A Wobbly loves his flag

September 6th, 2007

I love my flag, I do, I do,
Which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.

I love my country, yes, I do,
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks;
I guess I won’t enlist.

Anonymous, Industrial Worker (April 14, 1917).

Water Lilies: Claude Monet, 1917, by Peter Filkins

March 20th, 2007

Water Lilies

Claude Monet, 1917

Meanwhile he painted them–water lilies
floating on the surface of a pond
he’d constructed for the pleasure of the eye
and motifs to paint
at the century’s end,
the new one begun with multiple explosions
of red, of pink, white fleshy flowers
against the backdrop of a subsurface blue

with distances, the sky itself reflected
in the watery calm where a cloud adrift
would later be captured by his brush
in motion, each day in the studio
another one spent to the echo of guns
bombarding the trenches, pummeling the Some
erupting in billows of acrid black smoke

upon a horizon no longer present
but subsumed, erased, immersed as he was
in the flux of light on water, flowers
afloat on the air beneath a willow
and its weeping, our only perspective
in a lost world lost to bottomless translucency,
the eye that sees it, and the intractable sun.

Peter Filkins (2007)

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In Heavenly Peace: The Christmas Truce, 1914

December 25th, 2006

I first read this review essay a year ago, when Kevin Carson posted it at Mutualist Blog.

The Soldiers’ Truce

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce
By Stanley Weintraub
The Free Press, 2001
206 pages, $39.95 (hb)

It was the war that was supposed to be over by Christmas. It very nearly was. A spontaneous soldiers’ truce broke out along the Western Front on Christmas Eve 1914, four months after the start of hostilities.

Peace on Earth, goodwill to all men — British, French and German soldiers took these usually hypocritical Christmas sentiments for real and refused to fire on the enemy, exchanging instead song, food, drink and gifts with each other in the battle-churned wastes of no-man’s land between the trenches.

Lasting until Boxing Day in some cases, the truce alarmed the military authorities who worked overtime to end the fraternisation and restart the killing.

Stanley Weintraub’s haunting book on the Christmas Truce recounts through the letters of the soldiers the extraordinary event, routinely denigrated in orthodox military histories as an aberration of no consequence, but which was, argues Weintraub, not only a temporary respite from slaughter but an event which had the potential to topple death-dealing governments.

With hundreds of thousands of casualties since August from a war bogged down in the trenches and mud of France, soldiers of all countries were tired of fighting. There had already been some pre-Christmas truces to bury the dead rotting in no-man’s land but these truces had needed the approval of higher authority.

Soon, however, few would care about higher authority as an unauthorised and illegal truce bubbled up from the ranks.

The peace overtures generally began with song. From German trenches illuminated by brightly lit Christmas trees would come a rich baritone voice or an impromptu choir singing Silent Night (Stille Nacht). Other carols and songs floated back and forth over the barbed wire. A German boot tossed into the British trenches exploded with nothing more harmful than sausages and chocolates. Signs bearing Merry Christmas were hung over the trench parapets, followed by signs and shouts of you no shoot, we no shoot.

The shared Christmas rituals of carols and gifts eased the fear, suspicion and anxiety of initial contact as first a few unarmed soldiers, arms held above their heads, warily ventured out into the middle to be followed soon by dozens of others, armed only with schnapps, pudding, cigarettes and newspapers.

The extraordinary outbreak of peace swept along the entire front from the English Channel to the Switzerland border. Corporal John Ferguson, from the Scottish Seaforth Highlanders shared the pleasant disbelief — Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill.

Uniform accessories (buttons, insignias, belts) were swapped as souvenirs. Christmas dinner was shared amongst the bomb craters. A Londoner in the 3rd Rifles had his hair cut by a Saxon who had been his barber in High Holborn. Helmets were swapped as mixed groups of soldiers posed for group photographs.

Some British soldiers were taken well behind German lines to a bombed farmhouse to share the champagne from its still intact cellar. Soccer matches were played in no-man’s land with stretchers as goalposts. Bicycle races were held on bikes with no tyres found in the ruins of houses. A German soldier captivated hundreds with a display of juggling and magic. You would have thought you were dreaming, wrote captain F. D. Harris to his family in Liverpool.

The high command ordered the line command to stop the fraternisation. Few line officers did or could. The truce momentum could not be arrested. Deliberate or accidental breaches of the tacit truce failed to undermine it. Stray shots were resolved by an apology. If ordered to shoot at unarmed soldiers, soldiers aimed deliberately high.

Sergeant Lange of the XIX Saxon Corps recounted how, when ordered on Boxing Day to fire on the 1st Hampshires, they did so, spending that day and the next wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky. By firing in the air, as the sergeant noted with approval, they had struck, like the class-conscious workers they were in civilian life. They had had enough of killing.

