Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Forgotten Voices of the Great War

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This 2002 collection of interviews with people who lived through the First World War was gathered from the archives of London's Imperial War Museum.  I've read of number of such collections over the years and found this one an especially good one.  It contains a high number of inspiring, insightful, and emotionally hard-hitting entries.  Naturally, it is heavily weighted toward British and Commonwealth combatants, but it includes a scattering of German, French, and (from the 1918 section, exclusively) American entries. Rather than describe the work further, I think it might be better to share a few of  the contributions I enjoyed.  MH

Private W. Underwood (Canadian), 1st Canadian Division

It was a beautiful day. I was lying in a field writing a letter to my mother, the sun was shining and I remember a lark singing high up in the sky. Then, suddenly, the bombardment started and we got orders to stand to. We went up the line in two columns, one on either side of the road. But as soon as we reached the outskirts of the village of St.Julien the bullets opened up, and when I looked around I counted just 32 men left on their feet out of the whole company of 227. The rest of us managed to jump into ditches, and that saved us from being annihilated.

...Then, as we looked further away we saw this green cloud come slowly across the terrain. It was the first gas that anybody had seen or heard of and one of our boys, evidently a chemist, passed the word along that it was chlorine. And he said, “If you urinate on your handkerchiefs it will save your lungs, anyway.” So most of us did that. . . 

Sergeant Stefan Westmann (German) 29th Division, German Army

We got orders to storm the French position. We got in and I saw my comrades falling to the right and left of me. But then I was confronted by a French corporal with his bayonet to the ready, just as I had mine. I felt the fear of death in that fraction of a second when I realised that he was after my life, exactly as I was after his. But I was quicker than he was, I pushed his rifle away and ran my bayonet through his chest. He fell, putting his hand on the place where I had hit him, and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.  I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and they asked me, “Whatʼs the matter with you?” I remembered then that we had been told a good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being - the very moment he sees him as a fellow man, heʼs no longer a good soldier. My comrades were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened. One of them boasted that he had killed a poilu  with the butt of his rifle. Another one had strangled a French captain. A third had hit somebody over the head with his spade. They were ordinary men like me. One was a tram conductor, another a commercial traveller, two were students, the rest farmworkers - ordinary people who never would have thought to harm anybody.

But I had the dead French soldier in front of me, and how I would have liked him to raise his hand! I would have shaken it and we would have been the best of friends because he was nothing but a poor boy — just like me. A boy who had to fight with the cruellest of weapons against a man who had nothing against him personally, who wore the uniform of another nation and spoke another language, but a man who had a father and a mother and a family. So I woke at night sometimes, drenched in sweat, because I saw the eyes of my adversary. I tried to convince myself of that would have happened to me if I hadnʼt been quicker than him, if I hadnʼt thrust my bayonet into his belly first.

Why was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? Why was it that we who had nothing against each other personally fought to the very death? We were civilised people, after all, but I felt that the thin lacquer of civilisation, of which both sides had so much, chipped off immediately. To fire at each other from a distance, to drop bombs, is something impersonal, but to see the whites of a manʼs eyes and then to run a bayonet through him — that was against my comprehension. 

Captain Reginald Thomas (British). Royal Artillery

It was a magnificent sight as the French cavalry came out of the forest at Soissons [1918, two years after the first use of tanks]. Their uniforms were all new, bright blue, every bit and spur-chain was burnished and polished; their lances were gleaming in the sun; and as the bugler blew the charge the horses went into the gallop in a fan attack - two regiments of French cavalry. They went along beautifully, magnificently, through the wheat field in the afternoon sun, until they hit the German machine guns that had just come up and unlimbered. The machine-guns, they opened on them at close range and aimed high enough to knock the riders off their horses. Riderless horses went all over the field for two or three hours. At the end of that time there was practically nothing left of those two cavalry regiments.

A Fresh Looking Kilted Unit Somewhere on the Western Front

Sergeant Alfred West (British), Monmouthshire Regiment

One of my boys was about the ugliest man Iʼve ever seen. He was short, stumpy, and most uninteresting to look at. Well, one time I was down for a rest with my machine-gun team when I realised old Sam was missing. We watched out for him, then suddenly we saw him walking up to a cottage on top of a hill. We found that he had a little agreement with a lady - and that when she started to hang out clothes on the line, that meant her old man had gone out. When the signal came you couldnʼt hold Sam back - he was up the field.

Out of the line the boys were all wanting women. And the women, knowing this, used to put a sign in the window saying ʻWashing done for soldiers.ʼ Iʼve seen up to twenty men waiting in one room...

Sergeant-Major Richard Tobin (British), Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division

On March 26th [1918] we dropped into a trench. It was a trench we knew of old. We had started to retreat on 21st March, 1918, and here we were back in the trench we had started to attack from on November 13th, 1916

Rifleman Fred White, 10th Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps

Us fellows, it took us years to get over it. Years! Long after when you were working, married, had kids, you’d be lying in bed with your wife and you’d see it all before you. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t lie still. Many and many’s the time I’ve got up and tramped the streets till it came daylight. Walking, walking—anything to get away from your thoughts. And many’s the time I’ve met other fellows that were out there doing exactly the same thing. That went on for years, that did.

There's another volume of Forgotten Voices covering the Second World War. This  entry touched on the Great War, so I thought I would include it. The observer may have been participating in Operation Market Garden.

Sergeant Dan Hartigan, 1st Canadian Parachute Regiment (WWII)

As we flew inland from the coast at about 1,200 feet I looked down to see a strange countryside. What I saw wasn't just a western European landscape, but ravaged terrain. The vegetation cover was so sparse a looked a somewhat burgundy tinge- mud oozing from the turf. I'd never seen anything lke it. It was quite surreal. For a few miles along the flight path and stretching towards the French coast on the Channel, as far as the eye could see, were hundreds of thousands of crater rings. There were so many it appeared almost incomprehensible. Yet, there they were, sullen on the surface of this ravaged landscape. We had heard of no heavy artillery attacks in this area, certainly nothing of this concentration of fury. Then it dawned on us quietly that we were flying over the World War 1 battlefields. It was a sobering sight, which filled us with melancholy for the suffering which must have gone on down there. Yet here we were 26 years after that last war ended, going to fight the same enemy. It took some time to come back to reality.

1 comment:

  1. Some typos here - I know that Mike's vision has become is bad as mine. Forgiveness.

    Post-war soldiers walking late-night/early morning due to sleeplessness and other bad memories )- Ghosts now, and yet I sense them still...