Hazel McHaffie

World War 1

75 years on

6 June 1944, saw the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history; D-Day. Seventy-five years on to the day, it seems fitting that I should mark it in some way. What better for the purposes of this blog than to write about a book that challenged me in many ways to think again about what has been done in the name of honour, duty and country.

I found The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, (shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2001) in the Christian Aid book sale last month. Every now and then I do try to upgrade my literary antennae by reading something from the higher literary shelves! Besides which, my son is an authority on some of the themes it covers; I think we should try to understand what it felt like ‘on the other side’; and the blurb appealed.

The book tells the stories of three ordinary Germans, the descendants of Nazis/Nazi sympathisers.
Helmut is ‘a young photographer in Berlin in the 1930s who uses his craft to express his patriotic fervour‘. Hmm. Well, I’ve read another debut manuscript recently which does something similar – still to be published, so I can’t add a link yet. Both raise issues for me. How far would I have risked my life to expose the horrors of persecution and discrimination in those circumstances?
Lore is a 12-year-old girl in 1945 who ‘guides her young siblings across a devastated Germany after her Nazi parents are seized by the Allies‘. Hmmm, that same year my parents were doing their best to cope with the vicissitudes of life in this country, altered forever by the same war. They struggled with the tensions of conflicting ideologies and family security and public censure. Would I have held fast to my principles and risked so much?
Michael is ‘a young teacher obsessed with what his loving grandfather did in the war, struggling to deal with the past of his family and his country’. Hmmm, my uncle died at the age of 20 on the battlefields of the Somme, in WW1, fighting for the other side. I regret the senseless waste of his life, but I see him as collateral damage, ‘doing his duty’ as he perceived it. How differently would I feel if he had ordered millions to the gas chambers, or shot children in cold blood, or even stood by condoning such barbarity? Would that be ‘doing his duty’?

So this book resonated in many ways, and challenged me to think again about guilt, and responsibility, and both personal and national culpability. Are any of us completely blameless? How much are we accountable for what is done on our behalf? After all, as the famous quote has it, The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

There are two passages in The Dark Room that highlight the importance of facing squarely what is done in our name. Both come from Michael, the young teacher who’s obsessed with the discrepancy between the two faces of Askan Boell; one the loving grandfather who amused him with drawings, and dandled him on his knee; the other a Waffen SS officer who countenanced and carried out the deaths of an untold number of innocents. Michael’s struggling with the whitewashing of history he sees in the education of German students:

They are being taught that there are no perpetrators, only victims. They are being taught like it just happened, you know, just out of the blue people came along and did it and then disappeared. Not the same people who lived in the same towns and did the same jobs and had children and grandchildren after the war.

I just think they should read about the people who did it, too. The real, everyday people, you know. Not just Hitler and Eichmann and whoever. All the underlings, I mean. The students should learn about their lives, the ones who really did the killing.

Having allowed himself to go there, Michael finds himself consumed with rage and shame. And appalled at the wanton refusal to accept reality that he encounters in his family. Even his own mother denies the possibility that her father was a brutal killer. She was twelve when he returned after the war. Yes, he was a soldier, he killed other soldiers in battle, she accepts that, but not … not murder. Because she ‘knew him‘ – her loving father.  ‘He was my Papa. Always Askan. Just the way he was … he wasn’t capable …’  How would we feel in their shoes? Would we even want to know?

And even those most intimately involved reconstructed the truth. As one of Michael’s informants, Josef Kolesniki, a collaborator, says: those in authority said killing the Jews was the thing to do. They didn’t order anyone to do the killing, so they absolved themselves of the responsibility: they said the men voluntarily chose to pull the trigger. But the men aiming the guns were doing what they’d been told was right, so they weren’t  responsible either. Is it possible for us too to completely delude ourselves and deny all moral responsibility for what we do? Could we too be sucked into an evil system and lose our own moral compass?

And it’s these big challenges underpinning the tales of three young Germans that lift The Dark Room into a different league. I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the book, or the writing style. But I did appreciate the bigger messages. It’s only by honestly facing such issues that we can take those vital steps towards learning from the mistakes of the past.

 

 

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Birdsong

I’m having to eat a large slice of humble pie this week. It all started when I watched the BBC 1 drama, Birdsong, shown the weekend before last, and jumped to far too many conclusions.

