I heard the war planes over head this morning, and I knew it was 11am & the ceremony was begun. The hour of remembrance.
I’d picked up a very special poppy from the Canadian Corps Hall just last night; a pristine cloth poppy from decades ago! Proudly this replaced the steady stream of the plastic poppies I’d found missing from my lapel this week. (They kept “popping” off!)
Soldier and Horse in Gas Masks.
I’d been reading last night a photo journal I’d purchased of the first world war. Reading how men still fought on cavalry mounts as recently as 100 years ago. I recall an artwork I painted after reading Timothy Findlay’s The Wars. It was a memorial to all the horses who fought and gave their life for freedom. Indeed thousands died. Sank in the mud at battle, shot, you name it.
Cavalry assaults weren’t a very useful tactic with the invention of the machine gun, even still, some charges were still made in WW1. Later on, horses & mules primary use became in transporting supplies, munitions, & artillery to the front. It is estimated that 8 million horses & mules perished on the western front, (in Britain many of them were conscripts from local farms and families — imagine sending Gypsy to war?!?!) Click here to watch National Film board of Canada footage of horses being trained for war. Fascinating.
And the human losses. Well, lest I forget the human cost of war.
As I rode my horse today in the sunshine I thought all about this. Riding around the orchard and seeing the row on row of trees I found myself thinking of the white crosses in France…the poppies on those crosses row on row. Through their grace and courtesy have I lived such a free life. Indeed this blog should really be called “most grateful redhead”. Bravery I’ve none. Not like our grandfathers.
As Gypsy was startled by the wind today, I thought how it might have sucked to have gone to war on a spooky horse. I thought how equine arts such as dressage came out of military movements on the horse. (The capriole? Designed to get you out of a tight spot on the battle field.) In any event, I wondered how many soldiers throughout history with affection loved their mounts, spoke to them softly under their breath. Fell from them. Fell under them. Had to put a bullet in them.
But then, the human tole keeps coming back to my mind. Timothy Findlay’s novel The Wars sticks in my mind still, to this day. His description of a gas attack on a muddy cold battlefield is etched in my mind & proves the human race has come up with creative and nasty ways to off one another. An excerpt;
“Sir?” said one of the men who was with him on the ledge.
“Be quiet!” said Robert. Both of them were whispering.
The man pointed.
Slithering over the crater’s rim — a pale blue fog appeared. Like a veil his mother might’ve worn.
It tumbled over the edge and began to spread out over their heads — drifting on a layer of cold, dank air rising from the pool below them.
Bates had scrabbled up the ledge.
“Put on your masks,” Robert whispered. There air seemed to be alive with sibilance. The canisters were that close.
Bates just stared.
“Put your mask on Corperal Bates!”
“I can’t,” said Bates.
“What the hell do you mean?” Robert turned and shouted hoarsely to the men below him. “Put your masks on!”
“We can‘t sir,” said Bates, “They sent us up so quick that none of us was issued masks.”
“Every man is issued a mask!” Robert shouted out loud (It was like being told that none of the men had been issued boots.)
“No, sir,” said Bates. “It aint true.” He was shaking. Shivering. His voice was barely audible. Robert might as well have yelled at God for all the good it would do. He looked at the weaving strands of gas. They were spreading further out –like a spider’s web above the crater–reaching for the other side. Some of it was spilling down towards them.
Robert didn’t even think. He just yelled, “Jump!” and leapt into the air.
Grandad in the Essex Scottish Regiment
My Grandad Pangman was an army man in WWII. (He’s the third from centre soldier/front row). I never got to talk to him about the war because he died before I was old enough to ask. I remember he was a great man in whose lap to sit. He smelt of manly solid things like tweed, a drink, and of cigarettes. (While he survived the war years, it’s very nearly possible that the smoking habit he took away from the conflict hastened his fatal heart attack.) I recall that I made him a sign once, “Kids with CF need clean air to breath…” so he stopped blowing smoke up the chimney and started going outdoors to have a puff. Honestly, me, a two and a three foot tall pip squeak bossing around a Brigadier General. He came from Winnipeg usually at Christmas. I liked his hands, and I remember his knees for I was at their height. He was tall with long fingers bushy great eyebrows and fine grey hair that I could see the comb marks in. In his lap I would climb and bounce. That same lap that belonged to the man who was in charge of so many at war…
As I said, I never got to talking about war with him as I was primarily interested in The Smurfs at the time I was hanging out at his ankles… but I read in a book some things about him of how he had saved a large number of his own men on the Italian front. It was in the big Canada’s Who’s Who. I felt proud he was in the red book. Dad said he won an award and met the king.
My other Grampa, Sawyer, how I wished I’d had the forethought to record him… Boy he was cheesed off about the war. He was so good at teaching the boys and making them good soldiers that they never sent him over to see any action. And he was mad about it! Even up until the week before he suddenly died when I recall him talking to my Thomas about the war years. I never knew he was so cheesed off to have never seen action, but it doesn’t suprize me that such a strong brave and honorable man would feel that way. I knew Grampa better as he lived into my adulthood. To think he’d seen the rise and fall of Hitler in his days. Wow. For me I rely on books, film, poetry to make it seem real. For my Grandparents generation it was very real indeed.
So, lest I forget what sacrifice and struggle they made, I took with me to bed the other night the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and of Wilfred Owen. Reading them is like reading little snapshots of the war. Frightening. Surreal. And yet very very real. Holy shit. I can say no more, except to include a few poems (though there are many I like). Lots of great films to make you take pause: Paschendeal’s battle field is frightenintly real. Gallipoli is beautiful. Tragic. Compelling. Scads of moving WWII films also.
Don’t let’s get started on war songs! We’ll Meet Again and the like not withstanding, I am most moved by Eric Bogle’s “The Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda”. (Yes, a Scotsman singing about the Australian slaughter in Turkey… I’ll give you it’s odd, but only odder when sung by an Irishman! Copiously covered, I prefer Bogle’s own version best.) His other song that moves me is “No Man’s Land” where he sings, “I can see by your gravestone you were only nineteen/ when you joined the gloriously fallen in 1916/ well I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean/ or willie mcbride was it slow and obscene?”. Moving stuff. (He also has some delightfully silly songs too, to balance out his set the time I heard him live in Toronto).
For tonight, I leave you with a few poems that you might’nt have heard lately;
by Wilfred Owen
With B.E.F. June 10. Dear Wife,
(O Blast this pencil. ‘Ere, Bill, lend’s a knife.)
I’m in the pink at present, dear.
I think the war will end this year.
We don’t see much of them square’eaded ‘Uns.
We’re out of harm’s way, not bad fed.
I’m longing for a taste of your old buns.
(Say, Jimmie, spare’s a bite of bread.)
There don’t seem much to say just now.
(Yer what? Then don’t, yer ruddy cow!
And give us back me cigarette!)
I’ll soon be ‘ome. You mustn’t fret.
My feet’s improvin’, as I told you of.
We’re out in rest now. Never fear.
(VRACH! By crumbs, but that was near.)
Mother might spare you half a sov.
Kiss Nell and Bert. When me and you –
(Eh? What the ‘ell! Stand to? Stand to!
Jim give’s a hand with pack on, lad.
Guh! Christ! I’m hit. Take ‘old. Aye, bad.
No, damn your iodine. Jim? ‘Ere!
Write my old girl, Jim, there’s a dear.)
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
(Translation: “it is sweet and good to die for one’s country”)
S. Sassoon, 1919.
Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with jot to spare.
But the past is just the same, —-and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the war that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at the Mametz,–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench, —
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,
And anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back–
With dying eyes and lolling heads, –those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.