Saturday, May 19, 2018

Masked and Alone

Raoul Lufbery

Born in France to an American father and French mother, Raoul Lufbery is one of the most famous American pilots of the First World War, an ace with at least 17 combat victories.  Early in his military career, he served in the Philippines as a rifleman in the U.S. Army from 1907 – 1909, but when war broke out in Europe, he joined the French Foreign Legion and trained as a pilot. Lufbery flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and after American joined the war, he was commissioned in the U.S. Army Air Service, where he instructed new pilots, among them Eddie Rickenbacker.

According to American pilot Bert Hall, Lufbery “rode the skies like a fighting demon” and “was always looking for a good scrap.”* Hall also described Lufbery as “a mushroom hound,” for “Every time it rains, he goes out and gathers some mushrooms.  The French say he is going on a reconnaissance des champignons.”**

To Edwin C. Parsons, another pilot with the Escadrille who frequently flew as his wingman, Lufbery was “one of the most tragically outstanding figures of the war in the air.” In his memoir, Parsons wrote,
To me, Luf was one of the great mysteries of the war.  No man alive can truthfully say that he knew him.  I ate, slept, drank and fought beside him for months on end.  I discussed combat tactics and played bridge and went on binges with him…. I was in daily contact with a figure of flesh and blood, but know him? Not a chance.  In contrast to him, the Sphinx was a child’s primer.  He kept his real self shut up like a clam in a shell.  He was a man seemingly devoid of fear or, in fact, emotion of any kind.  But what a man he was in the air!  He had forgotten more about combat flying than most men ever knew.”***
 Lufbery was killed on May 19, 1918 in circumstances that are still debated: he either jumped from his burning plane or, while trying to clear a jam in his machine gun, was thrown from the cockpit when the plane flipped. 

To a Young Aviator

When you go up to die
Some not far distant day,
I wonder will you try
Unidentified Pilot, by Eric Kennington
National Museums of Scotland
To tear your mask away,
And look life in the eyes
For once without disguise?

Behind your mask may hide
What treacherous, covered fires!
What hidden torturing pride!
What sorrow, what desires!
Whatever there may be
There will be none to see.

Yet I think when you meet
Death coming through the skies,
Calmly his face you’ll greet,
Coldly, without surprise;
Then die without a moan,
Still masked although alone.
            —Aline Kilmer

Although it’s highly unlikely that the poem was written specifically for Lufbery, “To a Young Aviator” is an apt memorial for him and all the pilots of the First World War.  The poem captures the cool courage of the fliers, as well as the solitary loneliness of the job that they masked with bravado.

Aline Kilmer
Aline Kilmer is almost unknown today as a writer. Her husband was the American poet Joyce Kilmer (best known for his poems “Trees” and “The Rouge Bouquet”).  Joyce enlisted in the A.E.F. in April of 1917, but just weeks before he left for France, the couple’s daughter Rose died in early September of 1917.  Left with four small children and mourning the loss of her eldest daughter, Aline Kilmer would also have been well-acquainted with death and loneliness.  In early 1918, she wrote another poem:

In Spring

I do not know which is worse when you are away:
Long grey days with the lisping sound of the rain
And then when the lilac dusk is beginning to fall
The thought that perhaps you may never come back again;
Or days when the world is a shimmer of blue and gold,
Sparkling newly all in the dear spring weather,
When with a heart that is torn apart by pain
I walk alone in ways that we went together.  

Joyce Kilmer was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30th, 1918. 
* Bert Hall, One Man’s War: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, H. Holt, 1929, pp. 135, 144. 167. 
** Hall, One Man’s War, p. 167.
*** Edwin C. Parsons, The Great Adventure: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937, pp. 72-73. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Bringing the war home

