A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 6 June 2014

Lessons Of The War (6)

Seventy years ago today (D-Day), a huge force of Allied soldiers and marines landed along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline — marking the start of the invasion of German-occupied western Europe.  Preparations had been immense, involving literally millions of men and women, both civilians and those in the armed forces. During the Battle of Normandy (Operation Overlord) which took place over the ensuing months, 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed, wounded or went missing. Troops from many countries participated, not only from Britain, the US and Canada, but also from Australia, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark and Poland. This daring operation contributed decisively to an Allied victory and the end of World War Two the following year.

Lessons of the War

To Alan Mitchell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria

I. Naming of Parts

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday 
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, 
We shall have what to do after firing. But today, 
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica 
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, 
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this 
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see, 
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel, 
Which in your case you have not got. The branches 
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures, 
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released 
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me 
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy 
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see 
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this 
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it 
Rapidly backwards and forwards; we call this 
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards 
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: 
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring; it is perfectly easy 
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, 
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, 
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom 
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, 
For today we have naming of parts. 



John Pendrey said...

Thanks. That's the first time I enjoyed that poem. I avoid war poems. Now I reflect too on Van Gogh's almond blossom. It's about Spring.

Ruth Mowry said...

I appreciate that you've shared this poem, from a soldier's perspective. The pure drudgery of war ... until it isn't.

The movie "Saving Private Ryan" provided the images that stay in my mind for this day. But there is another one, quite gentle and beautiful in a different way, "The Snow Goose" with Jenny Agutter and Richard Harris, made for TV back in '71, which simply focused on a relationship, and then ended with a civilian who joined the storming the beach. What an incredible day.

The Solitary Walker said...

Ah, yes, that opening scene of 'Saving Private Ryan'.

A lot of good poems came out of WW1, but I can't think of many dealing with WW2 (this one by Henry Reed is exceptional, I think). Though some German writers used poetry as a means of trying to come to terms with the guilt and the horror, and produced some remarkable if sobering poems.

The brilliance of Reed's poem, I'd venture, lies in the 'mechanical' language, the irony, the contrasts, the suggestiveness.

The Weaver of Grass said...

One of my favourite poems Robert - I read it at our poetry meetings regularly. I love the way the poet lets his mind wander away from the horrors of war and into the countryside.

I was 12 on D Day and remember it well incidentally.

Anonymous said...

If we'd been born a few years sooner... I suspect I speak for both of us when I say nothing has happened in our lives that could frighten us half so much as taking part in that.

I'm grateful. I'm also aware of the irony of the massive swing to right wing populist parties in the EU elections here and elsewhere. How long does it take to forget? 70 years, it seems.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this Pat...

... and Dominic, I'm grateful for your comment. And I'm so grateful to the people who risked, and forfeited, their lives on D-Day. I am anti-war in the extreme, but some things have got to be fought for in the last resort.

The swing to the right in the EU elections, and elsewhere, is disturbing. It only seems like yesterday when UKIP was a joke. Yes, and to me it's still a joke — but an ever-growing percentage of the UK population seems to be taking it more and more seriously. Not to mention the upsurge in right-wing parties in France and elsewhere. God help us. As you say, memories can be short.

am said...

Reading Henry Reed's poem and thinking about D-day is sobering indeed.

George said...

A profound poem, one that captures the insanity of war and the small diversions the heart takes to survive that insanity. This poem is especially poignant for me because I vividly remember the conflicts that coursed through my head and heart in a cold Oklahoma winter many years ago when I, then an eighteen year-old soldier, was being trained to fire those giant American artillery pieces known as "howitzers." How easy it is in these western empires to abandon the "love thy neighbor" teachings of youth and suddenly become agents of death.

Ruth Mowry said...

I want to correct my error. "The Snow Goose" was a short story originally, written by Paul Gallico in 1940, after the battle of Dunkirk (not Normandy).

The Solitary Walker said...

Very sobering, Am. I can't get out of my mind how so many ordinary French civilians were caught in the crossfire, bombed and sacrificed in the push across Normandy. Bombs inevitably went astray and hit the wrong targets.

The port of Le Havre alone, over the course of the war, was bombed more than a hundred times, resulting in 5000 deaths.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, George, the complete insanity of war. I was glad the war veterans kept stressing they were not 'heroes'. There's nothing heroic about war, although extreme and dangerous circumstances can bring out acts of courage and bravery. War is an abomination, and should never be glamorised or normalised in any way.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for the correction, Ruth. 'The Snow Goose' was a popular lend in the library where I used to work, but I haven't yet read it myself.