Military authorities feared fraternisation — a court-martial offence, punishable by death, it weakens the will to kill, destroys the offensive spirit, saps ideological fervour and undermines the sacrificial spirit necessary to wage war. It was politically subversive — A bas la guerre! (Down with the war!) from a French soldier was returned with Nie wieder Kreig! Das walte Gott! (No more war! It’s what God wants!) from his Bavarian counterpart.

After mucking-in with British soldiers, a German private wrote that never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.

Soldiers reasserted their shared humanity — Private Rupert Frey of the Bavarian 16th Regiment wrote after fraternising with the English that normally we only knew of their presence when they sent us their iron greetings. Now, we gathered, as if we were friends, as if we were brothers. Well, were we not, after all!.

If ordinary soldiers acted on these sentiments, a big danger loomed for governments and the ruling class. If left to themselves, the soldiers would have been home from the shooting war by Christmas all fired up for the class war at home. As Weintraub says, many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts of propagandists, were not monsters. Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.

Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Sherlock Holmes creator, who had turned from jingoistic imperialism to spiritualism after the death of his son in the war, shot an angry glance to military and civil authority — those high-born conspirators against the peace of the world, who in their mad ambition had hounded men on to take each other by the throat rather than by the hand.

The high command on both sides were desperate to restart the war that had strangely vanished. Replacement troops with no emotional commitment to the truce were rushed in. The 2nd Welsh Fusiliers who had not fired a shot from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day were relieved without notice, an exceptional practice. Sometimes threats were necessary — when German officers ordered a regiment in the XIX Saxon Corps to start firing and were met with replies of we can’t — they are good fellows, the officers replied Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy!.

To prevent further spontaneous truces after 1914, the British high command ordered slow, continuous artillery barrages, trench raids and mortar bombardments — immensely costly of lives but effectively limiting the opportunities for fraternisation for the rest of the war. To discourage others, conspicuous disciplinary examples were made of individuals. For organising a cease-fire to bury the dead, which was followed by half an hour of fraternisation in no-man’s land with no shooting for the rest of Christmas Day 1915, Captain Iain Colquhoun of the 1st Scots Guard was court-martialled. Merely reprimanded, the message was nevertheless clear for career-minded British officers.

Tougher medicine was needed when French soldiers refused to return to the trenches at Aisne in May 1917 — 3427 courts-martial and 554 death sentences with 53 executed by firing squad were necessary to crank-start the war on this sector of the French front.

Repression from above won the day against the Christmas Truce of 1914 but it was the lack of soldiers’ organisation from below that stifled the potential for turning the truce into a movement to stop the war.

On the eastern front, on the other hand, fraternisation and peace were Bolshevik policy and in Germany, it was mutinies by organised sailors and home-based soldiers, which finally put paid to Germany’s war effort.

Weintraub has resurrected a beautiful moment in history, made all the more beautiful in the darkness of the carnage that was to follow when four more years of war took the lives of 6000 men a day. Far from a two-day wonder, the Christmas truce evokes a stubborn humanity within us. As folksinger John McCutcheon put it in his 1980s ballad Christmas in the Trenches, the war monster is a vulnerable beast when the common soldier realises that on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

reviewed by Phil Shannon (2002)
for Green Left Weekly, February 13, 2002

Victory Stuff

August 19th, 2006

What d’ye think, lad; what d’ye think,
As the roaring crowds go by?
As the banners flare and the brasses blare
And the great guns rend the sky?
As the women laugh like they’d all gone mad,
And the champagne glasses clink:
Oh, you’re grippin’ me hand so tightly, lad,
I’m a-wonderin’: what d’ye think?

D’ye think o’ the boys we used to know,
And how they’d have topped the fun?
Tom and Charlie, and Jack and Joe —
Gone now, every one.
How they’d have cheered as the joy-bells chime,
And they grabbed each girl for a kiss!
And now — they’re rottin’ in Flanders slime,
And they gave their lives — for this.

Or else d’ye think of the many a time
We wished we too was dead,
Up to our knees in the freezin’ grime,
With the fires of hell overhead;
When the youth and the strength of us sapped away,
And we cursed in our rage and pain?
And yet — we haven’t a word to say….
We’re glad. We’d do it again.

I’m scared that they pity us. Come, old boy,
Let’s leave them their flags and their fuss.
We’d surely be hatin’ to spoil their joy
With the sight of such wrecks as us.
Let’s slip away quietly, you and me,
And we’ll talk of our chums out there:
You with your eyes that’ll never see,
Me that’s wheeled in a chair.

Robert Service (1921)

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Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas

August 12th, 2006

Here is a drawing of five troops marching forward in white gas masks, looking for all the world like distorted versions of dead men's skulls.

Otto Dix, from War (1924)

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Israel targets any vehicle in south Lebanon. The body count rises.

August 8th, 2006

But even as Olmert expressed willingness to consider the Lebanese initiative, he said his security Cabinet would meet Wednesday to consider deepening Israel’s ground offensive in Lebanon, which has now advanced about 4 miles, according to the army.

