Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Not a pawn

Békássy at Cambridge
Békássy in uniform

Ferenc Békássy is a poet whose name has been all but forgotten outside his native Hungary.  As a student at King’s College, Cambridge before the war, Békássy competed with Rupert Brooke for the affections of Noël Olivier and was a close friend of John Maynard Keynes. When the First World War broke out in August of 1914, it was Keynes who helped Békássy to return to Austria-Hungary, where he enlisted as a Hussar. Battling against Russian troops on the Eastern Front, Békássy was killed on June 22, 1915,  just four days after arriving at the front lines. He was twenty-two years old.  His poetry was published in 1925 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the small volume Adriatic and Other Poems. 

Békássy’s poem “1914” recalls Josef Stalin’s quotation, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” Over 17 million died in the First World War, a grim statistic. The tragedy of the war is perhaps better understood in stories and poetry. 


He went without fears, went gaily, since go he must,
And drilled and sweated and sang, and rode in the heat and dust
Of the summer; his fellows were round him, as eager as he,
While over the world the gloomy days of the war dragged heavily.
Victorious Assault, R.A. Höger 
He fell without a murmur in the noise of battle; found rest
’Midst the roar of hooves on the grass, a bullet struck through his breast.
Perhaps he drowsily lay; for him alone it was still,
And the blood ran out of his body, it had taken so little to kill.
So many thousands lay round him, it would need a poet, maybe,
Or a woman, or one of his kindred, to remember that none were as he;
It would need the mother he followed, or the girl he went beside
When he walked the paths of summer in the flush of his gladness and pride,

To know that he was not a unit, a pawn whose place can be filled;
Not blood, but the beautiful years of his coming life have been spilled,
The days that should have followed, a house and a home, maybe,
For a thousand may love and marry and nest, but so shall not he.
Hungary Landscape Faluszélén Laszlo Neogrady
When the fires are alight in the meadow, the stars in the sky,
And the young moon drives its cattle, the clouds graze silently,
When the cowherds answer each other and their horns sound loud and clear,
A thousand will hear them, but he, who alone understood, will not hear.

His pale poor body is weak, his heart is still, and a dream
His longing, his hope, his sadness. He dies, his full years seem
Drooping palely around, they pass with his breath
Softly, as dreams have an end -- it is not a violent death.

My days and the world’s pass dully, our times are ill;
For men with labour are born, and men, without wishing it, kill.
Shadow and sunshine, twist a crown of thorns for my head!
Mourn, O my sisters! Singly, for a hundred thousand dead.*

Repeatedly, the poem asks us to lay aside our preconceptions and stereotypes so that we may better understand and empathize with the individuals whose lives were forever changed by the First World War. From the first stanza, the young recruit who went to war gaily and eagerly is contrasted with the general mood of the time. We are asked to see his personal reactions as distinct from that time when the “gloomy days of the war dragged heavily.”

This recruit, who set off so gaily, died alone, poignantly isolated from the action around him. Almost in wonder, the poem comments on how little it took to kill this one man, even as thousands lay dead around him in the incomprehensible slaughter of industrial warfare. 

How can such a death be understood? Only by perhaps a poet – or someone who knew and loved the uniqueness of this man. His mother, his sweetheart, his family: they alone would remember his lopsided grin, the tenor of his voice, the mannerisms and moods that were particularly his. Only those who loved him are able to defiantly assert that he was not a unit, not a pawn – he was more than cannon fodder; he was an irreplaceable soul. 

Tragically, not only is the uniqueness of the man gone forever, but also lost is the potential of his particular life, “the days that should have followed.” Carol Ann Duffy also laments this heartbreaking loss of potential in her poem “Last Post,” vainly hoping that time might be rewound and all can be restored.

Hungarian prayer for the fallen
But magical thinking will not rewind the war. The last stanza of Békássy’s “1914” has the feel of a Greek chorus: there is an inevitability to the death of this man and the millions like him, for the “times are ill.” Men kill one another “without wishing it,” while women are left to mourn each of the hundreds of thousands of deaths “singly,” each one a scar upon the heart and an emptiness that can never be filled. 

