Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: WWI
When my oldest brought me a book-shaped package from the mailbox, I assumed it was a book of poetry I had ordered last week. When I opened it, I found the reissue of a book long out of print, sent to my wife and I from her mother.
Here is a selection from the introduction, written by Steven Trout:
On the afternoon of October 7, 1918, while serving as a reconnaissance observer far ahead of American lines near Cunel, France, Private John Lewis Barkley climbed into an abandoned French tank and single-handedly held off a German force of perhaps several hundred men as it advanced toward positions held by the American Third Division. Because the tank’s crew had removed the vehicle’s cannon, Barkley armed himself with a captured German light machine gun, which he pointed through a dangerously wide aperture in the turret. Deafened by the sound of his weapon, which he fired until the gun became super-heated, and surrounded by ricocheting bullets, some of which landed inside the tank, Barkley probably killed more than a hundred enemy soldiers and completely disrupted the Germans’ advance. Even an enemy 77mm cannon, which targeted the tank from just a few hundred yards away, could not drive Private Barkley from his personal fortress. He held off one wave of attackers, then another. Finally, after enemy bullets and stick grenades stopped striking the tank and a detachment of American troops appeared on the scene, he slipped away to rejoin his unit.
He told no one what he had done. However, several American soldiers witnessed the exploit; one of them even counted (or at least estimated) the number of empty machine-gun cartridges piled up inside the tank—more than 4,000 expended rounds! Weeks later, as Barkley’s unit settled into occupations duty in Germany, General John J. Pershing personally awarded the private the Congressional Medal of Honor. When summoned before the supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Barkley, a notorious trouble-maker, was certain that he was about to be court-martialed and sent to Leavenworth. He had, after all, mastered the art of smuggling liquor into camp, going AWOL, illicitly romancing mademoiselles as well as fräuleins, and engaging in just enough mischief to avoid being promoted to the rank of sergeant. No one was more surprised than this rowdy enlisted man from the Show-Me State when Pershing, a fellow Missourian, pinned the nation’s highest medal for valor on his chest.
This week’s poem comes from an anthology of WWI poetry, first published by Penguin Books in 1979. The poet’s name is Frederic Manning, and his wiki-page says this of his WWI experience:
When war broke out, Manning was keen to enlist, possibly to escape from a stifling environment and to widen his horizons. A man with his fragile constitution and unhealthy lifestyle was not going to be an attractive proposition for the military authorities, but in October 1915 after several attempts, his persistence paid off and he finally enrolled in the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry. He was given the number Private 19022. He was selected for officer training, but failed the course. Sent to France in 1916, Manning experienced action with the 7th Battalion at the Battle of the Somme, was promoted to lance-corporal and soaked up the experience of life in the trenches. He was recalled for further training and posted to Ireland in May 1917 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the Royal Irish Regiment. The life of an officer did not agree with him, he seems not to have integrated particularly well, he drank excessively, getting into trouble with his superiors. Doubtless the vivid memories of recent combat were having their effect upon his behaviour too. The inebriation was put down to neurasthenia, but Manning resigned his commission on 28 February 1918.
The poem is below the fold. Have a safe 4th of July!
These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humour,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.