(The Great War as pastoral irony, and the human
stories embedded in that conflict: a work in progress)
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
—W. H. Auden
The gods, who can only count to nine
Climb to their perches and, head under wing,
Sleep. They´ve pulled up the ladder.
—Robert Marteau, Salamander
The worst cases gibber so violently each part of the body seems inhabited by its own demon demanding to get out. Men stricken during the months at the Somme are sent to a rest station in Mondicourt, others to field hospitals. The lucky ones are sent back to England to Craiglockhart, where nurses float in and out of sparkling light from high windows and the food is hot and plentiful, where a gramophone blares John Peel to block out the men's screams. One man has stopped clawing his mouth; thus begins his rehabilitation. First, he is instructed in the homely art of weaving, the loom a kind of primer slate for the small boy he has become, nurse standing behind him to guide his hands, warp to woof, with comforting regularity, a soothing message to his excitable limbs. In a few days, after being helped with his breakfast porridge, a small piece of cloth is placed on his lap, pierced with a few large stitches from a saddle needle and heavy thread. The nurse croons, wearily but kindly, that he can do this too if he could just hold still. More days of practice and now he is brought outdoors to the corn field to help harvest the crop, and the next day to the cow barn and shown how to grasp the teat firmly but gently; and then, after a time, when he gets the milk to flow, he learns again how to hoist the rifle, just so, with both hands steady, and then to kill again.
Have you forgotten yet?
Italian soldiers pray to the Madonna for an American limb-the farmer, for an enlarged sole to walk on plowed soil, or an arm to grasp the reins of his horse, grips for turning a cream separator, or a hook to hold a plow handle. For the salesman, a Sunday arm, when he needs to look his best. For those who've lost an ear, a model ear and jar of paste to match a man's complexion.
Those whose faces are disfigured are sometimes sent to rural settlements established for them so that they can holiday together. But masks give the greatest comfort-portrait masks--so folks at home can better face the returning wound.
Death could drop from the dark As easily as song
He hasn't thought about much the whole walk home besides the hot biscuits and chicken fried steak she'll have ready for him, the fragrant gravy puddled and glossy gray in the innermost globe of the plate, the biscuits perfect moons in orbit-how at meal's end a dollop of black strap molasses poured patiently from the pitcher will lighten to burnished copper as it thins and spreads, and with the last half biscuit thick with butter he'll wipe the plate clean in repeated circular swipes. His jaw aches and mouth runs wet at the thought as he makes the final turn toward the house, a stand of alders spreading their fingers above him. Almost nightfall, and though he does not see the doe and her two young ground feeding-mute, indistinguishable now from what surrounds them-flesh, stone, tree-he knows they are there, just as he knows the presence of water. Then, cast into the elegant evening air, a nightingale's song, that voice between the whistles of shells, burns through the cage of his ribs-memento mori-flooding his bowel, his suddenly thickened legs with so darksome a thing, pitch and treacle, the hedgerow nearby advances, bayonets fixed, and from the honey light of the kitchen window comes stench as from the maw of a charnel house.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
—Shakespeare, Henry V
Caz and his best friend depart from the dock at Hoboken with the rest of the boys from home. When their troop ship arrives at Manhattan Island minutes later to pick up more recruits across the Hudson, Caz asks if they have arrived in France. On to Halifax and belowdecks, quarters are suffocating. Even Mothersill's Seasick Remedy doesn't settle the gut. Those who've stopped retching are put on puke detail. Convoys from the Yankee Division assemble: ships of all sorts-single steamers, Atlantic liners, fruit boats. Nothing to do now but huddle, fully dressed in life belts, and pray for safe crossing, as they are transported to Liverpool, then Southhampton.
Rain falls for five days on their tent while plans for the channel crossing are made. Ferried to Le Havre the brigade arrives finally in France where an artillery and ammunition train is assembled. Two days ride to the training camp at Coetquidan, and at last, its broad, treeless moor stretches out miles before them, drops to a deep valley, then rises again to wooded hills. Lofts and stables are cleared for billeting, makeshift barracks erected. Through autumn, rain is continuous. Drill fields are ankle-deep in mud, supply roads riverbeds. Caz drops from exhaustion onto the field and nearly drowns. This is no Armory Drill with ginghamed girls waving handkerchiefs. They're gunners before the winter is out.
April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land.
— T.S. Eliot
Over the top, boys, and good luck to you! shouts the subaltern, then blows his silver whistle-and they spiral out of the sucking clay, bayonets fixed and glinting, early blooms in that blood garden. Now a boy blossoms on a thicket of barb. Greenbottles have gotten busy with their task. At home, across the channel in Sussex, his mum heard only a soft bumping in the distance, as she dined on roof rabbit set on a fine blue plate.
A nightingale sings in the wasted village. In the sugar beet field cows bellow. And in the wreckage of a beech copse a rook finds scrap for its nest. The rattling of an artillery limber is drowned out by the croaking of frogs, and sparrow hawks circle above an ammunition column on its way to the front, where dogs stand sentry along the dreadful stalemate, and rheumy horses are picketed hockdeep in mud. One soldier cannot stop shitting. He weeps from weariness and because he is so dirty.
Division Headquarters opens in a chateau at Couvrelles in the Aisne Valley. Swans glide in the moat. The gardener hums as he prunes the wisteria. Creaking windmills still grind the peasant's corn and church spires stand guard over the sleeping village. Not far away another village has been ground to dust.