delayed opening fire, and the Russians escaped.

Littauer’s Hussars were part of the Russian 1st Army under General Rennenkampf. The 2nd Army under General Samsonov had just suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the Battle of Tannenberg, August 26-30, 1914. Samsonov committed suicide immediately afterward, shooting himself in the head rather than face the wrath of the Tsar.

Russian prisoners at Tannenberg.

Russian prisoners after the Tannenberg battle.

But Littauer’s book is not the place to learn about major events in the war, as he tells us himself: as an “unimportant officer,” he can offer only small details of the “great strategic operations.” (8) In his typical way, he gives the humorous example of a low-ranking officer in Napoleon’s army who for weeks told everyone of participating in an engagement near a certain village. Only after considerable time did he discover that it was the Battle of Austerlitz in which he’d fought.

Instead, the book offers the opportunity to sit down comfortably with a man of remarkable experience, a top-notch raconteur, and listen to his astonishing stories. Pretend that you are dining with him at an elegant establishment—let’s even pretend it resembles the best Moscow restaurant of the pre-Revolution era, the “Yar”—and that over much good food and fine wine, he is telling you tales of his life that span the years from cavalry school to regimental life in Moscow to the war, the Revolution, the Whites against the Reds, and finally his exile from his country. You are in a large Empire-style room with ornate green columns and a stage where a gypsy chorus will perform late in the evening. Through large panels of glass, you can see chefs in the spic-and-span kitchen preparing meals in gleaming copper pans.

To be an officer in the Sumsky Hussars, one needed wealth. When in Moscow, officers lunched at their club together, at a long table where the men sat strictly in order of rank. Before sitting down to eat one might stand at the bar and consume varieties of smoked fish while knocking back a few glasses of vodka. A bill was presented at the end of the month.

One always dined out. Those feeling especially flush might invite a female companion to a private room at the Yar and hire the gypsy chorus to perform for the two of them. Even the most junior officers seldom dined alone at the club. Sometimes several of the younger men would pool resources for a supper and hire singers and the regiment’s off-duty trumpeters for entertainment. The official regimental personnel included 16 trumpeters as well as the transport and communications units, the machine gun unit, and the clerks.

Wealth was also necessary for social cohesion. Littauer often speaks of the regiment as a “family.” Officers who did not share the others’ habits and values were driven out—a rare happening, since an intensive weeding-out process had already occurred in cavalry school. But a certain lieutenant from an aristocratic background who secretly married a beautiful gypsy girl was forced to leave. Any marriage required the permission of the commander and, just as importantly, the informal approval of one’s fellow officers. The regiment was so central to the men’s lives that few did take a wife. They satisfied themselves with what the regiment called “the ladies of our circle.” Littauer explains, “These were not prostitutes, but just ladies of easy virtue, and quite a few of them were amusing, besides being pretty and perhaps even chic.” (87)

Russian hussars, 1910.

Russian hussars, 1910.

In cavalry school, the boys were subjected to a regimen of demanding athletic accomplishments. Purely academic subjects such as Russian literature were scorned, and the professor of that subject was reduced to bargaining with his students about their grades. Naturally, everything revolved around horsemanship. The boys were drilled incessantly in a large ring until they could pull off such stunts as “Scythian riding” over low fences without either saddle or bridle.

I did a fair amount of riding when I was growing up, and I expected to find considerable detail about horsemanship in this book, especially since Littauer founded the famous “Boots and Saddles” riding school after he emigrated to the US. But perhaps because he’s written about the subject elsewhere, he doesn’t give it that much attention here. I learned that the Russian cavalry rode in the “manege” or dressage style, with long stirrups and upright posture, inducing the horse to make tight, controlled movements—arched neck, vertical head. In Littauer’s time, some of the younger officers advocated a newer style with shorter stirrups, the rider leaning forward out of the saddle at a gallop or a jump, the horse allowed extension in its movements. But the traditionalists would have none of that. In the field, the formal style often proved impractical. Littauer mentions that as the war went on, they replaced their curb bits with snaffles. The curb puts a lot of leverage on the horse’s mouth, while the snaffle is gentler and better suited to long cross-country rides.

