Milan, 11 November 2018
Exactly a hundred years ago today, the First World War ended. Some 10 million soldiers and 6 million civilians had been killed by the time the guns fell silent. May they rest in peace wherever they lie, in marked graves which circle the battlefields, or in some spot “known only to God”.
On previous anniversaries, I have written about the soldiers who fought and died in this war. Today, though, it seems more appropriate to commemorate those for whom the pain did not end on that 11th day of November in 1918, for whom the pain never ended.
23 million soldiers were wounded in the war.
For many their wounds healed, leaving only scars to carry to the grave. As Robert Graves wrote in the opening lines of his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the war ended,
Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.
But some men were so badly mutilated that they could never lead a normal life again. The German artist Otto Dix turned his unflinching gaze on these smashed men, forcefully reminding his viewers of their shattered existence and challenging them (challenging us all) not to turn away.
But turn away they – we – did, forcing these men to eke out an existence on the edges of society, like this match seller drawn by Dix.
Or like the barrow puller memorialized by the French poet Marcel Sauvage in his poem Le châtiment, The Punishment. (I give here my modest efforts at translation)
In the street
On the cobbles, like hard rattles
Taxis flying by
Red, their backs smoking
Tram lines under trolley wheels
On the pavements
Passersby moving, moving
The city screams
The city: Paris
A car raced along
Pulled by a pack animal
A man in sweat
Barred its road
A Gentleman leaned out
Of that rich car,
A rich old man.
He shouted at the poor man
Poor devil caught up
In the swirl of the street:
You deserve to be run over …”
I looked at the man
Who dragged the barrow
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a peg leg
Was dragging a heavy barrow
Pinned on the lapel of his dirty jacket
A military cross
A war medal.
He was yesterday’s hero
A martyr who was sweating
In the swirl of the street
A pack animal
In the swirl of the street
The rich man should have run him over
That poor man –
Some 65 million troops were mobilized for the war. Many may not have been wounded but they carried home psychological scars from the horrors they had witnessed, suffering from what today we wrap up in the scientific-sounding term Post Traumatic Stress Disorders. My grandmother would often tell me of her cousin Ernest. He came out of three years of fighting on the Western Front physically unscathed. But his mind was shot. He couldn’t hold a job down, he began drinking heavily, he quarreled with everyone. He died at the age of 44. Some descended even further into a hell they could never escape from.
Wilfred Owen caught those who were quite smashed in the mind in his poem Mental Cases.
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
But the lives of many non-combatants were broken too, by the death of a son or husband or lover or father, leaving inside of them a void that was never to be filled. The poet Vera Brittain expressed this never-ending sorrow in her poem Perhaps, in which she talks to her fiancé, killed in 1915 at the age of 20 by a sniper.
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though you have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although you are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although you cannot hear.
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of you
Was broken, long ago.
The German artist Käthe Kollwitz captured the desperation of parents who lost a son in the war in this woodcut. They lost their son Peter in the early months of the war, in October 1914, in Flanders.
Her desperation passed but not the pain. Some twenty years after the war she carved two kneeling statues, of her husband Karl and herself, which are now in the German military cemetery of Vladslo, in Belgium, where Peter is buried.
Karl is holding himself tight, as if afraid of showing too much emotion, sorrowfully gazing down at the tomb holding the remains of his son and 19 other soldiers.
Käthe is bowed over, holding her hand to her face, grief stricken.
Another statue she made, of a Pietà, became the model for the statue which now adorns the Central Memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany for the Victims of War and Dictatorship, in the Neue Wache in Berlin. Here, we see the mother cradling her boy, who seems, almost childlike, to be retreating into the comfort of her embrace.
This statue sits in the bare space of the Neue Wache. It is one of the most moving monuments to those who have died in war that I know.
