Monday, December 4, 2017

Still Raining


French WWI illustrator, Ernest Gabard
The term “weather front” originated during the First World War, the name coming directly from the battle fronts of the war.* Life in the trenches was miserable, and soldiers on all sides fought the weather. At times it seemed as if the rain would never end, and some believed “that God was unleashing a second Deluge to extinguish the madness of his creatures.”** The constant rainfall is described by German soldier Erich Maria Remarque in his novel All Quiet on the Western Front:

Behind us lay rainy weeks—grey sky, grey fluid, grey dying. If we go out, the rain at once soaks through our overcoat and clothing;--and we remain wet all the time we are in the line.  We never get dry….Our hands are earth, our bodies clay, and our eyes pools of rain.***

Men drowned in the mud, died of exposure, and suffered the agonies of trench foot. British poet Edmond Blunden wrote of a world engulfed by rain:

Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.†

French soldier Louis Barthas describes the hardships that the weather inflicted on the men, the torrents that transformed trenches into open sewers and collapsed trench walls: “But another enemy arrived: the rain, against which we had no defense at all.”††

The truth of the war was never easily shared with loved ones on the home front. French soldier-poet Noël Granier’s “Still Raining” exposes the tender lies that both a mother and a son share as they attempt to reassure one another with the comforting small talk of the weather.

Still Raining

To my father, whose ‘motherly’ letters were always ‘fine weather’

‘How like the dead we look, in the glisten
of early, inevitably raining, dawn…
It rained all yesterday, and the day before,
it’s been raining, day and night, the whole War!
We look so like the dead, in their misery.’

French soldier writing letter
‘The sun was out…’ – When? I can’t remember…
last year… or the year before, perhaps?
Yesterday? – Rained harder than ever!
Or else I’ve forgotten… Can’t remember:
                        I didn’t get a letter.

How lucky you are to have a mother –
the weather’s always fine in mothers’ letters,
and, in your replies, it’s always sunny;
the poor dear things would be so upset
if you didn’t always say ‘It’s sunny.

‘No, I’ve not been cold, and today
there’s a swallow twittering away.
I tell you, spring has well and truly come –
Yes, that naughty winter’s gone away,
that worried you so much, my dearest Mum!’

– Sweet pleasure, so to lie to those you love,
with the words of every day, the only ones
we truly understand, which never change
and never lose, as they journey on, the love
they bring from the lips that gave them shape.
            —Noël Garnier, translated by Ian Higgins

Rain has blurred the world, its grey shroud wrapping the dead and the living alike in a veil of darkness and gloom. But language holds the power to shape an alternative reality, and there is “sweet pleasure” in lies that recall and recreate simple exchanges of intimacy, love, and home.  Garnier’s own mother had died in childbirth when he was a young boy, but he was close to his father, a pharmacist from the village of Fréjus.

While the poem defends the lies of war between soldiers and their families, Noel Garnier was unwilling to lie about the waste and evils of the war itself.  In 1920, he published his volume of pacifist war poetry, Le don de ma Mère. Shortly thereafter, the French Minister of War "issued an edict withdrawing the Cross of Chevalier of the Legion of Honor and the Croix de Guerre from the young French poet, Noel Garnier, because of certain socialistic tendencies which have been evident in his verse of late."†††

Garnier had been awarded military honors for his actions during the war, during which time he had written his poems while “on permission and on repos, but he kept them to himself.”•
After the war when the poet had been stripped of his medals, an editorial appeared in The Nation that included his original citation for exceptional bravery:

M. Garnier, Noel, second lieutenant in the 11th regiment of hussars, attached to the 15th battalion of chasseurs, is named to the order of the Legion of Honor, with the rank of knight: A young second lieutenant transferred at his own request from the cavalry to a battalion of chasseurs. Volunteered to establish communication between two companies placed, on September 14, in a very delicate position; struck by three bullets in the thigh and one in the arm, very seriously wounded, he succeeded in dragging himself across the ground to fulfil his mission.  Had himself carried on a stretcher to his chef de corps and before mentioning his wounds gave a detailed report on his reconnaissance.  Proved a heroism which will never be surpassed.  Two citations.  PETAIN••

Granier’s poetry was viewed as such a threat to the good of France that it negated the heroism of his military service. In the end, French authorities determined that the poet’s words spoke louder than his actions. 
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 * Jason Meyers, “War and the weather: Why we call them fronts,” Weathersphere, 7 Dec. 2015, www.weathersphere.com/war-and-the-weather-why-we-call-them-fronts/, Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.
** Louis Barthas, Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, translated by Edward Strauss, Yale, 2014, p. 27.
*** Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front translated by A.W. Wheen, Ballantine, 1982,  pp. 286-287.
† Edmund Blunden, “Third Ypres,” The Poems of Edmund Blunden, Cobden-Sanderson, 1930, p. 153.
†† Bartas, Poilu, p. 27.
†††“First Aid to Socialism,” Life Magazine, vol. 76, no. 1974, 2 Sept. 1920, p. 410.
• The Drifter, “In the Driftway,” The Nation, vol. 111, 10 Nov. 1920, p. 532.
•• The Drifter, “In the Driftway,” p. 532.

2 comments:

  1. Good poem to prove that the English do not have a monopoly on an obsession with weather - I suspect that all soldiers in the field have such a thing as it influences both the fight and the R & R equally. Northern France and Flanders are totally different places depending on the weather today for any battlefield visitor - for the troglodytic trench dweller the affect must have been amplified massively with good summer weather being a trial in the front line. the removal of Garnier's gallantry award was scandalous but his citation is imperishable proof of his bravery. I have been blessed with good weather on my last 3 visits to the Western Front - sunbathing in the Grand Place Ypres in November! - a degree of luck that I did not deserve but was thankful for . Ian

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    Replies
    1. Blessed indeed, Ian! "Troglodytic trench dweller" -- you and Fussell have found the perfect metaphor to suggest the misery when it is still raining, still raining, still raining.

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