July 1st marked the 90th anniversary of The Battle Of The Somme. Perhaps one of the most deadliest days of WW1. It was a pretty horrible affair. (see the end of the entry for casualty reports)
It broke the spirit of the German Army, and was the beginning of the end of the conflict. It also marked a whole generation in such a way that we probably cannot get our head around it in our time… This entry has a combination of German, Austrian and British poets from WW1. The British poets section is compiled of poets who died at The Somme, including several who died on the first day.
The Great Lie that came out of the conflict was that it was the war to end all war. It was in truth, the end of the world as it had been known. A horrible end, and a beginning of something that is still being defined…
Poetry came out of this conflict, Great Art and Literature hand in hand. But, the flower of a whole generation was lost. (see the article on Tolkien below)
The Somme was as senseless as senseless could be. I believe it is our job to struggle against such madness that leads to these outcomes. We are confronted by massive stupidity at the present time that could tumble us deeply into an abyss even deeper than The Great War. The current conflict has been manufactured to benefit the few. Again kids are going off to battle, and someone elsewhere is reaping a huge financial benefit from it. Follow the money, and the smell of greed and madness.
On The Menu
German & Austrian War Poets
The British Poets Who Fell The First Day of Battle at The Somme
A British Poet who died as well at Somme, but later
Counting the cost of the Battle and more…
Third stanza of the Hymn of Hate (1914), by Ernst Lissauer:
What do we care for the Russians or French?
Shot against shot, and thrust for thrust!
We fight the foe with bronze and sheath,
And some day or other we make our peace.
You we shall hate with enduring hate;
We shall not forbear from our hate;
Hate on water and hate on land,
Hate of the head and hate of the hand,
Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,
Hate of seventy millions pressing down.
We love as one; we hate as one;
We have one foe, and one alone – ENGLAND !
(The hymn was distributed in the German army, taught to German school children, set to music and sung in concerts. Lissauer was decorated for it by the Kaiser. He died in 1937. Hitler eradicated the Jewish poet from German memory, but continued to use his work for propaganda.)
I couldn’t locate poets from Germany who had participated in The Somme. It in fact was difficult in finding works that were translated into English…
German & Austrian War Poets:
Alfred Lichtenstein was born in Berlin in 1889, the son of a Prussian Jewish factory-owner. After he left school he studied law, but made sure he had time for his first interest: writing. He wrote stories, including a book of tales for children. He linked even his university law thesis to literature, concentrating on laws concerned with theatrical productions.
But it was his poems that drew most attention. He wrote about the industrialised world he knew, and about city life and its darker aspects. The realistic gloom his poems invoked was often salted with irony and a grim wit. In 1913, one notable literary magazine dedicated a whole issue to Alfred Lichtenstein’s work, with a pen and ink portrait of him on the front cover.
The war began before he had completed his year of compulsory military service, and his regiment was sent to the western front line immediately. Alfred Lichtenstein died from wounds in September 1914. He was only 25 years old.
His poem ‘Gebet vor dem Schlacht’ is a fine example of his dark humour.
Prayer before Battle
The troops sing with fervour, every man for himself:
O God, save me from rotten luck.
O Father, Son and Holy Spirit, please
Don’t let any shells hit me,
Or our enemies, those bastards,
Take me prisoner or shoot me.
Let me not kick the bucket like a dog
For my dear country.
Look, I’d really like to go on living,
Milking cows, having sex with girls
Beating up that low-life, Sepp,
Getting pissed a lot more times
Before I meet my blessed end.
Look, I’ll say my prayers well and willingly,
I’ll say the rosary seven times a day
If you, O God, in your mercy
Make my friend Huber, or maybe Meier,
Die, and let me live.
But if I’ve got to take it,
Don’t let me be badly wounded.
Send me a minor leg wound
A little injury to an arm,
So I can come back home a hero
And with a story to tell.
Peter Baum was a Rhinelander, born in Eberfeld in 1869 to parents who were religious and strict. Against this background his imagination flowered, and he became a writer of strange and fantastical stories and poems.
