Saturday, January 12, 2013 – from London to Ieper
After a week in London, it’s high time we actually saw some of the battlefields of World War I. So we’re boarding a motorcoach, crossing the English Channel, and heading to the Belgian province of West Flanders and a small town called Ieper.
At least, that’s what it’s called in Flemish/Dutch; in French, it’s known as Ypres. And in 1914, 1915, and 1917 Ypres hosted three of the worst battles of World War I.
In a couple of days I’ll have more to say about the challenge of picking which (and how many) such sites to visit, a choice that’s even more complicated in January. But though I haven’t yet visited the town myself, it’s an easy choice to start with Ypres. First, it reminds us that the war in the West really began with the German invasion of Belgium. (That, after all, was the official cause of Britain’s entry into the war. And it’s hard to imagine Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, or even the USA fighting absent Britain. And that’d make this a course on something other than World War I.) Second, Ieper seems to have the infrastructure to support a two-day sojourn by a group of 20+ students and their faculty. (If anything, it seems a bit touristy.) Third, it offers a variety of sites—museums, battlefield ruins and recreations, cemeteries, monuments—all within a few miles of each other.
The main WWI museum in Ieper is named after one of the most famous poems of the war: “In Flanders Fields,” by a Canadian doctor named John McCrae. Lt./Dr. McCrae penned the three stanzas after burying a friend who died at the 2nd Battle of Ypres. While he doesn’t seem to have been satisfied by it, the poem ended up being published later in 1915 in the British magazine Punch, making the author (still serving on the Western Front) something of a celebrity. McCrae died of pneumonia in January 1918, but his poem has been memorized by generations of English-speaking schoolchildren. I’d wager most of you reading already know at least the first two lines:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
I remember first encountering McCrae’s poem in a slightly obscure Peanuts animated special called “What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?” Aired on Memorial Day 1983, it goes a bit like this: the kids are waylaid at the end of their exchange study in France, rent a car (!), sleep on a beach once code-named “Omaha” (!!), and then head to London by way of Ypres, where Linus recites “In Flanders Fields” before asking Charlie Brown the titular question. (One that I love to slip into classes at moments when it seems like there’s an obvious moral. Students, understandably, don’t catch the reference.)
Trouble is, “In Flanders Fields” is a mostly forgettable poem. Certainly, there’s a reason no one remembers the final stanza:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
To sum up: the honored dead urge the living to continue the same pointless combat, and issue a veiled threat that they’ll haunt those who “break faith.” Frankly, that’s the kind of verse that would have appealed to one of the German veterans of 1st Ypres, who later insisted that he and his comrades, in the midst of one of their army’s worst defeats, joined together in singing “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles!” while “Death busily plunged his hand into our rows…”
For my money, McCrae wasn’t even the best doctor-poet to have served in Flanders. That honor should go to a German surgeon named Wilhelm Klemm, whose Expressionistic works were first published in 1915 in a collection entitled Gloria!: War Poems from the Front, and then throughout the war in literary journals. Writing in a modernist, free verse style that couldn’t be less like the formal rhythms of McCrae’s rondeau (a French type originating in the Late Middle Ages), Klemm captured the profanity of warfare in terms that are, by turns, clinically detached and deliberately provocative.
Two of his most famous works are both called “Clearing Station,” after the frontline medical unit where Klemm worked to identify and triage the grotesque wounds inflicted by modern weaponry.
The first opens with resignation: “Every morning there is war again.” Soon we read of “festered dressings,” the “pallor of suppuration,” and “the rhythmical groaning of those with stomach wounds.” The horror crescendos as we slip on “The ribbons of spilt blood” and smell “The gamut of odours” wafting from ” The great pitchers full of pus, cotton-wool, blood, amputated limbs, the dressings full of maggots. / The wounds full of bone and straw.”
Halfway through the poem Klemm abandons any restraint (note that he substitutes mild vulgarity for anatomical precision at one point) as he tries to convey what it’s like to see the effects of shrapnel and gangrene:
Intestines hang out. From a rippled saddle of flesh
the spleen and stomach have welled. A rump-bone gapes round an
On the amputated stump flesh foams into the air.
Proliferating like fungi, streams of bright green pus
flow; jutting out over flesh
pulses the tree of arteries tied underneath.
While he acknowledges the “silent heroism” of the suffering and even testifies that some murmur “For the Fatherland!” with their last breath, a poem that closes “Until a gasping for breath comes, – and the pearls of sweat, / when the night sinks on grey faces – / a soldier’s grave – two laths tied in a cross” will never be confused for a recruiting pitch.
Klemm’s second “Clearing Station” is a bit less visceral (literally and figuratively), but still convicting. It’s written in the voice of a doctor at the end of a twenty-hour shift, unable to find sleep while surrounded by sights, smells, and memories too horrific to be prettied up with rhyme. It’s worth quoting at length:
Straw rustling everywhere.
The candle-stumps stand there staring solemnly.
Across the nocturnal vault of the church
Moans go drifting and choking words.
There’s a stench of blood, pus, shit and sweat.
Bandages ooze away underneath torn uniforms.
Clammy trembling hands and wasted faces.
Bodies stay propped up as their dying heads slump down.
In the distance the battle thunders grimly on,
Day and night, groaning and grumbling non-stop,
And to the dying men patiently waiting for their graves
It sounds for all the world like the words of God.
Tomorrow: we spend the day on the Ypres battlefields, and the night observing the 29,000th iteration of a famous ritual.