Littauer’s experience of war

The picture presented in Russian Hussar could hardly be more different than the one described in the last book in this blog series, The Notebooks of Louis Barthas. For that matter, it bears no resemblance to any of the Western Front narratives. Of course, we’re on the Eastern Front here, and we’re dealing with cavalry rather than infantry. But it is the social world of the officers that makes the critical difference.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

Badge of Sumsky Hussars commemorating its 250th anniversary.

The Sumsky Hussars originated in 1651 as a Cossack regiment from the town of Sumy on the southern Russian plains. It was one of several bodies of Cossacks turned into regular cavalry, and one of four created the same year who all claimed to be the oldest Russian cavalry regiment.

Its officers either came from nobility or (as in Littauer’s case) from very wealthy families. As “younkers” in the Nicholas Cavalry School, they performed for the Tsar and not infrequently met with him personally. The officers’ club had on display such relics as a giant silver punch bowl presented by the town of Sumy on the regiment’s 250th anniversary, and a painting measuring six feet by ten feet depicting an attack by the regiment in the Napoleonic wars. Against this background, behavior was governed by intricate historical tradition.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Member of 2nd Sumsky regiment, 1812.

Littauer’s stories nearly all concern other commissioned officers (he entered the regiment as a cornet, or 2nd lieutenant), or the occasional corporal, sergeant, or adjutant. The regular enlisted man doesn’t make much of an appearance. I don’t believe Littauer lacked human concern for his men. He did appreciate the courage of individuals, as when he describes seeing a dead soldier with a heap of spent cartridges by his side, indicating that he’d remained on the spot for a long time—far ahead of his company’s firing line—shooting until he was killed. “Since then I have seen and forgotten thousands of dead bodies, but this one I remember as though I saw it only yesterday.” (141)

But if Littauer ever felt any sense of horror or meaninglessness, he does not express it. This is in keeping with his personal code: “To make light of what was either boredom, danger, or tragedy, to speak freely of one’s failures, barely to mention one’s acts of bravery, and to joke about both.” (9)

Because he was an officer, he naturally avoided many of the discomforts experienced by his men. He and his fellows were billeted in the nicest houses in the villages they occupied, while the common soldiers slept on hay in the barns. He had better food and drink. Those things would make quite a difference in one’s experience of war.

As part of Russia’s 1st Army, he escaped the 2nd Army’s destruction at Tannenberg. The lack of coordination between the two armies is said to have derived from personal animosity between Rennenkampf and Samsonov that dated back to the Battle of Mukden in the Russo-Japanese War. The 1st Army should have gone to the support of the 2nd, but instead continued marching in a straight line under the willful Rennenkampf. And so, because of a trivial personality clash, Littauer’s regiment avoided going into the maelstrom.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

German print of Battle of Tannenberg, showing cavalry of Russian 2nd Army.

The 1st Army was pursued by the Germans out of East Prussia, fighting fierce battles and experiencing heavy losses, especially in the period January to March 1915. This is probably the most severe combat Littauer experienced, and he describes seeing bodies stacked like cords of firewood and fields carpeted with the dead: those all-too-familiar images of battle. Thereafter the intensity abated, and eventually the regiment joined the army reserve in trenches along the bank of the Dvina (Daugavec) in east Latvia. But with the small numbers involved, these trenches bore little resemblance to the ones in Flanders and France.

It was while they occupied those trenches that they had word of the Revolution, March 1917. It took them completely by surprise. When Littauer heard that the Tsar was expected to abdicate, “This all sounded so preposterous that we could not believe it.” (229) Before long the men of the regiment requested to form a soldiers’ council, in keeping with the new democratic order. The Sumsky Hussars managed to hold together, with considerable internal tensions, but eventually Littauer quarreled with a platoon sergeant, and the soldiers’ council took Littauer’s squadron away from him. At that point he deserted and went home to St. Petersburg.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

Tsar Nicholas in the uniform of the Grodnensky Guard Hussars.

His odyssey thereafter is too long to detail here. He joined the White Army, eventually realized it was a lost cause, and after many harrowing adventures and narrow escapes managed to leave Russia with his father, his sister, and a family servant.

