Monday, January 15, 2018

Only a Boche

French soldier, German POWs, Red Cross ambulance driver
“It was eerie never to see Germans, or almost never,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.* Fussell relates a British soldier’s first impression on seeing German prisoners of war:
Germans!....Even in the tumult of a few hours ago they had been distant and such very ‘unknown,’ mysterious, invisible beings….One felt, “So this is the Enemy. These are the firers of those invisible shots, those venomous machine guns, all the way from Germany and here at last we meet.”* 

In David Jones’ epic poem of the Great War, In Parenthesis, the Welsh soldier dedicates his work to friends and fellow soldiers, but also includes “the enemy front-fighters who shared our pains against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.”** 

“So this is the Enemy”—venomous brutes or comrades in misadventure? Soldiers and civilians on all sides wrestled to define their adversaries in terms that would make the killing easier and the war justifiable.  Actual meetings between adversaries complicated the stereotypes.

Only a Boche†

We brought him in from between the lines: we’d better have let him lie;
For what’s the use of risking one’s skin for a tyke that's going to die?
What’s the use of tearing him loose under a gruelling fire,
When he’s shot in the head, and worse than dead, and all messed up on the wire?

However, I say, we brought him in.  Diable! The mud was bad;
The trench was crooked and greasy and high, and oh, what a time we had!
And often we slipped, and often we tripped, but never he made a moan;
And how we were wet with blood and with sweat! but we carried him in like our own.

Now there he lies in the dug-out dim, awaiting the ambulance,
And the doctor shrugs his shoulders at him, and remarks, “He hasn’t a chance.”
And we squat and smoke at our game of bridge on the glistening, straw-packed floor,
And above our oaths we can hear his breath deep-drawn in a kind of snore.

German WWI postcard
For the dressing station is long and low, and the candles gutter dim,
And the mean light falls on the cold clay walls and our faces bristly and grim;
And we flap our cards on the lousy straw, and we laugh and jibe as we play,
And you’d never know that the cursed foe was less than a mile away.
As we con our cards in the rancid gloom, oppressed by that snoring breath,
You’d never dream that our broad roof-beam was swept by the broom of death.

Heigh-ho! My turn for the dummy hand; I rise and I stretch a bit;
The fetid air is making me yawn, and my cigarette’s unlit,
So I go to the nearest candle flame, and the man we brought is there,
And his face is white in the shabby light, and I stand at his feet and stare.
Stand for a while, and quietly stare: for strange though it seems to be,
The dying Boche on the stretcher there has a queer resemblance to me.

It gives one a kind of a turn, you know, to come on a thing like that.
It’s just as if I were lying there, with a turban of blood for a hat,
Lying there in a coat grey-green instead of a coat grey-blue,
With one of my eyes all shot away, and my brain half tumbling through;
Lying there with a chest that heaves like a bellows up and down,
And a cheek as white as snow on a grave, and lips that are coffee brown.

Photo captured at Amiens of German children
Australian soldier wrote, "A souvenir like this
I think helps us to remember that
there is another side to war."
(Australian War Memorial P00167.002)
And confound him, too! He wears, like me, on his finger a wedding ring,
And around his neck, as around my own, by a greasy bit of string,
A locket hangs with a woman's face, and I turn it about to see:
Just as I thought . . . on the other side the faces of children three;
Clustered together cherub-like, three little laughing girls,
With the usual tiny rosebud mouths and the usual silken curls.
“Zut!” I say. “He has beaten me; for me, I have only two,”
And I push the locket beneath his shirt, feeling a little blue.

Oh, it isn’t cheerful to see a man, the marvellous work of God,
Crushed in the mutilation mill, crushed to a smeary clod;
Oh, it isn’t cheerful to hear him moan; but it isn’t that I mind,
It isn’t the anguish that goes with him, it’s the anguish he leaves behind.
For his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain,
And the death he dies, those who live and love, will die again and again.

So here I am at my cards once more, but it’s kind of spoiling my play,
Thinking of those three brats of his so many a mile away.
War is war, and he’s only a Boche, and we all of us take our chance;
But all the same I'll be mighty glad when I’m hearing the ambulance.
One foe the less, but all the same I’m heartily glad I’m not
The man who gave him his broken head, the sniper who fired the shot.

No trumps you make it, I think you said? You'll pardon me if I err;
For a moment I thought of other things . . .Mon Dieu! Quelle vache de guerre.
            —Robert Service

German POWs
In the dim, shabby light of the dug-out, Robert Service illuminates the paradoxes of war.  Stretcher-bearers struggle to save men who will die – as well as aiding those who will live, only so they can be sent back to the front to be killed.  Survival often seems to hinge upon cultivating an indifferent blindness.  The stretcher-bearers try to lose themselves in a card game, laughing away their own danger and ignoring the dying German soldier they have recently risked their lives to save.