It’s almost unheard of for me to read a novel for a second time, but that’s what I’ve felt compelled to do with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. Strange really to think that it’s taken eighteen years to dramatise this book which received such critical acclaim in 1994. But at least it was shown in a prime time slot at the weekend when it did finally get an airing.

Although it’s come in for its fair share of criticism, I personally enjoyed the film, but nevertheless had a sense of disquiet (as I usually do in these circumstances) about the extent to which the drama differed from the book. How would the author feel seeing his careful creation thus distorted? It’s ages since I read the book, so I couldn’t be sure, but my sense was that the main male protagonist seemed too weak, both as a potential lover and as a military officer; the romance seemed implausibly fast-paced; the response to the child Françoise too chaotic.

However, I still had my paperback – too good to give away – so I decided to check it out for myself while the film was still fresh in my mind. There is inevitably a degree of licence taken, but to my amazement, the BBC version followed the book much more closely than I remembered, and indeed more so than adaptations usually do.

The story has two main elements: the First World War and a romance. In the book the two are compartmentalised; in the film they’re interwoven to excellent effect.

Stephen Wraysford is 20 when he goes to France to learn more about the textile trade. Portrayed by Eddie Redmayne, he seemed a bit of a wimp, a pretty boy who did a lot of staring in a gormless kind of way. And not exactly gifted in the communication stakes either. Surely not the kind of fella who the beautiful and mature Isabelle Azaire (Clémence Poésy) would fall for. But, there it is in black and white. He’s

‘a tall figure with hands thrust into his pockets, his eyes patient and intent, the angle of his body that of a youthful indifference cultivated by willpower and necessity. It was a face which in turn most people treated cautiously, unsure whether its ambivalent expressions would resolve themselves into passion or acquiescence.’

He does indeed do a lot of ‘staring‘, his ‘face expressionless’. I apologise for doubting the scriptwriter (Abi Morgan), director (Philip Martin) and the actor.

So, what of the precipitate pursuit of the lovely but very dignified Isabelle? In the film they’ve hardly got past the coy looks and one touch of ankles before he’s romping in the red room with her, all caution, all decorum, thrown to the winds. Given the discrepancy in their ages and backgrounds, their relative positions, and the protocol of the times, surely not, I thought. But lo and behold, it’s all there, early in the book – ‘the uncontrollable fury of his desire, fully reciprocated by Isabelle‘. Indeed Isabelle is even more abandoned in the written account of their dealings.

The story of the child Françoise coming to terms with a father who is hugely damaged by the war is admittedly very different in the book, but the film version neatly gets over the omission of a chunk of the narrative that centres on Wraysford’s granddaughter. And the essential truth of the account is neither lost nor distorted by the adaptation. So hats off again to the script writer.

Then there’s the war story. Tall order to capture that, but has it been true to Faulk’s narrative? Wraysford on screen seems initially to be far too timid and fearful to command the respect of his men in the trenches or on no-man’s-land. Surely he’d have had to appear more assertive. But no. A sergeant major says of him: ‘he seemed forgetful and distant … as though he was not all there’ He has a ‘blank, remote expression’, a great ‘void in his soul’. Redmayne took this on board faithfully.

And behind that glazed look beats a failing heart. A scared and haunted man, ill-suited to the task of taking his troops into battle. On the night before a major offensive he explains in a letter:

I am frightened of dying. I have seen what shells can do. I am scared of lying wounded all day in a shellhole. Isabelle, I am terribly frightened I shall die alone with no one to touch me. But I have to show an example. I have to go over [the top] first in the morning. Be with me, Isabelle, be with me in spirit. Help me to lead them into what awaits us.’

The depiction of the war itself in the book is even more horrific than the film version and that was graphic enough. Faulks captures the mood and the mounting tension brilliantly. The feelings of the men facing almost certain death in the Somme attack are evident in a series of poignant letters home, full of false reassurances. Then a moving tense and sleepless night of waiting, dreading.

‘Eight hours before the revised time of attack the guns went quiet, preserving shells for the morning.

It was night-time, but no man slept…

Towards four, the lowest time of the night, there was a mortal quiet along the line. No one spoke. There was for once no sound of birds …

Gray, urgent, sour-breathed at the head of the communication trench. ‘The attack will be at seven thirty.’