In his own death, Ferenc Békássy has literally been remembered "singly" at King’s College, Cambridge.  Although he died in the same war as his classmates, Békássy fought with the Central Powers, aligning himself with his home country, England’s enemy. In 1920, British families of those who had lost their sons in the war protested Békássy’s inclusion on the King’s College Chapel Roll of Honour. As a compromise in 1921, his name was inscribed on another wall of the chapel, where he is listed simply as a “Pensioner.” 

 *To view this poem in Hungarian or to read other Bekassy poems, see this link. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Clods on the heart

Kathe Kollwitz, Schlachtefeld/After the Battle
In 1915, British journalist, feminist, and pacifist Helena Swanwick wrote, “War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women…as well as upon men.” Most of the poetry of the First World War that is remembered, reprinted, and published in anthologies is written by men who were soldiers in the war. But we must also remember that “combat is not the sum total of war.”*  Too often, poetry written by women during the war has been forgotten or marginalized.

Mary Gilmore was an Australian journalist who campaigned to support better living conditions for indigenous people, working women, and children. She was also a poet who expressed her horror at the sufferings caused by "The Great War"; she donated the profits of one of her books to soldiers who had been blinded.

This blog’s previous post included Australian soldier Leon Gellert’s poem “Anzac Cove.” In that poem, Gellert acknowledges the war’s effects on civilians as he describes “the sound of gentle sobbing in the South.” Mary Gilmore’s poem “War” challenges this and other idealized images of grief.  Written from a mother's perspective on the home front,  the poem is laced with barely repressed anger.

Australians, Kerry Stokes Collection,
The Louis and Antoinette Thuillier Collection

Out in the dust he lies;
Flies in his mouth,
Ants in his eyes ...

I stood at the door
Where he went out;
Full-grown man,
Ruddy and stout;

I heard the march
Of the trampling feet,
Slow and steady
Come down the street;

The beat of the drum
Was clods on the heart,
For all that the regiment
Looked so smart!

I heard the crackle
Paths of Glory CRW Nevinson © IWM (Art.IWM ART 518)
Of hasty cheers
Run like the breaking
Of unshed tears,

And just for a moment,
As he went by,
I had sight of his face,
And the flash of his eye.

He died a hero's death,
They said,
When they came to tell me
My boy was dead;

But out in the street
A dead dog lies;
Flies in his mouth,
Ants in his eyes.
                 - Mary Gilmore

The poem is framed by a brutal and disturbing comparison: a mother flatly tells us that like the dead dog who lies in the street before her home, her son lies dead in the dust of a battlefield with “flies in his mouth, ants in his eyes.”  Unflinchingly, the bereft woman confronts the grim reality of death and decay.

Butte de Polygon, GE Butler
Archives New Zealand NCWA 456
She recalls watching her son, “ruddy and stout” march past their home as the soldiers left for the war, but even in the midst of others’ cheers, for her the beat of the regimental band foreshadowed the dropping notes of “clods on the heart" at a graveside burial. Where others saw dash and glory, she recognized emptiness and loss.

Although told that her son died as a hero, this mother resists the comfort of nationalistic platitudes.  She knows only that her world is forever changed; her son will never return.  She has been denied the closure of washing her son’s body and deprived of the comfort of preparing him for burial or visiting his grave.  Likening her son’s death to that of a dog’s, she can find no purpose in his sacrifice, no meaning in his loss, no glory in the war.

Jacqueline Manuel, quoting another Gilmore poem, notes, “there has been comparatively little attention accorded the writing of civilian Australian women - those so-called ordinary women who would ‘creep into bed in the dark and weep’** for those sons, husbands, lovers, fathers and friends who would never return.”***  Like so much of Mary Gilmore’s writing, her poem “The War” the poem is deeply subversive as it questions not only the personal tragedy of one man’s death, but the very purpose and meaning of war itself.

