Monday, February 11, 2019

Lorraine Berry: Scorched Moths

Now light the candles; one; two; there's a moth;
What silly beggars they are to blunder in
And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame—
No, no, not that,—it's bad to think of war,
When thoughts you've gagged all day come back to scare you;
And it's been proved that soldiers don't go mad
Unless they lose control of ugly thoughts
That drive them out to jabber among the trees. 
(Repression of War Experience, Siegfried Sassoon)


Robert Raymond, my maternal grandfather, died of his wounds on October 18, 1917. He was killed by a mortar blast at Nieuport, part of the front during the Third Battle of Ypres, which has come to be known as Passchendaele. (His death made a widow of Edith, and left his ten-month old daughter, Hilda, fatherless.)


I sit down and attempt to write about my great-grandfather for the (lost count) time. I ask myself why I feel compelled to set his story down on paper, to give his death, just one of the ten million military personnel [1] who died during World War I, some kind of meaning.


Robert was twenty-five years old when he died. He had served with the Lancashire Fusiliers, 1/7 Battalion beginning in November of 1914.

If Robert was deployed immediately after training, it means he would have been sent overseas to Egypt in defense of the Suez Canal. In 1915, he was shipped to Turkey, to fight against the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Gallipoli.


The records show that his battalion sent 410 men to storm the cliffs. Only 137 men escaped unscathed. The eleven-month battle killed 100,000 troops from Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. In addition to the dead, there were 300,000 casualties. One historian includes this detail taken from first-hand accounts written by officers.

“It took days for those dead to be buried, and as the thousands of corpses lay in the sun with their guts and their shattered limbs and their stove-in heads disgustingly exposed, the stench of death sickened the living for miles around.” [2]


After Gallipoli, Robert must have been granted a brief home leave. The reading I have done indicates that leaves lasted approximately two weeks. I have no records to prove that he had leave at this time, but my grandmother’s life serves as evidence. She was born in late November of 1916, which means that sometime in February, Robert came home to his wife, Edith Lavinia, whom he had married on May 25, 1912. They lived on Sherbourne Street, in tightly packed terraced houses built by the Britannia Mill to house its workers. The mill stood across the road from the houses. 


One of the most common shared experiences for soldiers home on leave, regardless of which nation they were willing to die for, was the utter disconnect each soldier felt in their brief forays to the home front. After months of living in execrable conditions, they came back to homes where life had continued without them. 


In his memoir of his service, The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován recounts a conversation he had with his uncle about the war’s potential outcome. 

His uncle said, “I accept that my position is not based on personal experience. For that very reason, I maintain that I am able to judge the facts more objectively. For you, everything is overshadowed by the traumatic experience that almost ended your life. The deductions you draw can’t be objective.” [3]

Those at home, of course, were not being told the “facts” in the newspaper accounts of battles. Journalists were not allowed on the front lines, and they were dependent upon the sanitized versions produced by each country’s war office. 


Even if the information had been accurate, soldiers on leave found that civilians refused to believe that their governments would sacrifice so many men for poorly defined, or even non-existent, reasons. 

In Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm’s fictionalized account of the war he joined “in order to meet girls,” he quotes the man who blames Schlump for not being able to “contextualize” his own experiences. 

“[O]ne must differentiate between the longer and shorter point of view. From the shorter point of view all the war brings is sorrow, suffering and unbelievable torment. But seen from the longer perspective, one comes to a different conclusion … The individual is nothing, he has no intrinsic value, he is just part of a much larger totality, a nation. The individual has no soul, but a nation does. And the individual only has value when he is of use to his people.” [4]


A good portion of my undergraduate studies, a subject I pursued through the first part of graduate school, was reading about and researching how the working class organized itself against exploitation in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Many historians have argued that the First World War interrupted a nascent movement among workers to see themselves as linked to other workers, regardless of national boundaries. [5]

The First World War exposed how all of that solidarity with other workers shattered as each country’s workers declared their allegiance to their kings and countries and picked up arms against other workers. Whether this was a complete failure on the part of the period’s intellectuals to understand what workers wanted, or whether this new solidarity was too weak to bear up under the pressure of war, the longed-for international workers’ movement was disrupted by the hostilities. 

My family’s own history as evidenced by genealogical research is of generation after generation of workers, many of them in the textile trades in the Manchester area. In an earlier version of this article, I wondered why a worker like Robert Raymond, whose descendants were involved in twentieth century workers’ politics, should have taken up arms on behalf of his country. 

