Rembrance Day 2014: Remembering the Dead of Other Nations

German War Corpse

Skeleton of a German solider outside his dugout. In History of the World,II ed. Esmond Wright (Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing Ltd 1985) 582.

God heard the embattled nations shout
Gott strafe England and God save the King.
Good God, said God,
I’ve got my work cut out.

J.C. Squire, in Peter Vansittart, Voices: 1870-1914 (New York: Franklin Watts 1985) 255.

As if anyone needed reminding, it’s the 11th November, Armistice Day, 2014, the centenary year of the beginning of the First World War. Last Sunday was Remembrance Day. The media has been carrying stories about the First World War and its outbreak, including the inevitable ceremonies and services for the dead. It’s important to remember in all this that the War killed 14 million people from nations across the world. The official international ceremony at the memorials in Flanders did mark this, it’s true, and the Germans were properly included and their dead remembered. Yet the dead and suffering of other nations can all too easily be forgotten as Britain concentrates on its dead.

Earlier this year I posted pieces on collections of poetry about the War, including a forthcoming graphic novel of stories and accounts from the conflict by some of Britain’s great comics artists and writers, edited by Pat Mills. A number of commenters pointed out that the voices of the other nations that fought in the conflict were absent, and recommended a number of books, that contained works by them. In my article yesterday criticising Gove’s attack on Blackadder Goes Forth, I put up Christian Morgenstern’s poem, The Knee. Morgenstern was a soldier in the German army during the War, who started writing extremely dark, comic poems based on his experiences. These included seeing the head and entrails of a friend hanging from a tree after a shell had exploded near them. Morgenstern was struck by how funny and absurd the sight was, rather than its horror. The Knee is about a disembodied knee roaming alone across the Earth after the man it belonged to was killed in the War. And so

Since then, it roams the whole world, lonely,
It is a knee, now, only;
It’s not a tent; it’s not a tree;
Only a knee, no more.

Here’s another poem about the War, this time by the Austrian poet, Georg Trakl, who committed suicide during the War.

Grodek

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons and the golden plains,
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the willow dell
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
A prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

From Vansittart, op. cit., 263.

The Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka, gave this description of his decision to enlist:

In 1914 I was twenty-eight years old, and thus liable for military service. It seemed to me better to volunteer before I was conscripted. I had no wife or child to await my happy return. I had nothing to lose or to defend. I felt melancholy at the sight of the young bank clerks, the little office workers, whom I saw hurrying with their suitcases to enlist, and yet I did not share the doom-laden mood that prevailed on the streets. The air was thick with rumours that part of the army had gone into the field wearing peacetime uniforms, with inadequate weapons and obsolete equipment. There had been no proper rearmament, and sloppiness was the rule in Austria-Hungary. Men took up arms only to die.

Vansittart, op. cit., 257-8.

So there it is. Across Europe, men and women were sent to their deaths en masse by a political and military establishment that had no notion of what the War would entail, nor any real idea how to fight it.

Dulce et decorum est, indeed!

I can remember reading one poem, I think it was by Siegfried Sassoon, which remarked how strange it was in war to be killing men you’d like and have a drink with, if you met them in the street in peacetime. Let’s remember that, rather than the vainglory of military ambition and pointless bloodshed, and strive to build a better world, where nation can truly speak peace unto nation.

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5 Responses to “Rembrance Day 2014: Remembering the Dead of Other Nations”

  1. Beep boop beep boop Says:

    Thomas Hardy, “The Man He Killed”, not Sigfried Sassoon.

  2. untynewear Says:

    There were apparently international communities of deserters – from both sides – who’d had enough of the war and scraped a living together around supply bases from which they liberated food, etc.

    I don’t know if any of them left memoirs. It’d be fascinating to know more.

    • beastrabban Says:

      That’s interesting, Untynewear. I hadn’t heard of that, but it doesn’t surprise me. It would indeed be great to find out more about it. I wonder if anyone else out there knows anything about this:

      • untynewear Says:

        My main source is the book ‘The Monocled Mutiner’, which is basically about Percy Toplis, a mutiple deserter himself (who was effectively executed by armed plain-clothes police near Penrith after the war). It doesn’t go into great detail about these alledged communities unfortunately.

        Kim Newman’s novel ‘The Bloody Red Baron’ also features a community of international deserters living in no-mans land, albeit they are vampires ! But presumably Newman based them on real-life accounts.

        I think the very idea that such things might exist would have been supressed by the authorities (as was the mutiny of British and Commonwealth troops at Etaples in 1917 – Brits just don’t do things like that !). It’s possible there might be French, German or commonwealth written accounts, I suppose.

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