The platoon commanders were stricken, disbelieving. “In daylight? In daylight?” The men’s faces cowed and haunted when they were told.’

The account of what Stephen Wraysford sees and feels in no-man’s-land when they do eventually go over the top, when they reach the wire, makes heart-stopping reading. The ‘unlivable reality’ as that ‘ragged suicidal line … trudged towards the pattering death of mounted guns’ while all around them ‘packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground‘. I won’t spoil the effect of the chapter by reproducing parts of it here. You have to build up to it to appreciate the description fully. How anyone returned sane after what they had seen is a mystery.

‘They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away … they had seen the worst and they had survived … they had locked up in their hearts the horror of what they had seen.’ In ‘their sad faces was the burden of their unwanted knowledge. They ‘did not feel hardened or strengthened’ but ‘impoverished and demeaned.’

Stephen himself carries out an act utterly unimaginable except in the First World War trenches – included in sanitised form in the film. And goes on to develop a murderous rage against the people who killed the men he loved; much more poignantly comprehensible in the book. Indeed the rationale for much of what was done needs the slower exploration of the written prose to unravel and explain it.

The bomb blasts and terrible wounds we saw on our screens, too, are multiplied several times in the written word, with its body parts in extraordinary places. Incredibly powerful writing.

‘”Of course,” the lieutenant said with a sigh, “the war has provided all of us with daily lessons in anatomy. I could write a paper on the major organs of the British private soldier. Liver in section. Bowel, extent of when eviscerated. The powdery bone of the average English subaltern.”‘

‘… his head was cut away in section, so that the smooth skin and handsome face remained on one side, but on the other were the ragged edges of skull from which the remains of his brain were dropping onto his scorched uniform.’

‘… there was a roar in the tunnel and a huge ball of earth and rock blew past them. It took four men with it, their heads and limbs blown away and mixed with the rushing soil. … Jack saw part of Turner’s face and hair still attached to a piece of skull rolling to a halt where the tunnel narrowed where he had been digging. There was an arm with a corporal’s stripe on it near his feet, but most of the men’s bodies had been blown into the moist earth.’

After witnessing this carnage in the tunnel, following over six hours of digging forty-five feet underground in pitch darkness with ‘several hundred thousand tons of France above his face‘, Jack Firebrace (brilliantly acted by Joseph Mawie) drags himself over to the dugout, burdened by the knowledge of his own mistake which had led to these deaths. There he is given a letter from his wife but with masterly understatement Faulks writes

‘He folded it away inside his pocket. He could not bring his mind to bear on the distant world her handwriting suggested. He was afraid he would not understand her letter, that she would be telling him something important his mind was too tired to register.’

Firebrace is one of the miners who digs underground tunnels under enemy lines. I hadn’t appreciated their role in the war before. In the book his inner thoughts and conflicts provide vivid insights beyond the scope of any BBC drama, as he worries about his son John back at home suffering, possibly dying, from diphtheria; about his own court martial and probable death; his personal responsibility for interpreting the sounds of enemy action; his need not to form too close a friendship with men who will be blown to smithereens in front of him.

I think I felt the accumulating horror more deeply knowing that my own uncle was one of those whose ‘shattered flesh’ was left to lie in ‘stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil,’ in that very place in France where Stephen Wraysford fought for king and country. Thiepval memorialUncle Harold’s name is chiselled into that memorial in Thiepval to the unfound, ‘the lost’ – newly cleaned up to preserve it for posterity. I can only hope my grandmother never heard a true account of ‘the hellish perversion’ he must have experienced. Her heart could not have withstood Faulk’s description of the carnage. It moved me to tears on his behalf, and he died before even my mother was born.

So, all in all, contemplating the atrocities of war, the sacrifices these men – boys really – and their families made, and facing up to my own misconceptions, I’ve had a humbling week.

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At the Going Down of the Sun

Thiepval memorialMy uncle Harold lies somewhere in France, killed in the battle of the Somme. Well, actually ‘missing presumed dead’. His name is carved at the top of a list on the Thiepval memorial on the site.

He was 21 years of age. Much the same age as the main characters in At the Going Down of the Sun by Elizabeth Darrell which I’ve just finished reading. And in a way he has come alive for me through this epic tale of World War I.

