Bearing Witness: Reading and Telling the Great War

Midway through the World War I centenary, I decided that I would use that largely unacknowledged anniversary as the theme for my freshman composition class on writing across the curriculum. The students write a literature review about shell shock for the social sciences, a popular-science paper about chemical warfare for the natural sciences, and a literary or film analysis for the humanities. In the process, they learn about trench warfare and trench foot, maconichie stew and rum rations, Kitchener’s Mob and Craiglockhart War Hospital–just a few of the endless bits of trivia about that forgotten war that I myself have learned during my preparations for the course. The smell of lice infesting one’s body and of rotting flesh underfoot. The blazing fields of poppies in Flanders, nourished by the nitrogen and lime of war technology and the blood and bones of the boys who died there. The lines that Wilfred Owen wrote as a preface to the book of poems that remained unpublished until after his death in battle exactly a week before the Armistice: “My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

On Tuesday, in preparation for the paper on chemical warfare, I told my class that cancer chemotherapy had actually evolved directly from the use of sulfur mustard and nitrogen mustard in the First World War. To personalize the discussion, I even told them that my husband was a beneficiary of that discovery when he received carmustine as part of his treatment regimen in preparation for his stem-cell transplant. “Oh, Miss Vicki,” exclaimed one of the students. “I knew there must be some reason why you are so interested in World War I”–as if there had to be a reason. But then I disabused her of that idea and said no, I became interested in the war because of the literature.

It wasn’t only the literature, by any means. It was my belief–at which I arrived mostly because of the literature–that World War I marked the most significant watershed in modern history. It is my long-held conviction that the unprecedented horrors of that war provided fertile soil for popularizing Darwin and Freud and Einstein, leading to the death of God and the hopelessness of the Roaring Twenties and the Lost Generation, “The Hollow Men” and “The Wasteland,” a world in which both Auschwitz and Hiroshima were possible–and not even surprising.

But there was–and is, of course–the literature. And for me, the richest part of this two-year project has been my almost continuous immersion in the poems and novels and short stories that lay bare the events of those four world-changing years. I have read classic novels by English, French, and German veterans of the trenches: Her Privates We  by Frederic Manning, Fear by Gabriel Chevallier, and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. I have revisited A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I have read recent war classics as well, including The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, and The Officers’ Ward by Marc Dugain. And I have a yet-to-be-read stack including Under Fire by Henri Barbusse and the remaining parts of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the war experiences of Christopher Tietjens, the last Tory.

My experience with the novel I finished this morning, however, almost led me to end this baptism by lice and mustard gas and muddy trenches. I only recently discovered Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Because of an unexplained prejudice against the Irish, though, I thought I would skip this novel about a boy who joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1914. But the reviews I read persuaded me otherwise:

Every once in a while [writes R. L. Stine for NPR], I read a sentence or paragraph in a book that is so lyrical, so well-crafted–so shockingly perfect–that I have to stop reading and take a short break. I’ll blink a few times, and then read the words again. This happened to me on page after page of Sebastian Barry’s heartbreaking World War I novel, A Long Long Way.

I had exactly the same experience, taking numerous breaks from the compelling story to read passages aloud to my husband. There is poetry on every page of narrative, making for heart-stopping and yes, heartbreaking reading. Here is but a sample, the memories of the “dangerous” past brought forth by haring a song of young girl, soldier, and death:

Stretch of road loved and itemized, fold of field, loved turn of shoulder in a wife, her feet crossing the boards of a bedroom, her clothes thrown across a chair. The voice of a singing child, the sound of a child peeing in the pot, . . . the struggle to find meat and cake. For single men the memories of their Grettas, foul words and good words, failed words of love and triumphant. How human nature ever fell short but could be summoned to illumine the dark tracts of a life nonetheless. All the matter and difficulty of being alive in a place of peace and a place of war.

The novel tells the story of 18-year-old, 5’6″ Willie Dunne, who leaves his father, his three sisters, and his girlfriend, Gretta, in Dublin to volunteer in the Irish branch of Kitchener’s Army. The unique perspective of his story is his Irish heritage at a time when the Home-Rulers volunteered because they saw themselves as fighting for their own nation at last, but the Ulstermen joined for King and Country and Empire–i.e., to prevent Home Rule.

Barry narrates Willie’s four years in the trenches of Flanders with the same level of almost naturalistic detail I have become accustomed to in my growing stack of WWI novels–and more. I read for the first time in these pages about the first-hand terror of a gas attack–before masks became standard issue.  I learned also about Bovril adverts and the Chinese Labour force. And I learned again the startling fact that on a clear day, the guns in Belgium could be heard on the beaches of Dover. I read of cruelty unimaginable in peacetime but somehow forgivable in war.

Barry’s prose brings to life the stark Belgian landscape–with its flowers and its nightingales, but also its leveled towns and the ruins of the Cloth Hall. He portrays Willie and his mates with such intimate precision that their singing voices and their soiled underpants give them humanity and make their inevitable deaths all the more painful. Like the stories of Paul Bäumer and Frederic Henry and Jean Dartemont, Willie’s story is one of loss after loss, but also one of growth and maturity. He learns to love Dostoyevsky and to provide solace to a soldier convicted of treason. He learns that there are other kinds of heroism besides shoving a bayonet between a Hun’s ribs. By the time he is 21 and on his last leave, his little sister tells him that he is an old man–something he knew before she spoke the words. And he finally accepts during that final leave the same lesson that Paul Bäumer learned on his own home leave: That whether they lived or died, his entire generation had seen too much and suffered too deeply ever to be at home anywhere but on the field of battle. It was “the sense of youth not vanishing but being submerged in a killing sea from which no one might emerge.” For Willie that knowledge was particularly powerful because the situation in Ireland had transformed him into a traitor in the eyes of his own countrymen and a probable rebel in the eyes of the War Office.

Last night, unwilling to see the story to its end, I left myself about 60 pages to read this morning. It has been many years since a book made me cry, but soon after awakening today, I was weeping real tears as I read. And by the fifth chapter from the end, I put down the book, trembling, and said to myself, “I can’t do this any more. I can’t read another book full of so much agony.” And the feeling only became stronger as I read the remaining pages of this remarkable book.

But then I realized that I have to do exactly this painful thing. It is my duty to all those boys who died in the trenches, who tried to recover their sanity at Craiglockhart, who returned home lost and empty and filled with more knowledge of horror than any of us can possibly imagine.

It is also my duty to my students. They need to know about  the war that didn’t even come close to ending war. They need to experience and be transformed by the Great War whose end we will celebrate old November 11 with bugles and poppies and speeches about making the world safe for democracy. And I must be their solitary witness.

Addendum:
For those who might be interested, I have linked below in chronological order posts related to the development of my World War I project:

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2 Responses to Bearing Witness: Reading and Telling the Great War

  1. Melva Magee says:

    Vickie, I’m not so sure at this stage in my life that I could read of such horror, sadness and loss. It is difficult for me to separate the daily challenges that I face and still come out in one piece without adding an additional responsibility on that pile.
    This does leave room for thought for another time. I enjoy your posts and receive so much information from you. Meantime, I just go about skipping down the lane with my “bubblegum” novels where we all live happily ever after. Hugs, Melva

  2. Boz says:

    Melva, I understand completely where you’re coming from! I am so delighted to know that you read and think about what I write. Hugs back to you.

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