Thoughts & Views: ‘They called it Passchendaele’

11-11Op_webAs Veterans Day was nearing, we were feeding our obsession with World War I by re-reading some history of that horrific conflict.

Yes, all war is horrific, but the sheer futility of much of the Western Front combat, the staggering number of casualties, the monumental stupidity of certain commanders make the Great War’s carnage unique unto itself.

Something else about the 1914-1918 war: It produced an amazing number of soldier poets — primarily British, but inclusive of other nationalities. New Jersey’s Joyce Kilmer, killed in action in July 1918 in France, is among the preeminent Americans.

We have never quite grasped the reason for this literary link, neither can we think of another conflict from which so much verse arose. And from men of all educational and economic backgrounds. The poetic output from the trenches continues to astound.

In our recent reading, we came across a fragment of a poem that actually moved us to tears. Meaning, just the fragment did. We subsequently looked up the entire poem, but it is the excerpt that remains in our memory. Because in a mere six lines, it captures so much emotion and such takes-the-air-out-of-you grief.

Here are those lines, written in 1918 by Siegfried Sassoon:

I died in hell. 

(They called it Passchendaele).

 My wound was slight, 

And I was hobbling back; 

and then a shell 

Burst slick upon the 

duck-boards: so I fell 

Into the bottomless mud, 

and lost the light. 

To know what a powerful image that is, you need to know something about Passchendaele, a British battle fought in Flanders from July to November 1917.

The ground on which it was fought was low-lying, much of it with a marshy foundation. Shelling destroyed the drainage systems, and then came torrential rains, creating a battlefield of deep, deep mud. Deep enough to swallow horses. And soldiers.

The lucky ones died quickly. For others, it was like slowly, very slowly, sinking into quicksand, crying for help that could not come, for there was no way to get near enough for rescue. Images of Passchendaele show a vast terrain of mudholes. And not much else. Except perhaps a hand or an arm protruding helplessly from the muck.

The University of Glasgow’s WWI site notes: “The name Passchendaele has become linked forever to the utter horror of industralised warfare, of living and dying in trenches of liquid mud, and for months of fierce fighting for little or no advantage. . . . The dead [Allied and German] totalled 615,000 . . . . Many did not die from their wounds but drowned in the mud . . . .”

Read the Sassoon lines again.

Not all casualties of war die in a hail of bullets. Some simply fall. And lose the light.

But this makes their ultimate sacrifice no less heroic.

Today, Nov. 11, please remember all our veterans, but especially those who lost the light. Wherever, whenever and however they lost it. May they rest in peace.

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