French and Germans alike are “crushed in the mutilation mill,” but the poem asserts that the real dangers are not physical but psychological.  The French soldier in his coat of grey-blue is distracted not by the thought of the dying German, but by the image of his enemy’s family: “his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain.”  While a soldier can die only once, survivors are doomed to re-live his death over and over – haunting both his family and loved ones, as well as the sniper who shot him.

Canadian writer Robert Service is best known for his rollicking, comic ballads of the Yukon, poems such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “the Cremation of Sam McGee” (another of his war poems is here).  But while volunteering as an ambulance driver at the front, Service penned accounts of his war experience that were published in the Toronto Daily Star.  In an excerpt titled “The Baptism of Fire,” Service describes arriving at an aid station where he is told of “two men wounded, by a grenade.  There is a third, but we want you to wait a little for him.  We think he is dying.”  When the aid station comes under attack from German shellfire, Service crawls beneath his ambulance, seeking shelter. His narrative continues,
“Every shell-scream is an interrogation; the answer—what?”
...Then the doctor hails me from his shelter.
“Ah, the Boches will have their little joke. This place is not quite safe.  You must not stay here too long.”
I agree.  It is not exactly the place I would choose for a picnic. I am not lingering just for the fun of the thing.  I am waiting for a man to die. (In my heart I believe I wish he’d hurry up and do it.”)
When the shelling stops, Service quickly drives the two wounded men away from the front-line aid post, writing, “I cannot help looking back.  There, a corrugated line against the sky is the German trench, more silent, more deserted, more innocent-looking than ever.”††  

Questions without answers, the wait for men to die, and an awareness of one’s own callousness and affinity with the enemy: Robert Service understood the complexities of war.
 *Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford, 2000, p. 76. 
**David Jones, In Parenthesis, Faber & Faber, 1978, n.p. 
†Derogatory slang term for Germans.
††Robert Service, cited in Canadian Poetry from World War I, edited by Joel Baetz, Oxford, 2009, pp. 162-163. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

At the Front

German field hospital
German writer Wilhelm Klemm, born in Leipzig in 1881, was trained as a physician.  In 1915, serving as a doctor with the German army in Flanders, Klemm published his first volume of poetry titled Gloria! War Poems from the Field.  An American review in 1916 named Klemm as one of two “young artists who preferred emphasizing the realities of war to boasting their ‘Veterlandsliebe [Patriotism]’” and compared his work to Walt Whitman’s Drum-taps.*

At the Front

Woodcut from Gloria! by Wilhelm Klemm
The countryside is desolate.
The fields look tear-stained.
A grey cart is going along an evil road.
The roof has slipped off a house.
Dead horses lie rotting in pools.

The brown lines back there are trenches.
On the horizon a farm is taking its time to burn.
Shells explode, echo away, pop, pop pauuu.

Clouds of shrapnel burst open and fade away.
A defile takes us in. Infantrymen are halted there, wet and muddy.
Death is as much a matter of indifference as the rain which is coming on.
Who cares about yesterday, today, or tomorrow?

And the barbed wire runs across the whole of Europe.
The forts sleep gently.
Villages and towns stink out of their terrible ruins.
Like broken dolls the dead lie between the lines.
            —Wilhelm Klemm, translated by Patrick Bridgwater

Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix
It is tempting to contrast Klemm’s poetry with that of another military doctor serving in the Ypres Salient, John McCrae, the Canadian physician who wrote “In Flanders Fields.” Klemm paints the war in dreary tones of brown and grey, a foul-smelling miasma of rot and stench. Larks do not bravely sing, nor do poppies blow in the desolate fields of “At the Front.”  The dead do not rest beneath crosses, but instead lie unburied between the lines, “like broken dolls.”

Contrasted with the active challenge of the
dead in McCrae’s poem (“Take up our quarrel with the foe”), both the dead and living men in Klemm’s poem are depicted as immobile, numb, and indifferent.  Instead, it is the anthromorphized countryside, villages, and objects of war that live, breathe, and act: roofs slip off homes, farms burn in a leisurely manner, shrapnel and shells burst and explode, while forts quietly sleep, and barbed wire stretches itself across the continent of Europe.  
Wilhelm Klemm

Klemm chose a quotation from Goethe to introduce his collection of war poetry: “Alles vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (Everything is only a parable or Every fleeting thing is only a simile).  In what ways might “At the Front” invite readers to a deeper understanding of life at the front? Caught up in the paralysis of war, the speaker of Klemm’s poem can only bear witness, much like Whitman in his poem “The Wound-Dresser”:

Aroused and angry,
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead. 