Mary Gilmore
 *  Margaret R. Higonnet, Women Writers of World War I, xxi.
 **  Mary Gilmore, "These Fellowing Men" in The Passionate Heart.
***  Jacqueline Manuel, “Australian civilian women's poetic responses to the First World War.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Anzac Cove

On May 10, 1916, the London Telegraph featured the story “Anzacs in France,” celebrating the arrival to the Western Front of “these splendid fighting men who have survived the heroic tragedy of the Dardanelles.” Leon Gellert had survived Gallipoli.  An Australian who had enlisted with the 10th Battalion just 18 days after Britain declared war on Germany, Gellert landed at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915, but shrapnel wounds, dysentery, and blood poisoning ended his war.  He was evacuated from the Dardanelles, and due to his injuries and epileptic symptoms, discharged from the military.

The Gallipoli campaign dragged on for another five months.  Turkish forces of the Ottoman Empire put up a strong resistance until the British withdrew from the Turkish peninsula on January 8, 1915.  The battle had lasted just over eight months, and neither side could claim a clear victory, but over 100,000 men from both sides of the conflict died, and over 230,000 were injured. Gellert’s poem “Anzac Cove” remembers not only the men who did not return home, but those who loved and would forever miss them.

Anzac Cove by George Lambert, © Australian War Memorial
Anzac Cove

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :

There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South. 

Here's a beautiful performance of the poem set to music (thanks to Marina Maxwell for sharing this gem).  

The poem never details the battle, nor does it describe the men who fought there.  Instead, 9 of the 12 lines of the poem narrate the landscape of Anzac Cove, beginning with There’s or There are as they sketch a picture of the scene. There’s a melancholy tenderness in the description, as if a soldier has returned home to tell the family of his dead mate, “Here is where he fought; this is where he lies.” The hills, forts, and beaches bear witness to the lonely desolation of war: what has been left behind is battered, broken, torn, and rotting.  Sunken graves mark the lines of buried bones, and the valley is silent.

The only sound that breaks the silence is that of “gentle sobbing in the South – the grief of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, wives and sweethearts who loved the men who fell at Gallipoli. 

Despite his efforts to rejoin the Australian Imperial Forces, Gellert was not among the Australians sent to France in the preparation for the battle of the Somme in July of 1916.  The London paper, in describing the Australian troops who arrived in France in the spring of 1916, characterized Gallipoli as a heroic tragedy, and it described the survivors as “hard fellows….with Homeric fighting qualities.”  As the Australians marched through a French market town, London correspondent Philip Gibbs noted,

Leon Gellert

“They had merry eyes (especially for the girls round the stalls), but resolute, clean-cut mouths, and they rode their horses with an easy grace in the saddle as though born to riding, and drove their wagons with a recklessness among the little booths that was justified by half an inch between an iron axle and an old woman’s table of coloured ribbons.  These clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered boys who had come out of the hell-fire of the Dardanelles…looked wonderfully fresh in France.  Youth, keen as steel, with a flash in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding down the street….For tough as they are, and keen as they are, many of the Australian soldiers are but grown-up children, with a splendid simplicity of youth, and the great gift of laughter.”

In less than six weeks, much of that youth and laughter would again be silenced and replaced yet once more by “a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.”   

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fifty sons

The night of May 16, 1916, Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh’s actions earned him the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry.”  As he led his Seaforth Highlanders in a raid on German trenches near Arras, sixteen of his men were wounded, two seriously.  Mackintosh carried one of the wounded, Private David Sutherland[i], over one-hundred yards through German trenches, with German troops in close pursuit.  Nineteen-year-old David Sutherland “died of his wounds as he was hoisted out of the trench and had to be left at the enemy front line” (Powell, A Deep Cry).  His body was never recovered, and Sutherland has no known grave.  He is just one of the nearly 35,000 men commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing at Faubourg d'Amiens military cemetery.   

Shortly after that night, Mackintosh[ii] wrote and dedicated the following poem to Private David Sutherland and other men under his command who had died in the war.  

