Jutland

My grandfather, Reginald Drew, from Paignton, Devon, England participated in this famous naval battle in WW I.  He was injured by shrapnel.  He was sixteen-years old, having lied about his age when he signed up:

jutland

The Battle of Jutland (known as the Battle of Skagerrak in Germany), fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet in 1916, was the largest surface naval battle of the metal ship era, the only major fleet action of World War 1, and the last major fleet action that the participants will ever fight.  It also played a key role in the demise of the reputation of battlecruiser, saw the first use of a carrier based aircraft in battle and is one of the most controversial naval actions in the Royal Navy’s long history.

Grandad was incalculably proud of his war effort and his membership in the Royal Navy.  He sported several tattooes on his arm, acquired during the Great War.  He married my grandmother and left Engand well before the beginning of WW II.  He was the best man I ever knew.

WW I Poet

Apologia Pro Poemate Meo

I, too, saw God through mud –
   The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
   War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
   And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.
Merry it was to laugh there –
   Where death becomes absurd and life absurder.
   For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
   Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

I, too, have dropped off fear –
   Behind the barrage, dead as my platoon,
   And sailed my spirit surging, light and clear
   Past the entanglement where hopes lay strewn;

And witnessed exultation –
   Faces that used to curse me, scowl for scowl,
   Shine and lift up with passion of oblation,
   Seraphic for an hour; though they were foul.

I have made fellowships –
   Untold of happy lovers in old song.
   For love is not the binding of fair lips
   With the soft silk of eyes that look and long,

By Joy, whose ribbon slips, –
   But wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong;
   Bound with the bandage of the arm that drips;
   Knit in the welding of the rifle-thong.

I have perceived much beauty
   In the hoarse oaths that kept our courage straight;
   Heard music in the silentness of duty;
   Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share
   With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
   Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
   And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
   You shall not come to think them well content
   By any jest of mine. These men are worth
   Your tears: You are not worth their merriment.

Wilfred Owen

Stagecraft & Poetry

From “Bullets and Mud: a stage poem inspired by Wilfred Owen”:

[…]

There’s Death waiting to shave me

                  With his scythe

 

I told my brother

I know I shall be killed

But this is the only place

That I can make my protest from

 

I came to help these boys

By leading them as well

As an officer can

By watching their sufferings

That I may speak as well

As a pleader can

 

After all the shells we’ve been through

And the gas

These bullets are a gentle rain

From heaven

 

Or, they are arrowheads of political error

And insincerity on which young men

Are being sacrificed

 

 

Death’s not my enemy

Though I can’t stand

The green thick odour of his breath

My enemies are those who talk

Of “attrition” and “sustaining damage”

Those whose imaginations have shrunk

To the size of a flag, those who still believe

A corpse missing half a face

Has any use of nationality

 

I have been urged by an earnest viola

To lay my chest to the ground

And submit to the pounding shells

The newest rhythm in the earth

 

 

I was reborn through Keats

And reared again by sweet Sassoon

But why poetry, I could not say

Except that it gives me a strange solitude

When I resort to it and stranger

Friends when I resort to them

And even if I don’t know why poetry

Or what I really want I do know

What I don’t want:

Preserve me from old women

Without wit or wisdom

Preserve me from young women

With gush and no beauty

Preserve me from women

Of beauty and no charm; but take

No measures against women of charm

And no beauty, for they are the sugar

Of the earth

Preserve me from men in waistcoats

Shirt cuffs and braces of a Sunday afternoon

Preserve me from the man who sits

In stocking feet of an evening

And scratches his big toe with his heel

Preserve me from the youth

Who carries a pencil in his right ear;

But preserve the cigarette in the ear of a Tommy

For it is his last

Preserve me from people who eat eggs

When I don’t want any

Preserve me from all ships

In glass bottles, plush chairs

Group photographs, flowers under glass

Shades and shells-pictures-frames

 

And especially preserve me

From armchair generals and politicians

Who prolong suffering for their own ends

 

[…]

 

Read the whole thing here

 

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, with notes

 

Wilfred Owen, 1893 – 1918

A Multitude of Causes

Two authors, two novels, two wars: a review of The Great Ponds by Elechi Amadi and Battle Songs by Paul G. Zolbrod:

The Great Ponds narrates a local dispute over fishing rights between two villages within a single Nigerian clan, which the author calls the Erekwi. This dispute escalates into a total disaster for the disputants and their widening circle of allies. By the end of the book, the local conflict has turned into an allegory of WW1. Battle Songs follows four bare-knuckle brawlers from the Pennsylvania coalmining country to the Korean killing fields, from which only one will escape alive. This novel recalls another key matrix of 20th-century conflict, the so-called Cold War.