He has been described as ‘a naturally trusting, naive and peaceable man’. Some people took advantage of his good nature, and his early attempts to make a living as a publisher came to nothing. But in 1898, through his portrait painter sister, he was introduced to well-known writers who took a sincere interest in him. His work was even accepted by a ground-breaking literary magazine.
When he found himself, at the age of 45, caught up in the real, not imaginary, terrors of war, his poetry changed. Now he worked at a more subtle use of poetic language, exploring the way in which poetic images can convey a process or sequence of events. ‘Am Beginn des Krieges’ (below) is a moving example of this. It moves from the beginning of the war to its peak, playing on the contrast between images of hope and peace (the arch of a rainbow, doves) and images of the over-arching power and destructiveness of war.
A gentle, peace-loving man like Peter Baum was naturally deeply distressed by his time on the western front. He served as a stretcher-bearer, which meant that he saw, many times, the terrible sufferings of wounded and dying soldiers. His experiences prevented him from sleeping, an additional stress. His tasks included grave-digging, and this is what he was doing on June 5 1916 when a stray piece of shrapnel hit him. He died the next day.
At the Beginning of the War
At the beginning of the war there was a rainbow.
Black birds against grey clouds cut circles.
Doves gleamed silver as, on their wheeling flight
They twisted through a slender shaft of light.
Battle follows hard on battle. They were superb liars.
Rank on rank of gaping heads rouse horrors.
Shells continually explode as, whistling softly,
The arc of their trajectory bows down from its climb.
The pain-bow of the shells is waxing all the time.
Stalled between Death and the rainbow arch of peace,
To protect their land men grip their rifles tighter,
Spit at the enemy, lean on each other as they totter.
Toppling like billows over hillocks in their course,
They waver on, drawn by Death’s magnetic force.
Georg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria, son of a thriving ironmonger. He was always interested in literature, French and Russian as well as German, and went on to write plays and poems himself. His training, though, was in medicine: he studied pharmacy in Salzburg and at Vienna University, which meant that his compulsory year of military service in 1911 was spent working as a dispensing chemist with the Austrian army’s Medical Corps.
Georg Trakl was a troubled man, who turned to both drink and drugs for support. He found it difficult to live in cities, or to stay in the jobs he was offered. His writing, however, caught people’s interest. A magazine editor became his friend and patron, and when the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein gave away his inheritance in 1914 some of it was distributed to Georg Trakl. Wittgenstein said of Trakl’s poetry: ‘I don’t understand it but its tone delights me’.
Soon after the start of the war, Georg Trakl saw active service with the Medical Corps, and he was at the battle of Grodek on the eastern front. Here he found that he, a pharmacist, was in charge of many seriously wounded men with no doctors, nurses or medical supplies to speak of. One man shot himself to escape. Outside Trakl’s ‘hospital’ several deserters were hanged.
He collapsed as a result of these dreadful experiences of war, and was sent to Cracow for treatment – for schizophrenia. ‘Treatment’ meant being locked in a cell. At the beginning of November 1914, Georg Trakl died of an overdose of cocaine at the age of 27. His batman remained convinced that he had not intended to take his life.
One of the last poems he wrote was about the battle at Grodek.
At evening the autumn woodlands ring
With deadly weapons. Over the golden plains
And lakes of blue, the sun
More darkly rolls. The night surrounds
Warriors dying and the wild lament
Of their fragmented mouths.
Yet silently there gather in the willow combe
Red clouds inhabited by an angry god,
Shed blood, and the chill of the moon.
All roads lead to black decay.
Under golden branching of the night and stars
A sister’s shadow sways through the still grove
To greet the heroes’ spirits, the bloodied heads.
And softly in the reeds Autumn’s dark flutes resound.
O prouder mourning! – You brazen altars,
The spirit’s hot flame is fed now by a tremendous pain:
The grandsons, unborn.
The British Poets Who Fell The First Day of Battle at The Somme:
2nd Lt. Glbert Waterhouse: Served with the 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment, which partook in the bitter hand-to-hand fighting south of the village of Serre. At the end of the day, Waterhouse was counted among the missing, presumed dead. Buried at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, Beaumont Hamel & Hebuterne.
