Saturday, November 23, 2013


“During the endless hours flat on your back, you try to distract yourself to pass the time; once, I reckoned up my wounds.  Leaving out trifles such as ricochets and grazes, I was hit at least fourteen times, these being five bullets, two shell splinters, one shrapnel ball, four hand grenade splinters and two bullet splinters which, with entry and exit wounds , left me an even twenty scars.  In the course of  this war, where so much of the firing was done blindly into empty space, I still managed to get myself targeted no fewer than eleven times. I felt every justification therefore, in donning the gold wound stripes, which arrived for me one day.” 
                                                STORM OF STEEL by Ernst Jünger

            With next year’s anniversary of the start of World War One publishers and the other media has begun their campaigns to make it as boring as they made World War Two.
            World War Two became at least in New York City only the Holocaust.  In the rest of the country it became the story of the “greatest generation” probably the dumbest phrase ever concocted by the mangers of our memory. 
            World War Two was usually the Battle of Britain, D-Day and then the defeat of Germany.  There was something about Pearl Harbor, about Iwo Jima (thanks to Clint Eastwood) and then dropping the Atom Bomb.
            I suspect World War One will become:
===How wonderful was the summer of 1914.
===An archduke gets killed in some God forsaken Balkan city… and people will be off to the races talking about the more recent war in Serbia and Bosnia (Saint Susan Sontag will appear for the thoughtful New Yorkers)
===O, yeah there will be trenches and dead English poets and maybe even we’ll have Hemingway in Italy… but he’s not much in favor with the academics
===Lawrence of Arabia will appear and Peter O’Toole will again ride his camel…
===The Americans will get themselves involved into the war thanks to Woodrow Wilson, the 1917 pre-incarnation of Barack Obama… good intentions run amok
===Gary Cooper will do Sergeant Alvin York.
===Eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month or something like that in 1918
===Lenin and Hitler as aftermath.       
            Not for a moment am I exaggerating or being cynical but such is how we are being shaped. 
            Before the mental sculpting begins I suggest reading WOUNDED A New History of the Western Front in World War I by Emily Mayhew. (Oxford University Press) The book tries to tell the reader what happens after:
The Flanders casualty was almost torn apart.  Gone were the neat round holes by rounded ammunition that flew slowly in the hot dry African sun, (The Boar War) could be easily located and extracted and didn’t leave much damage behind. Instead, the cylindroconical bullet fired by the new powerful weaponry hit fast and hard, went deep and took bits of dirty uniform and airborne soil particles with it.  Inside the human body it ricocheted off bones and ploughed through soft tissue until its energy was spent.  Shrapnel fragments were just as bad.  They created jagged wounds, huge blooms of trauma that didn’t stop bleeding and, if the casualty could survive long enough, provided the perfect environment for infection and sepsis.  And there were so many of them.  At base hospitals soldier after soldier arrived with the most dreadful injuries: deep ragged wounds to their heads, faces, limbs and abdomens.

            There are stories of the stretcher bearers, the medics, the doctors, the nurses, the reconstructive surgeons and the chaplains…  the prose is dutiful and the stories all a bit too upbeat but then they are usually the memories of those who survived.  But it is very good to have such a book in these months before “the celebrations” begin as it reminds us that the central act of war is killing and failing that, wounding… everything else is something like packaging. 
            I think I would like to have just read the actual memoirs, letters, reports than the reconstructions and scene settings but as the following shows the WOUNDED IS memorable in a way not soon to be forgotten:
            One of the duties of the nurses was to write to the surviving relatives.  Here is a letter from Elizabeth Boon to the family of a Private Simpson:
Dear Mrs. Simpson
You will have heard the sad news that your son Pte Joseph Simpson passed away on Tuesday November 12th.  The funeral is taking place today at Terlincthun Cemetery. The No. of his grave is 4E Plat 10. We would like to have you with him but when he saw he was so acutely ill there was no time to get you here before he died.  He passed away peacefully at 5:52 on Tuesday 12th November.
 He talked of going to Blighty to see you and then before he died he thought he was with you all and put out his hands to first one and the other with such a glad smile, he called you by name and then ‘Ada’ but we could not catch what else he said. He was a very good patient and we did all we could for him and he had everything that was possible. 
With sincere sympathy
E. Boon
(for Matron)