Homecoming, Queenslander 6 Dec 1919 

What was it like to survive the trenches and return from the First World War?  Australian Leon Gellert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force just eighteen days after Britain declared war in August of 1914.  He was part of the 10th Battalion’s landing force at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 and described the experience:
Leon Gellert in 1920s, photo by May Moore
National Library of Australia P653/46
I can remember crawling over the side and fixing my bayonet as I stood in water up to my waste [sic] and I can remember wading to the coarse land and stepping over dead men as I raced to the cliff face. Everybody was rushing madly up the cliffs. Rifles were snapping; shells were bursting; in front bayonets were glistening in the half life; and behind us was the roar of the ships…. It was nothing but charging black bushes and dark valleys for me, stumbling through streams of mud, tripping over fallen branches and hearing hurried warnings…. Everybody seemed to be getting hit. Men that we had lived and laughed with were crawling red and torn upon the grass, or lying in ragged pools of wet blood. Men touched me as they twisted and died. A man cried for a stretcher bearer near me, and asked me to kill him.  Then the reinforcements came. We had a great victory, but the sight of the dead next morning was awful—hundreds and hundreds lying in bunches near the trenches.*

Wounded by shrapnel and weakened by blood poisoning and dysentery, Gellert was evacuated to Malta in July and then sent to England for further medical attention.  There, he was diagnosed with epilepsy and declared unfit for further military service.  Gellert’s biographer, Gavin Souter, writes, “Although epilepsy was never diagnosed later in his life, Gellert had certainly been exposed to the risk of shell shock, for which ‘epilepsy’ sometimes served as a synonym.”*  Still, almost unbelievably, upon his return to Australia in November of 1916, Gellert re-enlisted in the army, but was discharged after only four days when his medical history was discovered.**
            In another account of his time at Gallipoli, Gellert related that he was part of a burial detail for a close friend of his who had been “hit by a shell when drying himself on the beach after a swim.” Gellert recalled, “All that was left we put into a sack with a shovel.  His head alone was untouched; the shell had burst on his stomach.  Every day brings its horror but no one seems to care.”* His poem “The Husband,” published in 1917, offers a disturbingly honest account of the war that soldiers brought home with them and the ways it changed them. 

1928 film poster
The Husband

Yes, I have slain, and taken moving life
From bodies.  Yea! And laughed upon the taking;
And, having slain, have whetted still the knife
For more and more, and heeded not the making
Of things that I was killing.  Such ’twas then!
But now the thirst so hideous has left me.
I live within a coolness, among calm men,
And yet am strange.  A something has bereft me
Of a seeing, and strangely love returns;
And old desires half-known, and hanging sorrows.
I seem agaze with wonder.  Memory burns.
I see a thousand vague and sad tomorrows.
None sees my sadness.  No one understands
How I must touch her hair with bloody hands.
            — Leon Gellert, February, 1916

Published eighteen years later, British writer Elizabeth Daryush also wrote of the “impassable gulf”† that the First World War erected between the men who had fought and the women who loved them.


Brunswick, Australia, post-war
She said to one: ‘How glows
My heart at the hot thought
Of battle’s glorious throes!’
He said: ‘For us who fought
Are icy memories
That must for ever freeze
The sunny hours they bought.’

She said to one: ‘How light
Must your freed heart be now,
After the heavy fight!”
He said: ‘Well I don’t know…
The war gave one a shake,
Somehow, knocked one awake…
Now, life’s so deadly slow.’ 
            — Elizabeth Daryush

In May of 1916, while recovering from his injuries, Leon Gellert wrote a poem that anticipated the struggle of returning home; here are the first and last stanzas of that poem:

The Return

Graves at Gallipoli
I have come home again!
Dawn is a dream to me
Lying here, soon to be
Clinging, awaking;
See where ‘tis breaking
Mockingly, mistily!
I have come home again!

I must away again!
Since I have lived this day
Here, now I cannot stay
Back with the changing sky,
I must away to die;
Die in the proper way.
I must away again!
            —Leon Gellert

Both poets attest to the fact that the war lasted long after the Armistice was signed in November of 1918. 
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- *Leon Gellert quoted in Gavin Souter’s A Torrent of Words: Leon Gellert: A Writer’s Life, Brindabella Press, 1996.
** Gavin Souter, “Gellert, Leon Maxwell (1892-1977),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 May 2018.  
† Edmund Blunden quoted in Claire M. Tylee’s Great War and Women’s Consciousness, Springer, 1989, p. 54.  
†† A junior officer in the British army below the rank of captain (most often, a second lieutenant).