Thursday, 30 June 2016

Survivors of The Great War

Harry Bray Young
My great grand-father served in World War 1 as a machine gunner for the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The regiment is of course famous for the fatal event that occured on July 1st, 1916 at Beaumont-Hamel, exactly 100 years ago, in which nearly 700 men died in a half hour. A great deal of fighting occured after this in the same area, since very little territory was gained in these massive battles, and my great grand-father participated in the fighting that occured after.

He was not the only one in my family to sign up for combat. His brother also signed up when he was eighteen and was in the war for an incredible five years. To give you an idea of how long that was, they say that 98% of people can only handle 90 days of intense modern warfare before battle fatigue sets in. The intense artillery blasts and risk of being hit by shells at any moment, or sniped from a far distance at any time and also seeing your friends sniped as well, makes modern warfare something that almost no one can tolerate for beyond that 90 day period. The 2% who do not suffer severe detriment after such a period are considered sociopathic.

My great grand-father was one of these men who were sniped, as a matter of fact. He was shot in the chest and arm, missing an artery by about an inch. A sudden change in the wind would have been enough to cause the bullet to strike him unfavorably, and that would have been enough not only to kill him, but I wouldn't be here to write this either. He formed a large family after the war which continues to possess a strong presence in St. John's and Logy Bay.

After the disaster that occured to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, a great deal of technological innovation was occuring beyond the trenches to allow greater leverage. We see tanks being used more extensively and aircraft being used for both surveying as well as light serving combat roles. Poison gas was still being used but it was not always that effective due to a number of events in which the wind changed and actually blew the gas back towards the offenders.

Chateau Wood near Hooge in the Ypres salient, 29 October 1917
My great grand-father was part of an advance that involved tanks. He was injured during the Battle of Steenbech, Steenbech itself being a small town near Ypres. His injuries occured approximately 1 month and 99 years ago, and would persist in causing him physical problems that resulted in great pain. Particularly, fragments of bone and bullet would continue to cause him a great deal of trouble. In spite of this, him and his son managed to form businesses that are central to the city of St. John's. King's Bridge Service Station being the most well known, however others have recently mentioned that they remember his other businesses to me.

These days it is very important to remember how awful war can be. People in those days were not necessarily particularly savage people. They just did not understand how much technology amplified destruction, and the Great War was the first big lesson in how war was now much more deadly. This war of course planted the seeds for World War II, since the Germans were quite upset about losing the first war.

A century after these terrible events it is good to reflect upon the poems written by the men in the trenches. It is important to appreciate the depth of suffering experienced by men in those fields, and consider the fact that now women serve in the infantry units of the military as well. If another great conflagration occurs it will likely be much more severe. As terrible as Adolf Hitler was, he would not use poison gas because he had fought himself in World War I. Our leaders today do not have any direct experience with war on this scale. We should be cautious of those who increase hostilities and have peace as the number one priority when we head to the voting booths. Our society is just an extention of every individual and such wars can be made impossible if every single person does their best to learn from the fruitlessness of such endeavors.

Written by Andrew Young

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) 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(4) 
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) 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,(11) 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(12) 
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13) 
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)
Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917  and March, 1918

Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est

1.  DULCE ET DECORUM EST - the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean "It is sweet and right." The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.
2.  Flares - rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.) 
3.  Distant rest - a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer 
4.  Hoots - the noise made by the shells rushing through the air 
5.  Outstripped - outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle  
 6.  Five-Nines - 5.9 calibre explosive shells 
7.  Gas! -  poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8.  Helmets -  the early name for gas masks 
9.  Lime - a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue 
10.  Panes - the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks 
11.  Guttering - Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling 
12.  Cud - normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier's mouth 
13.  High zest - idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea 
14.  ardent - keen 
15.  Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori - see note 1 above.
These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War

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