Nancy Gish wrote:
> Re: Waste Land and war--soldiers like Stetson and Lil's husband, rats
> alley (a term apparently for the trenches), dead bodies, the song about
> Mrs. Porter, which was apparently sung by Australian troops. . . .
It was apparently difficult even for contemporaries to grasp the deep
horrors of World War I. (All wars have their horrors, but World War 1
seems to have been in some ways unique.) Responses from participants in
the Battle of Verdun can give some distant sense of it. (The URL for
this was posted on another list in response to some offensive posts on
French courage.) Some of these excerpts provide a gloss on "dead bodies"
which the phrase alone cannot carry.
I am not a pacifist, but how people can lightly be cheerleaders for war,
as some on this list are, is beyond my powers of imagination.
Here are just a few samples from the page, Witnesses of Verdun
A French captain reports: ...I have returned from the most terrible
ordeal I have ever witnessed. […] Four days and four nights - ninety-six
hours - the last two days in ice-cold mud - kept under relentless fire,
without any protection whatsoever except for the narrow trench, which
even seemed to be too wide. […] I arrived with 175 men, I returned with
34 of whom several had half turned insane....
The last note from the diary of Alfred Joubaire, a French soldier:
...They must be crazy to do what they are doing now: what a bloodbath,
what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to
express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful. People are insane!...
An eye-witness: ...One soldier was going insane with thirst and drank
from a pond covered with a greenish layer near Le Mort-Homme. A corpse
was afloat in it; his black countenance face down in the water and his
abdomen swollen as if he had been filling himself up with water for days
A witness tells: ...We all carried the smell of dead bodies with us. The
bread we ate, the stagnant water we drank… Everything we touched smelled
of decomposition due to the fact that the earth surrounding us was
packed with dead bodies....
Henri Barbusse describes the trenches as: ...a network of elongated pits
in which the nightly excreta are piling up. The bottom is covered with a
swampy layer from which the feet have to extricate themselves with every
step. It smells dreadfully of urine all over....
A French stretcher-bearer describes the consequences of a flame-thrower
attack: ...Some grenadiers returned with ghastly wounds: hair and
eyebrows singed, almost not human anymore, black creatures with
Louis Barthas also describes such an attack: ...At my feet two unlucky
creatures rolled the floor in misery. Their clothes and hands, their
entire bodies were on fire. They were living torches. [The next day] In
front of us on the floor the two I had witnessed ablaze, lay rattling.
They were so unrecognisably mutilated that we could not decide on their
identities. Their skin was black entirely. One of them died that same
night. In a fit of insanity the other hummed a tune from his childhood,
talked to his wife and his mother and spoke of his village. Tears were
in our eyes....
A German officer recalls: ...We saw a handful of soldiers, commanded by
a Captain, slowly approaching, one at the time. The Captain asked which
company we were and then started to cry all of a sudden. Did he suffer
of shellshock? Then he said: ...when I saw you approach it reminded me
of six days ago, when I walked this same road with approximately hundred
men. And now look how few there are left.... We watched as we passed
them; they where about twenty. They walked by us as living, plastered
statues. Their faces stared at us like shrunken mummies, and their eyes
were so immense that you could not see anything but their eyes....
An eye-witness: ...There is nothing as tiring as the continuous,
enormous bombardment as we have lived through, last night, at the front.
The night is disturbed by light as clear as if it were day. The earth
moves and shakes like jelly. And the men who are still at the frontline,
cannot hear anything but the drumfire, the moaning of wounded friends,
the screams of hurt horses, the wild pounding of their own hearts, hour
after hour, day after day, night after night....
A German soldier: ...the soldiers fell over like tin soldiers. Almost
all our officers get hurt or killed and many of our men get killed
because of their own artillery fire, which is too close and therefore
causes many victims...
A German eye-witness: ...The losses are registered as follows: they are
dead, wounded, missing, nervous wrecks, ill and exhausted. Nearly all
suffer from dysentery. Because of the failing provisioning the men are
forced to use up their emergency rations of salty meats. They quenched
their thirst with water from the shellholes. They are stationed in the
village of Ville where every form of care seems to be missing. They have
to build their own accommodation and are given a little cacao to stop
the diarrhoea. The latrines, wooden beams hanging over open holes, are
occupied day and night - the holes are filled with slime and blood...
A German witness: ….the latrines cause major problems. They are
completely blocked up and smell terribly. This stench is fought with
chlorinated lime and this smell mixes with the battlefield smell of
decomposition. Men even wear their gas masks when using the latrines…
A German soldier: …and during the summer months the swarms of flies
around the corpses and the stench, that horrible stench. If we had to
construct trenches we put garlic cloves in our nostrils…
An eye-witness: … you could never get rid of the horrible stench. If we
were on leave and we were having a drink somewhere, it would only last a
few minutes before the people at the table beside us would stand up and
leave. It was impossible to endure the horrible stench of Verdun...
A French soldier: …everyone who searches for cover in a shell hole,
stumbles across slippery, decomposing bodies and has to proceed with
smelly hands and smelly clothes…
A German soldier: …in the drumfire bravery no longer exists: only
nerves, nerves, nerves. When anyone is exposed unto such trials and
tribulations he is no longer of any use as an attacker or defender…
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