The other reason why Littauer’s book lacks deep introspection and reflections on the nature of war is that it is largely based on anecdotes, the sort, as mentioned earlier, that would be told among friends over good food and drink. But these anecdotes are exceedingly valuable. Not only do they entertain and provide notes of humor, they give a remarkable description of a world that has entirely disappeared.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 - 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

Vladimir Littauer, 1892 – 1989. Photo taken 1953 at the riding school of Sweet Briar College.

* Dragoons = mounted infantry; Uhlans = lancers; Hussars = light cavalry; Cossacks are their own category.

Posted in History, Military History, Russian History, World War I | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Words of endurance: Notebooks of Louis Barthas

Grave of Louis Barthas. Detail of public-domain photo by Fredton.*

Grave of Louis Barthas. Detail of public-domain photo by Fredton.*

This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. The full title of  this particular memoir is Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918. “Poilu” is a term for a French foot soldier, in use since the days of Napoleon.

As soon as I started reading Barthas’ notebooks, I understood what had been missing in my other recent WWI readings: sarcasm.

Not a harsh, meanspirited sarcasm, but an earthy, unblinking recognition of the absurdities of the situation. And no one could have expressed these absurdities better than the unique individual Louis Barthas, a working-class fellow who at the advanced age of 35 left his village of Peyriac-Minervois in southwest France, near Carcassone, to enter the war in early August, 1914. Incredibly, he survived until his discharge February 14, 1919. He served in battles of the Artois, Verdun, Champagne, the Somme, and the Argonne.

Lorette Cemetery as it appears today. Barthas always referred to it as the Lorette Charnel House.

In the Artois region—Lorette Cemetery as it appears today. Barthas invariably referred to the Lorette battlefield as the Charnel House.

The other personal accounts I have read about the war all came from officers, members of the better-educated, wealthier classes. With my current “Words of endurance” series on this blog, I am reading or re-reading these accounts. Some are well-known, such as Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel and the (almost too obvious) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Some don’t have such wide readership, such as Hans Carossa’s Roumanian Diary or Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality.  Or Vladimir Littauer’s Russian Hussar.** I haven’t by any means completed all of these books yet, but I will. Happily, I find them fascinating.

Among these authors, Junger is fierce, lyrical, and controversial. Remarque’s words are a watercolor of battle, lovely but blurred, Carossa and Chapman are introspective and meticulous. Littauer’s style comes across as urbane and anecdotal.

And then… I run smack up against Barthas, whose style is, to say the least, a bit grittier. He can say of an inept new commandant, “The poor guy read his map like a carp reading a prayer book.” In a newly made narrow trench, “An errant shell could come bouncing down the staircase and make a bloody grenadier omelet.” After a narrow miss from a shell, “Jalabert rushed off like a madman, but Sabatier, shaking himself off like a wet dog, declares in a cheerful voice, ‘What do you know? My pipe is busted!’ …Sabatier’s pipe was stuck in his mouth eleven hours out of twelve. The commission evaluating reparations for wartime damages will have to include Sabatier’s pipe.”

Trench on Cote 304 at Verdun---a place Barthas came to know well.

French regiment on Cote 304 at Verdun—a hill that Barthas came to know well.

Barthas was not afraid to describe the abominable conditions in the trenches, especially in the early stages of the war, when—compared with the German engineering efforts—the French dug trenches that seemed almost childlike, like what ten-years olds would dig to play in. Describing a dugout with a plank floor, Barthas admitted this was better than their usual accomodations on the damp earth. But… “For those who envy this well-being, it needs to be said that legions of lice and fleas had already chosen this floor as their domicile. Furthermore, these rough planks, simply laid next to each other by a clumsy carpenter on uneven ground, were like piano keys, so that… when a comrade came into the shelter, you wouldn’t be surprised to have your shoulder, your head, or your flank be bounced up while your other shoulder or flank sank down.”

Barthas was a socialist. In his home winemaking region, he had participated before the war in forming an agricultural worker’s union. He participated in stubborn refusals to go along with the insane plans of his officers—basically the “strategy” of throwing thousands of troops in suicidal rushes against enemy trenches. The thing that I like best is that his socialism was not at all abstract but came organically from his especially powerful sense of shared humanity.