The editor who had commissioned me to write about my thoughts and reactions to Robert’s death as the centenary of the Armistice approached, returned my initial draft, stating that my questions indicated “intellectual unsophistication” that he found uninteresting, and that he was killing the article.


Despite finding more evidence of the movement the editor had informed me “didn’t exist,” I decided that intellectual wrestling with Robert’s death was not likely to produce a satisfying rapprochement with the past. [6]


Instead, reading the memoirs and novels written by those who had served during World War I provided me with emotional resonance. In the words of individual writers, I could imagine myself in Robert’s head. 


Bodies that fell on the continent were not repatriated to Britain after war’s end. It’s why each English town and village erected a cenotaph where they could memorialize their local dead.
In a town in Normandy when I was twenty-two, I had encountered such a cenotaph. It bore the names of 624 men in a town whose 1910 population was just over 16,000. In Accrington Stanley, a small town not too far from Manchester, a battalion comprising local men went into battle at Serre, on the Western Front, on June 30, 1916. By July 1, the British troops had been defeated, but not before 584 of the 720 from the Accrington PALS Unit were killed, wounded or missing


I have a confession. Part of what sent me on this journey to write about Robert was based on what I found on his gravestone. His tombstone, which lies in the Zudycoote Military Cemetery in northern France, reads: 
280692 Private
Lancashire Fusiliers
18th October 1917 Age 25

Discovering the epitaph was a kick in the teeth. Why would his widow have paid extra for an epitaph that reduced her husband to yet another fleshed chunk of cannon fodder? It felt inconceivable to me that a young woman left with a babe in arms would declare such a thing. Didn’t she know what he had endured? 

But reading the novels of the war has answered part of that question: I doubt that she had any idea of what Robert had experienced during those months away from her. 

All letters sent to and from soldiers were read by censors who removed any material considered to be “sensitive.” Instead, soldiers were given the option of sending home pre-printed postcards—for free—that offered a sentence for the correspondent to indicate. These cards listed sentences that the soldier could mark with an X. [7] “I am quite well” or “I am being sent down to the base,” were two of the options. British soldiers were warned “If anything else is added to the postcard it will be destroyed.” 

When the men returned home on leave, many of them found it impossible to convey to their wives, girlfriends, and families the horrors they had witnessed. 


Some of the women whom they did try to tell refused to listen. In several of the novels, women on the home front—regardless of age—were represented as harridans who shamed the men who were not serving by presenting them with white feathers to indicate cowardice. Other women acted as bellicose tub-thumpers, dismissing the war’s doubters as traitors or caitiff soldiers whose “wetness” imperiled the brave. 

Gabriel Chevallier writes of one such encounter as Madame Bergniol argues with a returning soldier: 

“No son of mine will be brought up to think like you.” 

“I know that, mademoiselle. You could bear flaming torches as well as babies, but you’ll only give your son the guttering candle you were given; its wax is dripping and burning your fingers. It is candles like that which have set the world ablaze instead of illuminating it. Blind men’s candles, and you can be sure that tomorrow they’ll relight the braziers that will consume the sons of your loins. And their pain will be nothing but ash, and at the moment their sacrifice is consummated, they will know this and will curse you. With your principles, if the occasion presents itself, then you in turn will be inhuman mothers.” [8]


The men and women on the home front, who soldiers felt honor-bound to protect from their hideous memories, didn’t want to speak of what they had seen, nor did they wish to frighten those who would be able to do nothing but worry when the men returned to battle. Instead, in the news accounts, civilians were fed a steady diet of courageous Everyman heroes and glorious victories on the battle plains. It was only after the war that the novelists, memoirists, and poets were published. Even the poems of someone like Wilfred Owen whose “Dulce et Decorum Est” defined the war for many, was unknown during his lifetime. His battlefield death one week prior to the Armistice meant that his audience was only found after the war was over and his friends had collected his poems and published them in a volume. 

The accounts of a loss of life feel impossible to apprehend. Consider, for example, this number from the Austro-Hungarian Empire: Prior to the war, the population was 51 million. The seven million casualties it suffered breaks down like this. “An average of more than 4,500 Austro-Hungarian men in uniform were killed, wounded, or captured every single day of the war.” [9]


When I try to comprehend what Robert saw, heard, smelled, and thought about during the war, I hear the incessant booms of the mortars that were fired several times a minute for hours on end. For men trapped in foxholes with shells raining down on them, it is not surprising to learn that many returned with a condition labeled “shell shock.” 