… But the minnewerfers fell,
And the blackbird ceased his song,
And the place became a hell,
Rang with curses loud and long ~
Blackbird, chaffinch, bumble-bee
Fled away upon the wing ~
Where they sang so merrily
Other messengers now sing ~
Bumble bee is busy still,
Blackbird and the chaffinch sing
In another faery dell,
By the village on the hill;
But a devil out of hell
Tossing high explosive shell,
Gambols in the flowery dell
Where the minnewerfers fell.
Sergeant John William Streets: Served in the 12th. York & Lancaster Regiment. Known as “The Miner Poet”. Killed on the first day of the Somme, during the fighting for Serre. He was wounded early in the day and was returning to a dressing station when he heard that another soldier of his platoon was too badly wounded to return on his own, so Streets went back to find him. He was never seen again. He was 31. Buried Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps.
Back to their Mother Earth this night return
Unnumbered youth along the far-flung line;
But ’tis for these my eyes with feeling burn,
That Memory doth erect a fadeless shrine ~
For these I’ve known, admired, ardently friended
Stood by when Death their love, their youth swift ended.
Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, 9th Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment. Hodgson was awarded the Military Cross. In April 1916 the Battalion was in front line trenches opposite Mametz. On the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, Hodgson was killed by a bullet in the throat from German machine gun fire while taking a supply of bombs to his men in newly captured trenches near Mametz. Buried at Devonshire Cemetery, Mansel Copse, Mametz.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; ~
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
2nd Lt. Henry Field: Served with the 6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiement. He was killed on the first day Somme during the bitter fighting for Serre, one of 836 casualties from his battalion. He was 22. Buried at Serre Road Cemetery No.2, Beaumont Hamel & Hebuterne.
Above the shot-blown trench he stands,
Tall and thin against the sky;
His thin white face, and thin white hands,
Are the signs his people know him by.
His soldier’s coat is silver barred
And on his head the well-known crest.
Above th shot-blown trench he stands,
The bright escutcheon on his breast,
And traced in silver bone for bone
The likeness of a skeleton.
(At the end of this so called First Day of the Somme 58,000 British troops were lost (one third of them killed), which to this day remains a one-day record. The battle ran on until the 18th of November, at which point it was called off )
A British Poet who died as well at Somme, but later:
Captain Richard DENNYS. Born December 17, 1884, in London. Educated at Winchester College: pianist, painter, actor, writer, poet. At the outbreak of the war, he was commissioned in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. Captain Dennys was seriously wounded on July 12, 1916, near Albert, while pushing forward with his battalion from Usna-Tara Hill during a heavy artillery bombardment in the Somme advance. He was taken to the British General Hospital at Rouen, where he died twelve days later.
Come when it may, the stern decree
For me to leave the cheery throng
And quit the sturdy company
Of brothers that I work among.
No need for me to look askance,
Since no rehgret my prospect mars.
My day was happy ~ and perchance
The coming night is full of stars.
~~~ THERE IS NO DEATH. With Forward by Captain Desmond Coke. (John Lane).
Counting the cost of the Battle and more…
Volunteers for British army, including territorial army (Conscription began early 1916. Few, if any, conscripts fought at the Somme.)
1 million+: Number of casualties on both sides at the Somme.
419,654: Number of British casualities at the Somme, including dead and wounded.
54,470: Number of British casualties on July 1st, 1916, of which
19,420 died in battle. This included:
2000+ from the Ulster Division who died. Another 2700 men were wounded.
500+ Battalions which suffered 500 plus casulties on the first day:
Ist Tyneside (620)
4th Tyneside (539)
Co Down Volunteers (595)
1st Royal Inniskillings (568)
Armagh, Cavan & Monaghan Volunteers (562)
Leeds Pals (528)
The Germans Suffered Horribly as well:
465,000 to 600,000 Casualties (of which 164,055 killed or missing)
(A Chaplain Attending the Dead at The Somme)