Brittain and Kollwitz could use their art to voice their grief. A multitude of others were tongue-tied, because they could not give form to their grief or because their upbringing barred them from showing it. My great uncle and his wife lost their son Max in April 1915, during an attack on German positions near Ypres. He was just 23. His body was never found. My grandmother used to tell me that Max’s parents never recovered from his death. Yet, in the printed family history that we all received, all that my great uncle could write of this terrible blow to him and his wife was “He is much missed by his family and by Catherine Peake, to whom he was engaged. A fine looking young man, with a pleasant and charming manner, Maxwell showed promise of a brilliant future.”
The same bottled-up grief comes through on this simple plaque which we saw on our visit to Verdun. It was set up on the side of the road known as the Chemin des Dames, which was at the centre of a huge French offensive in 1917.
It reads, “Jean Dauly, 350th Infantry Regiment. Killed on 6 May 1917 in the little wood across the way, aged 20. Missed by his mother, by all his family, and by his friends. Pray for him”. Again that word “missed” … such a small word for such a terrible agony, especially if the body could not be found so there was no grave to mourn over. As the sister of Private Richard Pick wrote in her brother’s In Memoriam printed in the Grantham Journal in 1917,
The unknown grave is the bitterest blow,
None but an aching heart can know.
Sometimes the agony of loss was so great that minds became unhinged. In his book Goodbye to All That, about his experiences of fighting on the Western Front, Robert Graves recounts how he went down to Kent to visit a wounded friend of his who was staying in the family home while recovering. He writes, “His elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and his mother kept his bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, his linen always freshly laundered, and flowers and cigarettes by his bedside.” Although Graves does not say it explicitly, one is led to understand that the mother spent her evenings trying to connect with her son through scéances with the spirits.
Violet, Viscountess Milner lost her beloved son George at the age of 18. He was killed during the retreat from Mons in September 1914. She coped by erecting a monument near where he fell and making annual visits to his grave, and befriending the local villagers.
But her grief was endless. As she noted in her diary on the twentieth anniversary of George’s death: “the sorrow, the loss, the pain, are as great today as in 1914.”
I pray – I pray – that my wife and I will never have to face the agony of losing our son – or daughter – to a war.
I leave readers with an excerpt from the poem Antwerp by Ford Madox Ford.
This is Charing Cross;
It is midnight;
There is a great crowd
And no light.
A great crowd, all black that hardly whispers aloud.
Surely, that is a dead woman – a dead mother!
She has a dead face;
She is dressed all in black;
She wanders to the bookstall and back,
At the back of the crowd;
And back again and again back,
She sways and wanders.
This is Charing Cross;
It is one o’clock.
There is still a great cloud, and very little light;
Immense shafts of shadows over the black crowd
That hardly whispers aloud. . .
And now! . . That is another dead mother,
And there is another and another and another. . .
And little children, all in black,
All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places,
Wandering from the doors of the waiting-room
In the dim gloom.
These are the women of Flanders.
They await the lost.
They await the lost that shall never leave the dock;
They await the lost that shall never again come by the train
To the embraces of all these women with dead faces;
They await the lost who lie dead in trench and barrier and foss,
In the dark of the night.
This is Charing Cross; it is past one of the clock;
There is very little light.
There is so much pain.
Walking wounded: http://elsovh.hu/english/page/20/
Otto Dix, Two Soldiers: https://hanslodge.com/file/two-soldiers-by-Otto-Dix.htm
Otto Dix, Prostitute and disabled war veteran: http://www.trebuchet-magazine.com/aftermath-art-in-troubled-times/
Otto Dix, The Match Seller: http://www.germanexpressionismleicester.org/leicesters-collection/artists-and-artworks/otto-dix/match-seller/
Shell shock victim: http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/body-and-mind/shell-shock-on-film/
Käthe Kollwitz Pietà, Berlin: http://blogueresdesantmarti.net/index.php/etiqueta/dones-escultores/
Neue Wache: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545991154801328984/
Monument to Jean Dauly: http://www.mairie-chateau-thierry.net/1418/labase/dosmonumEpineChevregnymai17.pdf
Monument to George Cecil: http://www.webmatters.net/cwgc/guards_villerscotterets.htm