Perhaps that is the lesson: awful silence may be needed before violence can be stilled.  
* Alec W. G. Randall, “German Poets and the War.” The Living Age, Vol. 289, no. 3745, 15 April, 1916, p. 189.
A military term used to refer to a narrow pass through which soldiers can advance only in single file or a narrow column.   

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Red Christmas

“On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year.  And there would be nearly four more years of attrition—not to determine who was right, but who was left.” 
              - Stanley Weintraub, Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914

As Christmas of 1915 approached, military authorities on both sides did everything in their power to prevent a repeat of the previous year’s unofficial Christmas truce, during which soldiers had met in No Man’s Land to swap gifts and cigarettes, bury their dead, and play a game of football.  In December of 1915, the British high command ordered “nothing of the kind is be allowed this year,” while Germans were warned that any attempts to fraternize with the enemy would “result in execution.” And yet in France at Laventie, British and German soldiers defied orders and met in No Man’s Land to exchange souvenirs, sing carols, and bury the dead.* It was an isolated occurrence.

Harefield Hospital, London, Christmas 1915
In England, darkened cities lived under blackout orders and in fear of Zeppelin raids; hospitals were filled with the wounded of Gallipoli and the Western Front, and many had put aside their gay apparel and donned black in mourning for those who would never return. 

On Christmas Day of 1915, the London Spectator published a poem written by William Henry Draper, the rector of Adel’s parish church near Leeds.  Draper’s four sons were fighting in the war.  His second son, Captain Roger Francis Draper, had been killed at Sulva Bay on August 21st, just four months earlier. 

The Red Christmas

“In these days even our wedding bells ring with sombre and muffled sound.”
            —Mr. Asquith, in the Speaker's Library, November 25, 1915

O take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry,

For all the lads are gone away
And all the girls look sad to-day,
There's no one left with them to play,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Dare be merry.
Then take away the mistletoe
And bring the holly berry.
Roger Francis Draper
 IWM Lives of the First World War

But oh its leaves are fresh and green,

Why bring the holly berry?
Because it wears the red, red hue,
The colour to the season true,
When war must have his tribute due,
And only birds and babes and things unknowing
Can be merry.
So take away the mistletoe,

Yet keep the holly berry.

And shall we never see again

Aught but the holly berry?
Yes, after sacrifice sublime,
When rings some later Christmas chime,
When dawns the new and better time,
Not only birds and babes and things unknowing
Shall be merry,

But you shall see the mistletoe
Twined with the holly berry.
            —W.H. Draper

How does one celebrate Christmas while experiencing world-shattering grief?  The poem’s title, “Red Christmas,” suggests a holiday awash in blood.  Mistletoe—associated with love and laughter, luck and vitality—is banished.  But “bring the holly berry,” the scarlet fruit, like poppies, associated with the dead of the war.

Known in Scandinavia as “Christ’s Thorn,” the holly of Christmas also recalls Christ’s suffering and death. Its prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns, and its red berries symbolize drops of Jesus’s blood. The evergreen holly is a vivid reminder of sacrifice even as it decks the halls to celebrate a miraculous birth.  In the midst of present darkness, the poem looks forward to a time when “after sacrifice sublime,” a “new and better time” will dawn. 

Adel St. John's WWI Memorial
That time was far distant for W.H. Draper. His eldest son, Second Lieutenant Mark Denman Draper, was killed in an airplane accident on February 7, 1917, and his third son, Lieutenant William Penrhyn Bodington Draper, died on May 15, 1918 from wounds suffered at the Second Battle of Lys.  Only his youngest son, John Godfrey Beresford Draper, survived the war; he was gassed in 1917 and invalided home.†

In a book of poetry published before the war, Draper had written an untitled Christmas poem.  When read with the knowledge that three of his sons died in the Great War, its last lines are heart-rending:

Father of Lights! be with us
When earthly light sinks low,
That we may find hereafter
The love of long ago.††

*Joe Shute, “The forgotten Christmas truce the British tried to suppress,” Telegraph, 26 Dec. 2015,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
† Andrew Robinson, “The Great War’s test of faith for church rector,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 1 Aug. 2014,, Accessed 10 Dec. 2017.
†† W. H. Draper, “When on the Eve of Christmas,” Poems of the Love of England, Chatto & Windus, 1914, p. v.