But, in addition to the noise, it’s imagining the trenches divided by a patch of “No Man’s Land,” that I cannot shake. This passage from Chevallier is a tough read. The replacement soldiers have just arrived at the trench where they are due to relieve the men who have been there for several days. What they find is something out of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch:
Corpses contorted into every possible position, corpses which had suffered every possible mutilation, every gaping wound, every agony. There were complete corpses, serene and perfectly composed like stone saints in a chapel; undamaged corpses without any evident injuries; foul, blood-soaked corpses like the prey of unclean beasts; calm, resigned, insignificant corpses; the terrifying corpses of men who had refused to die, raging, upright, bulging, haggard, cursing and crying out for justice. All with their twisted mouths, their glassy eyes, and their skin like that of drowned men. And then there were the pieces of corpses, the shreds of bodies and clothes, organs, severed members, red and purple human flesh, like rotten meat in a butcher’s, limp, flabby, yellow fat, bones extruding marrow, unravelled entrails, like vile worms that we crushed with a shudder. The body of a dead man is an object of utter disgust for those who are alive, and this disgust is itself the mark of utter prostration. To escape such horror, I looked out at the plain. A new and greater horror: the plain was blue. [French uniforms were blue.] The plain was covered with our comrades, cut down by machine guns, their faces in the mud, arses in the air, indecent, grotesque like puppets, but pitiable like men, alas! [10]
Chevallier’s description continues on for pages. While the battle is never specified, he is providing a sense of what hell was encountered at Artois where the French suffered 102,000 casualties in six days. 


My great-grandfather’s death is a stone I keep in my pocket, my fingers rubbing against it, worrying it in an attempt to make something meaningful of it. How can I capture the impact that one single death had upon his family when he was but one of millions? Does it make a difference if I tell you that Hilda, my grandmother, became an orphan a few years later when Edith died of kidney disease? 

Perhaps I try to make Robert’s death mean something because I know that ultimately his little girl would grow up without parents, raised by the older step-sister who came into her life when Edith remarried shortly before her own death. 

No photographs of Hilda as a child exist. No one thought to take her photograph. She doesn’t exist before pictures that show her as a married woman. Is it wrong that when I think of Robert’s death, the story of what became of the tiny invisible baby he left comes with it? 


On the day that Robert died, his commanding officer noted that the battalion had suffered seven casualties that day. Even on October 18th, Robert’s death was not special in any way. His commanding officer made no special mention of the man who had served with his battalion for thirty-five months. 
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
     Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
     And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
(The Dead, Rupert Brooke)

[1] The total number of World War I dead is disputed. The number of dead when civilians are counted, and the 1.5 million Armenians who died during the Genocide in 1915, and those who died of disease and starvation during the course of the war brings the number to nearly 40 million
[2] Hell’s Foundations by Geoffrey Moorhouse (2008: Faber & Faber) 
[3] The Burning of the World, Béla Zombory-Moldován (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 113 
[4] Schlump, Hans Herbert Grimm (2014: New York Review Books) pg. 241 
[5] At the University of Washington, where I did most of this work, the exploration of labor and World War I was a topic of interest to professors. See, for example, in Germany, Marxists identified themselves with anti-militarism long before the war broke out
[6] I mention this because I think the idea that “working-class” folks capable of recognizing common interests, of acting rationally on their own behalf has been lost in recent years. Recent votes—Brexit in Great Britain, the election of Donald Trump in the United States—exposed the divide between workers and the journalists who covered them. Journalists settled on an explanation that working-class folks had been hoodwinked by politicians into voting against their own class interests and the working class had been exposed as a hotbed of racism and regressive thinking. But as I argued in a number of articles, and journalists such as Sarah Smarsh, Elizabeth Catte, Steven Stoll, and Ted Genoways, among an increasing number, have argued against these reductive arguments about working-class culture. 
[7] This service was offered especially for those soldiers or their correspondents who found writing difficult. In the BBC TV series, “The Village,” these postcards became a plot point. When a soldier on the front works out a code using the postcard to let his younger brother know he was being sent to the front, his subterfuge is discovered by army censors. 
[8] Fear, Gabriel Chevallier, (2011: New York Review Books) 
[9] Zombory-Moldován, pg. xiii 
[10] Chevallier, pg. 62

Lorraine Berry writes for a number of publications including the Guardian (U.K.), the Washington Post, Catapult, and Read It Forward. She has recently been diagnosed with abibliophobia. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW where she tweets about her passion for Manchester City Football Club. 

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