The biographies of the two authors, both still living, ripple in complicated ways through other battles of our times. Amadi (b.1934) belongs to a small Nigerian nationality that has traditionally been oppressed by the larger Igbo one. After studying science at the University of Ibadan, he became a teacher, then served as a captain in the Federal army during the Biafran (i.e. Igbo) secession/Nigerian civil war from 1967-70. Having completed The Great Ponds (1969), his nuanced, balanced anti-war novel, he proceeded to write a pro-Federal apologia in the form of a memoir, Sunset in Biafra (1973). In the 1980s-90s, he held two ministerial portfolios, one of which was education, in the Rivers State local government, situated at the heart of the region where oil conflicts between the Federal government and his own nationality (and others) rage on today.

Zolbrod (b.1932) comes from the same socio-cultural-geographical background as his four protagonists. He went through basic training for the Korean War, but did not serve. Instead, he went to college and graduate school, then became a professor and prominent folklorist, specializing in Navajo culture. “Retiring” after 32 years from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, he taught for 12 more years at Crownpoint, a community college on the Reservation, simultaneously working as an advocate for the tribe. Having grown up in a culture of brawlers, Zolbrod has in recent years become a participant in conflicts between the Navajo nation and the Arizona and federal governments.

[…]

Like the Erekwi villagers, the young bloods in Zolbrod’s Pennsylvania coal country are bred to war. But theirs is not an intact, happy culture. Whereas the Erekwi are ennobled by work and play, the Pennsylvanians are brutalized by the mines and by the boozing and brawling in which they seek refuge. Violence is as ritualized in Pennsylvanian culture as it is among the Erekwi, but in the mining towns the violence seems constant and compulsive.

“Back in the coal country, there was always one guy in every town who could lick all the rest. Every once in a while, after a dance, someone gets the notion that he can knock off the top man. So they go out behind the dance hall and fight. If the top guy wins, well, he’s still the top guy. But if the challenger wins, then everybody wants to take a crack at him. At first there are a lot of fights, because everybody thinks he can lick the new topper.” (21)

Even marriage here can be war. The most sensitive of the four protagonists, Dick, recalls being shuffled back and forth between his separated parents, both of whom would question him, “wondering how much progress the other had made in their war with each other (109).”

Unlike the Chiolu, the Pennsylvanian boys are drafted into a distant war the real causes of which they have no inkling. Their distant leaders are as capricious as Greek gods, as inscrutable as the Judeo-Christian one. As their terrible experience of the Korean War (in which a million died) proceeds, their anguish is intensified by the ethical ambivalence mentioned by Diamond. Not that their physical sufferings aren’t bad enough, combat in the terrible cold of the Korean peninsula against an implacable enemy who seems to come at them in overwhelming numbers. Zolbrod is as graphic as possible in describing the physical horrors of this war:

“As he drew closer, he smelled an odor that reminded him of the smell of newly scattered manure that covered the fields of Butler [Pennsylvania] every Spring. The room was thick with that strong, warm odor, which hung like smoke and filled his nostrils at once. …And now he saw the man who lay there, naked, his face up, his eyes slightly closed, his mouth agape and nearly toothless, covered to the waist with a sheet. His skin was dark, almost black, but of a darkness not of the Negro race. It was the darkness of skin charred, burned away by some corrosive force. … This man’s skin was taut and scaly, and some of its flakes had actually fallen away from his body and now lay in small, translucent circles at his sides.” (123)

These sufferings are intensified by the abiding perception that the war makes no sense. We see this senselessness through multiple lenses, including the naive point of view of Ben, an ultimate warrior who is mentally handicapped.

“…anyone who threatened to harm his friends was the enemy. He hated the Chinese not because they were Communists – he did not know what Communism was and he didn’t care – but because they might kill Fran or Dick or Sam (60).” In Dante’s Hell, the agonies fit the crimes. Here, the agonies are endured by pawns of distant criminals who are indicted by the author, but never brought to trial.

[…]

Battle Songs casts a sinister light on Viet Nam and Iraq, both of which have repeated the Korean tragedy of huge losses inflicted and suffered in the name of dubious, unclear motives. The zweikampf of the so-called Cold War has now been succeeded by a multitude of horrendous conflicts in the name of a multitude of plausible causes.

nth position