Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Good-bye to all that..."

Harry Patch died last week in England. It was the expected outcome for a man of 111.

But it is a notable death because with Harry Patch goes the last living memory of trench warfare experienced nearly a century ago during The Great War - known now as World War 1.

This story on CNN.com is a wonderful summary of Patch's life. He was a plumber before and after his stint in the trenches. He saw some of the worst warfare man has ever experienced:

"He fought and was seriously wounded in Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, in which 70,000 of his fellow soldiers died -- including three of his close friends."

That's a placid little sentence to describe the slaughter of 70,000 men. A horror Patch refused to talk about until he turned 100 years old.

Here's a YouTube video that shows some photos and film footage from the Battle of Passchendaele:

You can hear the survivor's voice in this video shot at Passchendaele about two years ago - here, Patch expresses his opinion that "war is a calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings."

With living memory of that terrible war now extinguished completely, it is up to those of us who never experienced it to make sure we never forget the slaughter that happened nearly a century ago.

So I turn to two writers of that generation to help remember it. Robert Graves, an English writer, tried to excise the demons of trench warfare in his memoir, Good-bye to All That.

The world looked very different when the Great War began. "Those were the days," Graves noted, "in which officers had their swords sharpened by the armourer before sailing to France."

Here, he gives his reasons for signing up for the War:

"I had just finished with Charterhouse and gone up to Harlech, when England declared war on Germany. A day or two later I decided to enlist. In the first place, though the papers predicted only a very short war - over by Christmas at the outside – I hoped that it might last long enough to delay my going to Oxford in October which I dreaded."

The war was not over by Christmas. It was not over the following Christmas either. It dragged on relentlessly for four years and for four years, the brave young men of Europe were slaughtered by the millions.

In Graves' memoir, the military officials of Britain seemed akin to Rumsfield - going to war with the army they had, not the army they wanted, replete with faulty equipment:

"Gas had become a nightmare. Nobody believed in the efficacy of our respirators, though advertised as proof against any gas the enemy could send over. Pink army forms marked 'Urgent' constantly arrived from headquarters to explain how to use these contrivances: all were contradictory. First, the respirators were to be kept soaking-wet, then they were to be kept dry they they were to be worn in a satchel, then, again, the satchel was not to be used."

The war took a terrible toll:

"I realized how bad my nerves were when one day, marching through the streets of Litherland on a Battalion route-march, I saw three workmen in gas-masks beside an open man-hole, bending over a corpse which they had just hauled up from a sewer. His clothes were sodden and stinking; his face and hands, yellow. Waste chemicals from the munitions factory had got into the sewage system and gassed him when he went down to inspect. My company did not pause in its march, so I had only a glimpse of the group, but it reminded me so strongly of France that, but for the band-music, I should have fainted."

Graves was wounded in the war. However he, unlike many of his peers, lived to tell of his experience of war.

The "war to end all wars" ended before F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American muse who made his name writing about the Roaring 20s, was sent over to fight in it. But like many men of his generation, the vivid reality of the war stayed with him until he died. His thoughts on the war were incorporated into his novel, Tender is the Night. Here, years after the war, the protagonist, Dick Diver, is visiting the pastoral area that had once been the western front in France:

"This western front business couldn't be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn't. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and the Italians weren't any good on this front. You had to have a whole solid sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancee, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unterden Linden and weddings at the Mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather's whiskers..."

It was a war that destroyed the world that preceded it. As FitzGerald wrote in Tender is the Night, "'All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gusto of high explosive love.'

The most horrifying realization today is that we've not at all said "good-bye to all that." War and all its brutality continues its destructive path through the lives of millions on numerous fronts throughout the world. As Harry Patch's memories of war are relegated to history, new memories of the torments of modern war are made each day.


Russ said...

It's just a few days from the anniversary of a communique which Graves reproduces at the beginning of his poem "Escape":

August 6, 1916. Officer Previously Reported Died of Wounds, Now Reported Wounded: Graves, Capt. R., Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Wilfred Owen is the first writer who occurs to me whenever I think of the rich literature of the war.

It seems like this literature again becomes very familiar and relevant these days.

Taunter said...

World War I was a terrible confluence of nationalism, incompetence, and social class. Wellington was fond of saying that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. A generation of Britons was squandered in those same Belgian fields for lessons poorly understood at that same school.

At least the British and French could only be accused of prosecuting the war incompetently; they had little alternative but to fight. Our leaders have managed to fight an unnecessary war incompetently, and they show every inclination to continue to do so. That's tragic: