Tag Archives: war

As should we all


The last combatant of the Great War died today.
There have been warriors who died before this,
others who will die hereafter
and some unborn who still await their turn.
Who knows?
Well, I do, for one.

Weep for him then, he was real. He lived and died
and ended a tale writ in the blood of those now forgot.
No story was theirs of tactics and strategies,
principles and beliefs, rights and wrongs done by.
No photograph, no letter, no film, no story,
no dead soul could tell that tale as did he, living.
Who knows?
Well, you do, for one.

No one can cry enough for them of a thousand fields
nor curse enough those who put them there.
There has never been a great war, let alone a good;
there have only been wars of rapacious intent—
botched before, botched during or botched soon after.
Who knows?
Well, we do, for one.

It’s not the courage, it’s not the strength,
it’s not the sacrifice, the honor or the glory.
It’s not the fear, the joy, the love or the loss,
the guilt or the luck or the sadness.
It begins with obedience and it ends with endurance
and the rest be damned to hell.
Who knows?
Well, he did, for one.
Aye, weep.

November 11th, 2018 (Armistice Day in the US, Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth) marks the 100th anniversary of the cessation of combat of World War I, The Great War, The War to End all Wars. In memory of that event I am re-posting this poem.

The last combatant of World War I, Claude Choules, died on May 10, 2011. That news, when it broke, focused my thoughts on the great admiration and compassion I hold for those who fight at times of war, and how it is matched by my disdain for those who cause and pursue armed conflicts wantonly.

Thank you for reading As should we all. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken in Warwick, Rhode Island. To see my photography blog, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use in any way without the expressed consent of its creator.

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Hope Marse Robert’ll speak for me

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Near there at the end, I recall, we was hungry,
hadn’t et for days, but’d marched light and dark,
never sleeping more’n minutes, shootin’ for
the Carolinas so’s we could keep up the fight
in the wrinkles of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Good God it rained, but it rained! Every river
was swoll up and most flooded. We was cold
and no one had boots left, socks even, just
bloodied soles. At the last, them Yankees
came at us like dogs who’d worried their hunt
to a hole and it was close and hot there for a while.
I recall puttin’ my piece to the back o’ the head
of one of them blue coats and pullin’ the trigger.
After all the fightin’ up ’til then
I can tell you my charges never failed,
no matter how wet or cold it got.
As he fell I realized t’was my best friend,
the one what had convinced me to sign up with him
back at the start. ‘Spite what the officers had told us,
he had took the coat off’n a dead Yankee days ago
rather than worryin’ t’freeze t’death.
I left that blue coat on him as I tucked him in
and pulled the dirt blanket o’er his head,
so’s he could sleep warm that night.
Now, looking back, I wonder, that when I go too,
will I be sleepin’ warm down there?
I don’t doubt I ought, I don’t.

 

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This is the final of two poems dealing with the American Civil War that were inspired by reading Killing Lincoln. I recommend that any non-Americans who aren’t quite as familiar with this war, read the explanation accompanying that first post, Sailor’s Creek, as a quick background to understand the key roles of that conflict.

Even after reading that first post, here are a few further notes:

1) Marse (short for ‘Master’) Robert was a term of deep affection Lee’s troops used to refer to him.

2) Lee’s plan after quitting Petersburg and the fall of the Confederate capital of Richmond was to escape to the Carolinas, where support for the Confederacy was high, there to fight a guerrilla war from the easily defended Blue Ridge Mountains. His retreat, however, was betrayed by Confederate looters who stole the army’s rations. The route was also eventually cut off by Grant, forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.

3) While, in fact, both sides wore a variety of colors in their uniforms, generally the Confederate South (the ‘Rebels’) wore gray and the Union North (the ‘Yankees’) wore blue. Certainly, the grays and the blue coats became standard terms used by both sides to refer to themselves and each other.

4) This story is real in so far as it is historically correct and it is recorded that on at least one occasion a Confederate soldier in the last few days of battle killed his best friend because that friend, like many others and against orders,  was wearing a coat stolen from a dead Northern soldier. The rest of the story, and especially the fear of the fires of hell, is my invention.

5) To be honest, I have no idea if I have authentically caught the patois of the Virginian accent, or just done a poor job of imitating a Hollywood version of that accent. But from the start it was clear to me that the poem had to be told in the first person and modern rules of diction just wouldn’t do. The point is that the soldier was a rustic from a rustic time, dealing with a terrible conditions and burdened by a horrendous act of guilt. That, I hope, still emerges. The word ‘et’ in the second line means ‘eaten.’

6) The ‘piece’ referred to by the speaker would have been his front-loaded musket rifle. Repeating Spencer rifles with modern bullets were introduced at the very end of the war, but only in the North and in very limited supply. By far the most common weapon for both sides was a long-barreled musket, where the gunpowder charge was loaded from the front, then a lead bullet and the whole tamped into place by a rod; an explosive cap was then placed under the hammer. Keeping your powder cartridges and caps dry and being able to perform quick re-loads, even in damp conditions, was the sign of a professional soldier. By this stage of the war, both sides were very, very good at doing this because if a soldier wasn’t, he was long dead.

Thank you for reading Hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken at a Civil War re-enactment at Williamsburg, Virginia. The actors were a Southern troop of artilleryman and my standing so close to get that shot meant several hours of ringing ears from the one round they let off. What a real battlefield was like I can hardly, and do not really want to, imagine. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

 

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Sailor’s Creek

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It was the last action of the Army of Northern Virginia,
the final skirmish that made it bend its knee.
A smaller fight than many, still, it was the most crowded,
savage, no-quarter-given-or-asked, bloody, desperate
action of the war.

Muskets were useless, except as clubs;
bayonets, knives, rocks, nails—teeth if you’d any left—
all were born into that melee: hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye,
rage-to-rage. The Rebs were tired, starved, ragged phantoms
of sinew, hunger and misery; the Yankees were toughened
campaigners and ready for their end game; they even jeered
‘surrender’ on their first charge, but after dying to a man,
the second wave was cannier. And so both sides became
what each had pent up for so long: pure hate,
purer desperation and there at the end, purest hope, so that
the green-green grass was green no more with the slick of it.

And then it was done. The Union soldiers, on seeing the state
of their Confederate prisoners, opened their packs to share
what food they had. Days later, Lee wore his ceremonial sword
to Appomattox, but Grant refused to ask for it, instead offering
terms gentler than had been sought. With permission,
the two officer corps sought out the friends left living
on the other side. And that night, Lincoln, too tired
to give a speech, asked the band, instead, to play Dixie.
The crowd sang along ’til the end.

 

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The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the bloodiest and most savage conflict the United States has ever engaged in. Although Southern revisionists argued after the war (and since) that the real issue at the heart of the conflict was ‘states rights,’ truthfully it was about slavery and its need to be purged from the land.

The events described in this poem are authentic and exact and were taken from the book Killing Lincoln, which I read recently. This is the first of two poems inspired by the end of the Civil War, the second is I hope Marse Robert’ll speak up for me.

For the non-Americans reading this post, a few notes:

1) The two sides of the conflict were: in the North, the Union forces, popularly referred to as Yankees, fighting to preserve the country in its entirety and end slavery; and in the South, the Confederate forces, popularly referred to as the Rebels, or Rebs, who were fighting for secession (the right to leave) from the United States of America to form a separate country, the Confederated States of America (also known as ‘the Confederacy’) which would be built on an economy of slavery.

2) President Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest President the country has ever known,  pursued the war with great vigor, but clearly wanted a policy of forgiveness and reconstruction for the South after the conflict was over, to bring it firmly back into the Union. Tragically, this great man was assassinated just after the war and his policies not clearly followed. Jefferson Davis was  his Confederate counterpart. By the time of the events of this poem, the Confederate capitol of Richmond had fallen (on April 3rd, not May 10th, as accounted in the popular song by The Band, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down) and Davis was on the run, soon to be captured on May 10th. (Hence the confusion.) Although held for two years, neither he, nor any of his government, were ever tried for treason.

3) General Ulysses S. Grant was the head of the Union forces and a brilliant campaigner, while General Robert E. Lee, although the titular leader of the Confederate forces, was actually only directly in control of the Army of Northern Virginia. This was the army Lee had lead—his campaigns are still studied by military strategists today—in all his battles throughout the war; they were tough, committed and brave veterans who adored and trusted Lee and would follow him everywhere and anywhere. However, by the end of the conflict, their numbers were greatly reduced through battle, disease, starvation, exhaustion and (once the point seemed useless) desertion. In the last week alone the army’s numbers dwindled from 30,000 to less than 8,000 men.

4) Appomattox (pronounced apho-MAT-ix) was the spot where Lee, finally cut off and surrounded, surrendered to Grant. Grant refused to ask for Lee’s sword, although Lee had worn a large ceremonial one for just that purpose. The terms given by Grant originated with Lincoln and were simple: that every soldier would be cared for and then be free to return home if they did so peacefully; and that no officers, including the generals, would be tried for treason. While Lee’s surrender left over 140,000 Confederate forces still in the field, these held out only for a short time. That surrender at Appomattox, owing to Lee’s popularity and charismatic leadership, was the end of the war.

5) Dixie was a popular minstrel song in the 1850’s throughout the United States. Although not official, it was the de facto anthem of the Confederacy and remains identified with it to this day.

The main consequences of the war were the preservation of the United States, the abolition of slavery (although by no means was this the end of the black struggle for equality) and the creation of an American consciousness: prior to the war, individuals identified with the state they were from; after the war, people, both North and South, saw themselves as Americans. The country had paid for that right in blood.

Thank you for reading Sailor’s Creek. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph was taken at dawn in a Civil War era cemetery just outside of Pomfret, CT. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

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“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

 

Not a poem today, but a recommendation. I do not know why I had not come across this wonderful book earlier, but I am glad that I finally have. A finalist for both the 1990 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award The Things They Carried is a book I recommend highly.

But why on my poetry blog? It is because it flows like one long poem, a modern Iliad: beautifully written, ugly real, brutally honest and terribly sad.

Ostensibly it is a description of the things that soldiers carried with them during their stint in Vietnam, and after that stories of what life is like in a war zone, but of course it is much more than that: it is about Vietnam itself and about what it is like to be human and caught up in a mad world of death, destruction and fear.

If you have the chance, I would even suggest that your preference for format would be an audio version, as is mine; it adds to the poetic effect. I got mine through www.audible.com and it is powerfully read and performed by Brian Cranston, the brilliant main actor from the hit TV shows Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle.

2014.04.14 update: Having just finished listening to the audible production I discovered that there is a bonus: a wonderful 1994 op-ed piece from the New York Times written and read by the author. Now I recommend the book even more and the audible version in particular.

Thank you for dropping by the Book of Pain. As always I am interested in your comments.

john

© 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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In Normandy, in November

I’d just left a small but well-kept graveyard
where again I’d searched but failed to find my father’s grave—
I was beginning to wonder if it mattered.
And that was the moment, while closing the gate,
that I heard it, a set of Great Highland bagpipes
noising down the cobbled way.

A piper in regimental regalia, Glengarry, sporran and kilt,
even a sgian-dubh poking from his hose,
was slowly marching along the road, plaintively playing Going Home.
And amazingly, from every neat brick home from both sides of the street,
they came to stand and listen: young and old, small and tall,
men and women, each solemnly watching the one-man parade.

After he passed I asked an elderly man who the piper was.
His English was as bad as my French but eventually
I understood that the young man’s father used to annually
march this route, calling to the comrades he had left behind
in the scattering of graveyards thereabouts.
When the elder had become too infirm to stand his watch,
the son had taken up the call. Then the old Frenchman grew silent.

And in that silence, his eyes, soft under their big bushes,
lingered long on the back of the piper. Close but not,
I could hear just then the roar and screams of
desperate men in desperate times raging through
and around and over us. It was, no doubt, a time
when all that could be owned was chance, and as luck
would have it, he lived and mine didn’t, but more
importantly, he remembered what I had forgot.
Then catching himself, he nodded a curt Au revoir,
but before letting him go, I took the blood-red poppy
from my breast and pinned it to his own.

This poem originated from an idea poised by my dear friend and wonderful poet, Julia Dean-Richards who blogs at A Place for Poetry. She proposed co-writing a poem on the line, “Where would you put your poppy down?” But of course I botched the whole idea by making it the original title of this poem and writing the whole thing from beginning to end because I couldn’t stop, once the story got in my head. And then, eventually I changed the title. (That’s me for you, no gratitude, not even for a great line of poetry. Sorry, Julia!)

The story presented here is not factual, although I hope, real. I am particularly thankful that my father, although a veteran of the Second War, is still alive and hearty at 89. The part about the piper is, however, real and happened to my sister. She and her husband were visiting a small Canadian Military graveyard in Normandy when a young man came marching by playing his bagpipes in honor of his father who had recently passed away.

Some notes on the poem: Normandy, France was the site of the Allied invasion into Europe and against Germany during World War II, and was the site of much fierce fighting and loss of life, as attested to by the many military graveyards located there. November 11th, also known as Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day and Remembrance Day is dedicated in North America and Europe to the memory of those who have fallen in military conflict. The traditional emblem of the day throughout the Commonwealth Nations and Europe is a blood-red poppy, a flower which grows wild in the numerous graveyards dedicated to the fallen of the 20th century’s two World Wars, and as immortalized in the poem commemorating the dead, In Flander’s Fields. (Written, by the way, by a Canadian. We’re everywhere.)

Scottish regimental bagpipe bands wear a quite formal version of the highland costume: the Glengarry is a traditional Scot’s hat; the sporran is a pouch worn around the waist to hang in the front and the kilt is a knee-length and manly skirt-like garment with pleats at the rear and woven in a particular clan or organizational tartan color; it is traditionally worn by men in the Highlands of Scotland. A sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-en-doo) is a small, single-edged knife traditionally worn at the top of the mid-calf high socks (hose) of a kilt wearer. Bagpipes are a traditional Gaelic instrument that are based on smaller instruments originally introduced to the Iberian peninsula by the Muslim Moors of North Africa. They come in many sizes, but the largest and most impressive is the Great Highland bagpipeGoing Home is a tune adapted from the Largo section of Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony (the 9th) as a spiritual hymn.

Thank you for reading In Normandy, in November. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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Sullivan Ballou letter

Not a poem today, but a letter that is the essence of love and sacrifice. Written during the American Civil War, it is by Sullivan Ballou, a Major in the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteers and to his wife Sarah, at their home in Smithfield, RI. I first heard it in the award winning Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) series The Civil War by Ken Burns.

July 14, 1861
Camp Clark,
Washington DC

Dear Sarah:

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days—perhaps tomorrow. And lest I should not be able to write you again I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I am no more.

I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing—perfectly willing—to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but omnipotence can break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly with all those chains to the battlefield. The memory of all the blissful moments I have enjoyed with you come crowding over me, and I feel most deeply grateful to God and you, that I have enjoyed them for so long. And how hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes and future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and see our boys grown up to honorable manhood around us.

If I do not return, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I loved you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name…

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have sometimes been!…

But, 0 Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be with you, in the brightest day and in the darkest night… always, always. And when the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath, or the cool air your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for me, for we shall meet again…
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Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the 1st Battle of Bull Run.

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