Leaflets dropped by Israel in southern Lebanon on Monday night and Tuesday declared an effective no-drive zone south of the Litani River. The ban emptied the streets of Tyre, the main city in the area, and left remaining civilians in villages across the south unable to flee.

A military spokeswoman said the ban did not apply to Red Cross and United Nations relief convoys traveling in coordination with the Israeli army. She said the ban had been imposed in an attempt to choke off supplies to guerrillas who have continued firing rockets into northern Israel. On Tuesday about 160 rockets landed in communities across northern Israel, the army said, causing damage to property and several injuries.

… In Israeli artillery and air strikes across southern Lebanon, buildings were bombed in Ghaziyeh, a Shiite town southeast of Sidon, killing 13 people after a funeral for 15 people killed Monday, hospitals reported. Witnesses said one of the houses hit belonged to a cleric linked to Hezbollah, but it was unclear whether he was a casualty. The army said it had targeted buildings used by senior Hezbollah officials and had no information on casualties.

In a southern suburb of Beirut, workers pulled 14 more bodies from the rubble of two buildings struck by Israeli aircraft Monday, raising the death toll from that attack to 30, The Associated Press reported.

One of the victims was Ali Rmeity, 45, who lost three children when missiles slammed into his building, AP reported. Rmeity and his wife were badly wounded; his only surviving son was in intensive care. Rmeity’s parents, three brothers and two sisters were also killed.

Nearly 700 people have been killed in Lebanon in four weeks of fighting, most of them civilians, and more than 100 Israelis have died, 39 of them civilians.

Joel Greenberg, Chicago Tribune (2006-08-08): Israel targets any vehicle in south Lebanon

This is called pacification.

July 24th, 2006
photo: Mother fleeing Tyre

Tyler Hicks/New York Times (2006)

Hundreds of people today poured in to Tyre, Lebanon, chasing a rumor that a U.N. evacuation ship would come.

TYRE, Lebanon, July 20 — … The morbid reality of Israel’s bombing campaign of the south is reaching almost every corner of this city. Just a few miles from the Rest House hotel, where the United Nations was evacuating civilians on Thursday, wild dogs gnawed at the charred remains of a family bombed as they were trying to escape the village of Hosh, officials said.

Officials at the Tyre Government Hospital inside a local Palestinian refugee camp said they counted the bodies of 50 children among the 115 in the refrigerated truck in the morgue, though their count could not be independently confirmed.

Abdelmuhsin al-Husseini, Tyre’s mayor, announced on Thursday that any bodies not claimed in the next two days by next of kin would be buried temporarily in a mass grave near the morgue until they could receive a proper burial once the fighting ends.

… With the roads and bridges to many surrounding villages bombed out, few families have come to the hospital to claim their dead.

Even if they could make the journey, they would fear being hit by airstrikes along the way, Mr. Husseini said. Emergency workers have been unwilling to brave the risk of recovering many bodies left along the road, leaving them to rot.

For those relatives who reach the morgue, conducting a proper burial is impossible while the bombing continues. Many have opted to leave the bodies at the morgue until the conflict ends.

The morgue has had to order more than 100 coffins with special handles to make it easier to remove them from the ground to be reburied later.

What? He wants a hundred? a local carpenter said, half shocked, half perplexed. Where the hell am I going to get enough wood to build that many coffins?

… A pall overtook Tyre on Thursday, as United Nations peacekeepers loaded more than 600 United Nations employees, foreigners and Lebanese onto a ferry to Cyprus, then promptly packed up their makeshift evacuation center at the Rest House and left for their base in the town of Naqura.

Hundreds descended on the hotel on Wednesday, desperate to board the ferry. Despite fears that many would be left behind, almost all who sought refuge were able to board the ship Thursday.

But as the last United Nations peacekeepers left town on Thursday, those who remained braced for an even heavier bombardment.

For Ali and Ahmad al-Ghanam, brothers who have taken shelter in a home just a few blocks from the morgue, the refrigerated truck of dead bodies is a vivid reminder of the attack that killed 23 members of their family.

When Israeli loudspeakers warned villagers to evacuate the village of Marwaheen last Saturday, the families packed their belongings and headed for safety. More than 23 of them piled into a pickup and drove toward Tyre, with the brothers trailing behind. Another group set off for a nearby United Nations observation post, but were promptly turned away.

As the pickup raced to Tyre, Ali al-Ghanam said, Israeli boats shelled their convoy, hitting the car and injuring the women and children in the back. But within minutes an Israeli helicopter approached the car, firing a missile that blew the truck to pieces as the passengers struggled to jump out, he said.

His brother Mohammad, his wife and their six children, were killed instantly along with several of their relatives. The only survivor in the car was the brothers’ 4-year-old niece, who survived with severe burns to much of her body.

Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times (2006-07-21): In Scramble to Evade Israeli Bombs, the Living Leave the Dead Behind