Disabled, by Wilfred Owen

September 4th, 2007

Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim, –
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. – He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.

Germans he scarcely thought of; all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then enquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen (1917)

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda: Gallipoli and ANZAC Day

April 25th, 2007

April 25th is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, a memorial for the large contingent of Australian and New Zealander soldiers in the Battle of Gallipoli, which began with a disastrous landing by Allied soldiers on April 25th, 1915, and ended with the evacuation of troops in January 1916 after half a year of trench warfare with no progress and heavy tolls of dead and wounded soldiers. 11,000 soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were killed in the battle and 24,000 were injured.

This is a recording of And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, performed by the Irish punk band The Pogues in 1985 for their album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. The song was originally written and performed in 1972 by Eric Bogle, a Scottish-born Australian singer/songwriter.

And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack,
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback,
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said son,
It’s time you stopped rambling; there’s work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun,
And they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As the ship pulled away from the quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears,
We sailed off for Gallipoli.

And how well I remember that terrible day,
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay,
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he’d primed himself well.
He shower’d us with bullets, and he rained us with shell.
And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda,
When we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs,
Then we started all over again.

And those that were left, well we tried to survive.
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive,
Though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head.
And when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead.
Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda,
All around the green bush far and free
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me.

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded,
The maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda,
As they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered; they just stood and stared.
Then they turned all their faces away.

And so now every April, I sit on me porch,
And I watch the parades pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,
Reviving old dreams of past glories.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore.
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda,
And the old men still answer the call.
But as year follows year, more old men disappear.
Someday no one will march there at all.

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

Written and originally performed by Eric Bogle (1972)

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

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)

Read the rest of this entry »

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

July 31st, 2006

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not they hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Wilfred Owen (ca. 1917)

Read the rest of this entry »