In Memoriam
Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench,
May 16, 1916, and the Others Who Died

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

Twilight 1917 by CRW Nevinson
Art.IWM ART 5900
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight - 
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,

For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,

For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.
            -- by EA Mackintosh

The poem opens with “So you were David’s father” – putting us right in the moment at which the officer sits down to write an official letter of condolence.  Rather than an official letter, however, what Lieutenant Ewart Mackintosh writes is a poem that tries to make meaning out of the senseless death of a young man he had desperately tried to save.   

As an officer, Mackintosh would have had to read his men’s letters home, censoring all correspondence to ensure that no operational information was shared that could fall into enemy hands.  No letter could be mailed without first having been reviewed by an officer, and so Mackintosh would have known about his men’s homes and their families.  He recalls David’s reticence in sharing the hardships and dangers of battle with his family; instead, Private Sutherland was worried about his father alone on the farm, attempting to care for both sheep and crops without his son by his side. 

The officer tries to focus on the father’s sorrow[iii] – “just an old man in pain” – but his own grief overwhelms him and interrupts thoughts of Scottish crops and Highlands storms with the wrenching lines,

And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

Like a father with fifty sons under his command, Mackintosh vows, “never will I forget you,/
My men that trusted me.”  Unlike their fathers, however, Mackintosh’s last view of the young men who were like sons to him wasn’t as they appeared “in their pride” leaving to join the war, “happy and young and gallant.”  Instead, he witnessed and bore responsibility for “the beautiful men brought low,” the “strong limbs broken.”  It was Mackintosh who heard their screams, “Don’t leave me, sir,” and held their “piteous writhing bodies” as they died. 

This is a poem that Mackintosh never intended to send to David Sutherland’s father.  The officer knew how much the young private had shielded his father from the horrors of war, and he would have seen it as his duty to save David’s father from learning of his son’s last minutes of agony. 
Ewart Alan Mackintosh

Who, then, is the audience for the poem?  While the opening stanza begins by addressing David’s father, the last two verses of the poem shift, this time directly addressing the dead men of the Seaforth Highlanders.  In these stanzas, Mackintosh voices his personal grief, and the poem’s last line speaks directly to David Sutherland and John McDowell[iv]: “I was your officer.”  It is a haunting conclusion, communicating Mackintosh’s love and grief tinged with his guilt at being powerless to save them.  

By the spring of 1916, powerlessness was the central emotion that was shared by nearly everyone whose lives were touched by the Great War.   

[i] David Sutherland enlisted in the town of Reay (Caithness), and his family’s farm was in Achreamie, a village in the far north of Scotland.
[ii] Mackintosh’s poem “I Really Can’t Shoot a Man with a Cold” appeared on this blog 3 February, 2016. 
[iii] For another poem about a father who has lost his son, see MJ Henderson’s “The Seed Merchant’s Son,” posted on this blog 26 November, 2014. 
[iv] McDowell was the second man who died in the raid on 16 May, 1916.  He was from Belfast and is buried in the Commonwealth cemetery at Maroeuil, France. His widowed mother requested that his headstone be inscribed, “As long as life and memory last, he will never be forgotten.” 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sad streets of war

Village of Festubert, Photo Visa Paris
One hundred years ago, soldier-poet Edmund Blunden visited what remained of the village of Festubert in northern France.  A year earlier, on May 15th of 1915, the British had attacked Festubert in their first night attack of the war.  In the ten-day struggle that followed, the number of British dead and wounded grew to over 16,500, while the Germans suffered over 5,000 casualties.

Blunden’s poem “Festubert, 1916” isn’t about that attack.  Instead, the poem captures the moment a full year later when a battle-worn soldier visits the desolate village.  In the quiet of the ruins, he hears the echoes of men who fought and died; he is a silent witness to the fluttering grey rags of their decaying uniforms and the rusted remains of their discarded rifles.    

