Saturday, August 8, 2009

WWI: What Was It Good For?


With Radiohead's song "The Lede" for charity, over much of Britain, and even abroad, Harry Patch's death reverberates. So far away from WWI, exactly a year ago on a trip to Canada, I realized the fatal impact of that carnage. My wife and I came across a placid riverside setting on the Avon, running through the picturesque theatre town, of course named Stratford.

We looked up at a memorial (my photo's below, taken after dusk) not knowing from afar what it commemorated. Closer, the names filled the plinth, about four out of five under WWI, the others under WWII. I took a snapshot as tears came to my eyes. I wondered, nearly a century ago, how many must have fought for the Crown from what must have been a smallish farm enclave then. To have so many casualties, perhaps twice or three times that number must have enlisted, practically every male I figured eligible, such must have been the pressure combined with the patriotism. And, for a fight without even the Dominion's dog. What did placid rural Ontario have to fear from the baby-bayoneting, nun-raping Hun anyhow?



I then recalled that on my first journey to England, back in 1979, I had come across an elderly, crippled man begging on the streets of London. He told me and the exchange group with which I had joined about his wartime experiences. We treated him to a meal. I figured the odds were good that he was telling the truth. The old man across the street from me when I was a child was an MP, and I remembered him regaling little me about the way he'd clear out the French taverns of his doughboy comrades, then emptied, the better to enjoy the fare on tap. I wonder now if that included the mademoiselles on call.

The vast range of time spanned by soldiers in the war to end all wars humbles. My father (who died a few months ago) was born in January 1917, well before the Americans had even gone "over there." We lack in this country much sense of the simple crossroads markers in villages throughout Britain and I suppose from my Ontario encounter the Commonwealth that remind us of the immense losses. In my ancestral village in Roscommon, another statue, this more Marian and less cruciform, marks but two years after the Armistice another conflict, "The Woodlands of Loughglynn" the Fenian ballad of another deadly skirmish, one of many against troops who, demobbed, chose to perfect their skills in arms against the Old I.R.A. with which my great-cousin there as a first lieutenant commanded a squad that destroyed the Frenchpark Barracks nearby in 1920. My great-uncle's family moved in from their farmhouse down the road to the former R.I.C. barracks in Loughglynn, fittingly or ironically, after the War of Independence, where he served in that office practically and symbolically as a sign of the new regime, as leader for a farmers' rights party and later in the Dáil and Seanad.

I've read a few accounts, in the military historian John Keegan, Robert Graves' "Goodbye to All That," Dalton Trumbo ("Johnny Got His Gun"-- inspiration for Metallica's song "One" by the way), and in novels by veterans Ernest Hemingway {"A Farewell to Arms"), Erich Maria Remarque ("All Quiet on the Western Front"), and John Dos Passos ("Three Soldiers" reviewed by me last year on this blog and on Amazon US). Prompted by that recent BBC Top 100 Booklist, I mean to try, despite skimming it first to find a prose style that seemed less than felicitous, Sebastian Faulks' "Birdsong." But, I have little grasp, compared to the horrors of WWII or even Vietnam, let alone what my students tell me who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan-- some amputees, some with PTSD, all damaged inside-- of a conflict so distant and so devastating.

Today's Los Angeles Times captured Christopher Furlong's splendid photo of the interior of what to medievalist me always seemed a cathedral I'd like to visit: Wells. The funeral of the last (barely outlasting William Allingham; the article says now only an Australian naval veteran survives for the forces once serving the King against the Kaiser) British WWI survivor brings to mind, inevitably, the millions pulverized and pushed into five muddy years of slaughter. The battle for Passchendaele, where Patch lost three of his comrades, gained after five months the British five miles of terrain; half a million soldiers perished for that territorial gain and loss. At least fourteen times as many troops died in the entire war.

Nine hundred thousand died fighting for the British Empire. Among them, as Sebastian Barry's novel "A Long, Long Way" (reviewed by me on Amazon US and the blog, along with Denis Winter's powerful account gleaned from testimony by ordinary soldiers, "Death's Men") shows, many Irish. As my sympathies and lineage lay with those who resisted the Crown, I confess that like many Irish, I have a mixed reaction to those who joined to fight for the enemy of my direct ancestors.

Yet, part of the legacy of the end of the armed and ideological struggles that tore apart my family's island for most of last century may be the maturity that we all can mourn for the young men who signed up, often out of a mixture of fear I suppose of the white feather of cowardice brandished by a comely lass as much as jingoism, poverty, peer pressure, adventure, and lack of any alternative. It's both understandable and unfortunate that so many republicans and nationalists reviled the poppies and Flanders Fields. Naturally, the foe of Britain turned the Irish friend, whether Roger Casement, Eoin O'Duffy, Frank Ryan, or as Hugo Hamilton's memoir shows for his father in "The Speckled People" warped fascist fellow travellers out of rebellious Irish purportedly committed to democracy and equality. I'd hope that one inheritance from the passing of Harry Patch at 111 and his comrades we all can agree upon is to mourn those who were shattered and crippled and shot for dubious causes.

As Radiohead puts it, basing their song for charity on Patch's peacemaking interviews done after he turned 100: let the leaders take up a weapon and have them fight it out amongst themselves. R.I.P.

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

See "It'll end in tears" by crime-fiction critic Sharon Wheeler at the wonderfully named "There's a Dead Guy in My Living Room" blog for her thoughts, in part inspired by my entry. (8-13-09) Thanks, Shaz, for your own eloquence on this topic.