Gifted with a sharp memory and keen perceptiveness, he had an instinct for intelligent action under fire. He was not afraid to go into the hellish combat on Cote 304 at Verdun, accepting a volunteer scouting assignment that left him highly exposed to enemy shellfire. His superiors made him a corporal, but when he annoyed too many of them with his antimilitaristic attitudes—extending even to fraternization with the odd German sentry or prisoner–he was demoted back to private. Then the higher-ups changed their minds, recognizing that he was the sort who really should have command of a squad. For him this was not such a privilege. He would rather have been a man of the ranks, not out of modesty but simply out of solidarity with the others.

Yet they gave him back his stripes, and from that point forward, he bluntly refused orders he considered would risk his men’s lives needlessly. Strangely enough, they generally retreated in silence: his will was stronger than theirs.

The men of his squad knew he was keeping a diary. Early in the war, one of them begged him, “You who are writing about the life we’re leading here, don’t hide anything. You’ve got to tell it all.” The others joined in. “Yes, yes, everything, everything. We’ll be there as your witnesses. Maybe we won’t all die here.” But another added cynically, “They won’t believe us, or maybe they won’t even give a damn.”

After the war he developed it, with much work, into a continuous narrative. In this sense he honored his comrades. He never thought of publication—the barrier between himself and a Parisian publishing house seemed insurmountable. Thus the notebook he’d toiled over languished twenty years after his death in a disused cupboard in his house. But when it saw the light of day, its discoverers understood they had come into possession of a unique document, a story of the Great War that could only have been told by Barthas himself. Some have said it is one of the greatest memoirs of that conflict, and I have a sense that assessment is correct.

French long gun battery run over at Verdun.

French long gun battery run over at Verdun.

* I used this photo because it is free of copyright. There is another photo of Barthas that shows him much more clearly, down to the points of his moustache. It is not in the public domain in the U.S. and I will not use it, but you can find it fairly easily with a little googling.

** The Littauer book was suggested to me by Pat Holscher, a reader of this blog. Thank you, Pat.

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Words of endurance: The Secret Battle

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme

Stretcher bearers, Thiepval Ridge, Battle of the Somme.

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

In January 1917, junior officer A.P. Herbert learned that a counterpart in another battalion of his division had been shot by firing squad for desertion. This disturbing news festered within him and, when he was soon thereafter wounded and sent home, he wrote a novel about a character who suffers the same fate. He titled it The Secret Battle.

A.P. Herbert.

A.P. Herbert.

Herbert and the man who was executed, Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, had both joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. But they were not destined to serve on battleships. Before the end of 1914 it became obvious that the navy had far more recruits than it needed, and most of the hapless volunteers were transferred to a unit called the Royal Navy Division. It was actually infantry, despite a pretense that many would serve in naval landing parties at Belgian ports.

Herbert went to Gallipoli in May 1915, was eventually invalided home—probably with severe dysentery, a rampant problem there—and served with the Admiralty intelligence before rejoining the RND. The British command had pulled the plug on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, and the division now occupied trenches in France.

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in "The Secret Battle."

French 75 mm gun, 3rd Battle of Krithia, Gallipoli. This conflict figures in “The Secret Battle.”

In November 1916 they would participate in the final major battle of the Somme, taking Beaucourt sur l’Ancre with huge losses. Herbert was one of 20 to answer roll-call the next day out of his battalion’s 435 officers and men.

Edwin Dyett had a very different experience. From the sketchy details I have available, it appears he did have naval duties until the six-month-long Somme offensive got underway in July 1916. I can imagine Dyett’s sense of dread when he learned that he was to become one of the countless thousands fed into the Somme’s bloody trenches, where more than 400,000 British soldiers died. Unlike Herbert, he had no combat experience, and one account states, “Both he and his superior officers quickly learnt that he was ill-suited for land warfare, and he was held in reserve.”*