            “Boon worked on the moribund wards at CCS, Moribund wards--- the last stop at the CCS for those soldiers beyond help--- had been given their own RAMC regulations, and it was  according to regulation that special care was taken to safeguard the belongs of the dying and that the patients final messages and wishes should be carefully recorded in a notebook designated for that purpose…. Two years on and Boon had written so many sympathy letters that she had lost count.  All she knew was that she had to make sure she didn’t get behind with them.  A colleague tried to write at least a dozen letters a night but during the battle at Aras he had got behind and had to write almost sixty letters in one night to catch up.  Another nurse wrote almost 400 letters during Passchendaele… Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.
            I copy those lines again: Battles and deaths in winter were the worst, when the freezing wind blew through their tents and gutted their candles.  They had to warm the bottle of frozen ink in their hands or beg a pan of hot water from the kitchen before they could begin the work of writing.

And one other detail for it is in details such a book as WOUNDED is to be valued for : 

 Once a boy had cried out and she thought she must have missed his morphine dose, but when she got to his bed he gasped that his lavender bag had fallen to the floor and he could suddenly smell his own decay.  She picked up the bag and pinned it on the pillow next to his face.  The boy immediately turned his head towards it and began to inhale the clean scent.  He died a short while afterwards.

        There are only two essential books about World War One: Ernst Jünger’s STORM OF STEEL. I think it the single best book ever written about the experience of actual front line combat.  Jünger lived to be 103 and is the only Twentieth Century German language writer who can be compared to Goethe, without apology. 
            The second book is IN PARENTHESIS by DAVID JONES, a perfectly written visionary book (Introduced by T. S. Eliot) based on the actual experience of one individual soldier
 but through the language is able without pretense to represent  the experience inside a world which would not be foreign to a soldier in the Iliad who had also passed through the Welsh epics and Arthurian romances:  never has the modern reality been more neatly summoned up: 
49 Wyatt, 01549 Wyatt.
Coming sergeant.
Pick ‘em up, pick ‘em up---I’ll stalk within yer chamber.
Private Leg … sick
Private Ball … absent
’01 Ball, ‘O1 Ball. Ball of No. 1.
Where’s Ball, 25201 Ball--- you corporal,
Ball of your section
Movement round and about the Commanding Officer.
Bugler, will you sound 'Orderly Sergeants'.

            And I would allow Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front though it is finally too sentimental and ironic but if read in conjunction with the two novels that Remarque as a sort of sequels THE Road Back and THREE COMRADES. 

And there you have it.
            But…  but…  I know no books either fiction or nonfiction that describe the great other First World War along the Eastern Front, in the Balkans, in Africa, in the Far East.  There is The White War by Mark Thompson which does justice to the Alpine war between Austria and Italy…  Solzhenitsyn tries in The Great Wheel,  August 1914 to describe the great battled at Tannenberg   and there is Viktor Shklovsky’s  A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY  which is an attempt to describe the war that was endured in the far east of Turkey where was the war was joined by the Russians…         

               For the Civil  War In the United Stares we are fortunate to have Shelby Foote's great narrative of the War Between the States from a sort of Southern point of view and we have Bruce Catton’s more popular version from the Union side… but at least we have these grand narratives  there is none for World War One.


R Francis said...

and the dumb conductor of the Baltimore Orchestra playing Britten's War Requiem talked about a song cycle from " a poet called Wilfred Owen"... no surprise there is not a meta narrative since 1900

Thomas McGonigle said...

Of course I know Owen's poetry and the Britten piece.. but that is the hightone eloquent packaging of the correct semiments about WWI but when I think of the war I think of three poems by Joyce Kilmer, Alan Seeger and John McCrae that seem honest in a way that OWen is not or rather they do not lend thmselves to being used as Ow
en's workw as used... thouggh Karl Lagerfeld for his own reasons did a very beautiful edition of Seeger

Anonymous said...

The Owen poems are interspersed with the Latin mass for the dead.