At the Going Down of the SunIt’s not a book for the faint-hearted – either in size (a doorstopper at 591 densely typed pages) or in content. But look past the horrible cover and occasional grammatical lapses and it’s well worth the effort.

The Sheridan boys were born into wealth and property, but they grow up deprived of the love of parents. Roland is the steady responsible eldest, surrogate father to his brothers, looking forward to the life of a respected surgeon, enjoying his beloved horses and the family estate. Rex is the handsome fun-loving middle one, besotted with aeroplanes, who soon becomes a hero, an ace pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Christopher is both beautiful and academically brilliant, but after his very first five minute fumble in the dark, he is forced into a teenage marriage to preserve the honour of the local doctor’s daughter, Marion, who seduced him.

But fate has very different plans in store for them when first their father commits suicide in Madeira, and then Britain goes to war. All three suffer unspeakable horrors. Their minds as well as their bodies are ravaged.

Nineteen year old Chris enlists to escape the nightmare of his marriage. But his brilliant mind and deficient eyesight are wholly unsuited to life as a soldier where ‘danger had become almost a friend; bullets whistled past their nonchalance as an accepted part of each day.’  The sight of his friend minus half a head, and the homosexual overtures of a close colleague, coupled with the terror of the Gallipoli landing, drive him to the very edge of insanity.

As he walks towards a ‘certain-death’ assignment he is ‘filled with anguish of knowing a man’s mind and senses counted for nothing. It was his body that was valued – by girls who longed for physical conquest, by men whose desires were perverted, by war leaders who wanted a figurehead for doomed men. For nineteen years he had revelled in the philosophies of wisdom, the refinements of culture, the language of beauty, and the infinite complexity of profundity. Yet, in the end, it seemed all he was was a bag of hay.’

Chris’ psychiatric illness forces his elder brother Roland to enlist in spite of his conscience. His experience is of medicine in the trenches, boys rotting and losing their minds before his very eyes. There’s the occasional heroic deed: performing a tracheostomy using a bayonet and a gas whistle. But mostly it’s pure drudgery: foot-rot, dysentery, infected rat-bites, shell-shock, trench fever, even measles, and all this trapped in claustrophobic earth dugouts just a few feet wide, that fill up with waist high slimy water when ‘the non-stop drenching cold rain of approaching winter’ sets in. He is utterly exhausted, filthy, infested with body lice, demoralised himself, but the work is relentless, every day a living nightmare.

The noise was a non-stop pressure on ear-drums and senses – the whine and crump of heavy shells, the whistle of mortar-mines, the steady crack of rifle-fire, the clangour of the gas-gong, the tortured screams of men. Thick smoke everywhere, flying earth and other indescribable fragments, the silent choking killer that penetrated men’s lungs and left them to die slowly and agonisingly, The excited commands in high boyish voices as subalterns prepared to repulse a bayonet attack; the gruffer roar of experienced N.C.O’s (sic) as they repeated the commands. The oaths, the profanities, the careless bravado, the stifled fear, the cries for help, the sobbing over a slaughtered friend: all these were part of the real battle, Roland discovered.

The middle son is daredevil Rex who quickly notches up an outstanding tally of deaths (human and aeroplane). He’s a legend and a hero to most of his colleagues and compatriots. He’s feted by the public at home. He gets the girl everyone desires. But underneath the bravado he is a tortured soul. When he’s challenged and condemned by a group of crusading women, he realises they ‘had no notion of the sadness and anxiety he had suffered over his poor young brother, or the anguish of seeing friends sizzling into piles of blackened flesh. … Did they have nightmares and wake up in a sweat? Did they have to live a pretence and hide the terrible truth?

This book takes us closer to that truth. We feel the enormity of what happened in those grim years, 1914-1918, when my uncle lost his life. The extreme youth of those poorly trained combatants. The rudimentary machines and technology. The effect of repeated loss. The fate of conscientious objectors.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to the war graves in France. Standing silent before those tombstones. The ones that simply state: ‘A soldier – known unto God’. Shocked and saddened. Moved to tears.

During his time at the front Roland Sheridan writes a series of letters graphically describing his experiences. They – and this whole book – are ‘really a cry to the next generation never to let this happen again.’ It’s a gripping and emotional read and I highly recommend it.

 

 

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