Friday, August 3, 2012

Over There War Scenes on the Western Front -by Arnold Bennett

Over There War Scenes on the Western Front by Arnold Bennett is a non-fiction contemporary account of the Western Front during WWI.  The Amazon reader reviews mention the author is an American; but Amazon says the author is British.  I am going with Amazon on this one.  (US Edition)  (UK Edition

The book is rather short, but that is sometimes good for the summer.    The book is well written and unusual in that it includes accounts from citizens rather than soldiers.  As with many wars, the battle rolled over towns and wiped them out.  There are some towns on the Western Front who only exist as an outline of stones showing their former dimensions .  The exist now as memorials.

"And how did you yourself get on?" I asked the spinster-sempstress.
She answered: "It was terrible. Ordinarily it is a journey of three or four hours. But that time it lasted three days and two nights. The train was crammed with refugees and with wounded. One was obliged to stand up. One could not move."
"But where did you sleep?"
"I did not sleep. Do I not tell you one was obliged to stand up? I stood up all the first night. The floor was thirty centimetres deep in filth. The second night one had settled down somewhat. I could sit."
"But about eating?"

"I had a little food that I brought with me."
"And drinking?"

"Nothing, till the second day. One could not move. But in the end we arrived. I was broken with fatigue. I was very ill. But I was home. . .
How long do you think the war will last?"
 "I'm beginning to think it will last a long time."
We made towards Chambry. Chambry is a village which, like Meaux, lies below the plain. Chambry escaped glory; but between it and Barcy, on the intervening slope through which a good road runs, a battle was fought. You know what kind of a battle it was by the tombs. These tombs were very like the others--an oblong of barbed wire, a white flag, a white cross, sometimes a name, more often only a number, rarely a wreath. You see first one, then another, then  two, then a sprinkling; and gradually you perceive that the whole plain is dotted with gleams of white flags and white crosses, so that graves seem to extend right away to the horizon marked by lines of trees. Then you see a huge general grave. Much glory about that spot!
And then a tomb with a black cross. Very disconcerting, that black cross! It is different not only in colour, but in shape, from the other crosses. Sinister! You need not to be told that the body of a German lies beneath it. The whole devilishness of the Prussian ideal is expressed in that black cross. Then, as the road curves, you see more black crosses, many black crosses, very many. No flags, no names, no wreaths on these tombs. Just a white stencilled number in the centre of each cross. Women in Germany are still lying awake at nights and wondering what those tombs look like.
If you visit the burial grounds on the Western Front, the British War Graves Commission has created gardens that are a "little bit of England."  Whereas some of the German WWI cemeteries, particularly Langemarck, are not sunny comfortable places.  They are sometimes disturbing places where remains are kept rather than tended.  They are not a typical heroic celebration of soldiers who are revered for their sacrifice.

It is interesting to me that the author picked up on these differences  during the war.  I do not know the date of the book, but it was clearly written and published before the Armistice.  The book ends with the destruction of Ypres - sometimes called "Wipers" by the Commonwealth troops.

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