Apparently he begged to be returned to the naval sector—to no avail. In November he was ordered to join the front lines on the Ancre, but he returned to headquarters saying he hadn’t been able to find his unit. Ordered to try again, he wandered across the devastated terrain. When he was found, he claimed once again he’d lost his way. He was arrested for desertion, court-martialed, and executed. His final letter home said, “Dearest Mother mine… my only sorrow now is for the trouble I have caused you and Dad…. Please forgive my mistakes… I am sorry for the dishonour I have brought on you.”**

The central figure of The Secret Battle, Harry Penrose, sees quite a bit of action. He enters the war an enthusiastic, idealistic man who repeatedly demonstrates bravery. But the constant exposure to shellfire, the nightmare experience of seeing his comrades mutilated or killed, the discomfort of the trenches, eventually wear him down mentally and physically. Yet he remains determined to do his duty and, after recovering from a wound in autumn 1916, turns down an offer of a noncombat position with military intelligence. He returns to the front lines and is immediately ordered out with a supply party by his C.O., who dislikes him. Persisting through severe shellfire, Penrose leads the party forward, but they duck for cover again and again beneath the banks of a sunken road. Under a vicious bombardment, they run for cover to a dugout—where they are met by one of Penrose’s fellow officers, himself sheltering from the shelling.

This man, Burnett, is regarded as “bogus” by many in the battalion, and he, too, dislikes Penrose. Full of swagger, he’d been shown up as a fake on an occasion when he’d begged off on a mission that Penrose completed successfully. He reports to the C.O. that Penrose ran away from the combat area; Penrose is duly arrested, court-martialed, and executed by men of his own unit.

Herbert has taken the incident of execution for desertion and asked the question, “Isn’t it possible that even a brave man could find himself in circumstances where he faces this charge?” He has created two characters that illustrate aspects of his own self: Penrose and the nameless narrator, a good friend and associate of Penrose, who observes and records the fatal chain of events.

Herbert wrote the book very quickly in early 1917 when he was home recovering from a wound. It has the peculiarity that it lacks an objective framework. It does nothing to explain developments in terms of named historical events. For instance, it describes brutal fighting on the slopes of Achi Baba at Gallipoli, but I had to do some searching to figure out that Penrose’s unit (and probably Herbert’s) fought at what is now known as the Third Battle of Krithia, June 4, 1915.  When it comes to the battle on the Ancre at the Somme, Herbert has the narrator say: “I shall not tell you about it; it is in the histories.”

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

Interrogation of Turkish prisoners, 3rd Battle of Krithia.

It is as if Herbert has become mortally weary of all the usual blather about battles “bravely fought” by such-and-such regiment, led by so-and-so, men falling for the glorious cause, etc., etc. For him it has been an experience shared with fellow human beings who have all the usual dreams and all the usual shortcomings, who do the best they can under extraordinary hardship, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing.

The Secret Battle contains a beautiful scene early on, when Penrose and the narrator have recently arrived at Gallipoli. Penrose is overjoyed to find himself in a region of historical significance that dates back to the ancient city of Troy. One sunny afternoon they climb the central ridge of the peninsula to get a view of the Dardanelles, that narrow strait connecting the Aegean Sea with the Sea of Marmara and the gateway of Constantinople. (It is, of course, the strategic significance of this place that led the allied forces to wage war there against the Turks.) They walk over dry, scrubby terrain, finding the ground littered with spent cartridges left behind by Turkish riflemen. They pass groves of cool, shady cypresses and terraces of olives and vines. The landscape is etched out clearly. They see all the outlines of the peninsula neatly laid out, the inlets and the bays.

But what caught the immediate eye, what we had come to see and had sailed hither to fight for, was that strip of unbelievably blue water before us, deep, generous blue, like a Chinese bowl. On the farther shore… we could see a wide green plain, and beyond and to the left, peak after peak of the mountains of Asia; and far away in the middle distance there was a glint of snow from some regal summit of the Anatolian Mountains. That wide green plain was the Plain of Troy.

Oh, how things would change for the two of them as the terrible conflict dragged on.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

Satellite image of the Dardanelles, with Gallipoli on its northwest side.

* Neil Prior, “WW1: Edwin Dyett from Cardiff shot by his own side for desertion.” BBC News, September 8, 2014.

** Prior.

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