Festubert, 1916

Festubert ruins of church and dressing station,
Canada Dpt of National Defence PA004450
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;
In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there—and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags

Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own;
But now what once was mine is mine no more,
I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
With such strong gentleness and tireless will
Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.
--Edmund Blunden

These are the first two stanzas of Blunden’s longer poem (the entire poem can be read here), and they include some of my favorite lines from the poetry of the Great War:

and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
Its wounded length from those sad streets of war

The poem echoes with lonely exhaustion, and in its images we feel the heaviness of grief and empty loss. “Festubert, 1916” solemnly testifies to an inescapable truth: no matter how the war ends, the world will be forever changed.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Land of hope

 In spring, a young man’s fancies turn to…thoughts of war.  In the First World War, spring offensives demanded more men and fresh troops.  By the spring of 1916, the British introduced conscription (or as it’s known in the US, “the draft”) to supplement the hundreds of thousands of men who had been killed and wounded in the first eighteen months of the conflict. Beginning on 2 March, 1916, single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were obligated to serve if called up, and married men were added to the conscription lists on 25 May, 1916.

Many men fought because they had to, but many already in the British military had volunteered earlier in the war.  Why did men enlist? Why did men at the front continue to fight? Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley’s poem “Going to the Front” gives us a glimpse into the minds and motivations of men marching to battle one-hundred years ago in the Great War. 

Going to the Front

I had no heart to march for war
When trees were bare and fell the snow;
To go to-day is easier far
When pink and white the orchards blow,
While cuckoo calls and from the lilac bush

Carols at peace the well-contented thrush.

For now the gorse is all in flower,
The chestnut tapers light the morn,

Gold gleam the oaks, the sun has power
To robe the glittering plain with corn;
I hear from all the land of hope a voice
That bids me forward bravely and rejoice.

So merry are the lambs at play,
So cheerfully the cattle feed,

With such security the May
Has built green walls round every mead,
O'er happy roofs such grey old church-towers peep,
Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?

For hawthorn wreath, for bluebell glade,
For miles of buttercup that shine,

For song of birds in sun and shade
That fortify this soul of mine,
For all May joy beneath an English sky,
How sweet to live—how glad and good to die!

The poem celebrates spring as the perfect season for marching to war.  All of nature seems to celebrate with life and song: orchards blossom in pink and white; trees gleam gold in the morning light, and birds sing from the lilac bushes.  The sun coaxes green shoots of corn to growth, and lambs play in the meadows.  The scene resembles that of pastoral psalms found in the Bible, where “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” a far cry from the blasted, muddy landscapes of the Western Front. 

The English countryside is envisioned as a kind of paradise with its happy roofs, bluebell glades, and ancient church towers.  Ironically, it is this very scene of perfect peace that inspires a martial spirit, as the poem asks, “Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?” 

May, the season of rebirth and regrowth, provides a sense of timeless “security” that urges the men of England to leave their safe homes.  It is as if all of nature emboldens men as they march to war, proclaiming “How sweet to live – how glad and good to die.” 

Hardwicke Rawnsley
Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” harshly critiques the view that dying in battle is sweet or glorious, but Owen’s poems also are largely silent in celebrating the goodness of life.  The author of “Going to the Front,” Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, was a 64-year-old clergyman in the spring of 1916, far too old to go to war himself.  And while it is easy to dismiss Rawnsley’s poem as naïve propaganda or manipulative jingoism, the poem does give voice to reasons men actually were willing to fight and die for – for their homes, for their countryside.  Francis Ledwidge is just one of the young soldiers at the front who wrote poems that witness to the deep love of home that encouraged men at war. 

It seems fitting that Rawnsley’s legacy also rests in fighting for the countryside he so loved. In addition to being a poet, canon, and hymn writer, he was a tireless campaigner for the environment.  In 1883, he founded the Lake District Defense Society; he resisted railway proposals that would have cut through scenic wilderness areas, and he led public marches to advocate for the opening of public footpaths. In 1895, he and two friends (Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter ) met to strategize the formation of a national organization that would protect Britain’s countryside and history; today, Rawnsley is best known as one of the founders of the National Trust.

While it may be difficult today to understand how it can be considered “good and glad to die” in war, Rawnsley’s poem continues to challenge us with the question, “Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?”