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Movie Monday: 1917

I had put off watching this movie since it came out because I knew it was going to tear me up (it did) and also because I knew that as I watched it, my military dead would be all over me (they were). I honor the military dead as part of my calling as an ancestor worker and I have a passel of WWI dead in my spiritual cadre. When they come around me, I often experience powerful physical sensations. Last night, as I was watching this movie, when there was smoke and gas, my chest closed up and I began to choke. I could taste it, and the bitterness lingered on my tongue until the movie ended; and oh, it was a wrenching movie to watch, beautiful, achingly so, especially the filmmaker’s use of tone and color. The performances, particularly that by George MacKay were outstanding. As an aside, one extended scene included a Sikh infantryman and I liked that, because a lot of people don’t realize that many Sikh and Indian troops served with distinction in WWI. Also, this movie was an homage to the writer (with Krysty Wilson-Cairns) and director’s grandfather, Alfred H. Mendes, who served with British forces in WWI and whose stories formed the inspiration for the film itself. 

It’s a searing film and the way it was shot brings the viewer right into the action. It’s very stylized, but condemns the stupid, prideful futility of this war more than any other war movie I have seen, at last amongst those that come directly to mind as I write this (there are many, after all, that I have not viewed). It’s visually stunning. The framing and the use of color: the green of the grass, the sepia and orange tones of the fire, even the Payne’s grey of the helmets occasionally as they caught the sun is especially evocative. It’s one of those movies where any scene that you pause it at will look like a piece of art, and some of the background actually looked like photos of no-man’s land that I’ve seen in historical archives. Also, one particular scene has a man singing to his troop right before they are about to make a surely suicidal charge against the enemy, and he’s singing “wayfaring stranger” because they know they’re about to die. They don’t, but it’s close and his voice is hauntingly beautiful. Also, one thing that hits like a fist to the gut is the age of the majority of infantrymen: they were (accurately in many cases) staggeringly young. But, it also showed that we should never assume that just because someone is young, they cannot demonstrate heroism and self-sacrifice. Just because someone is young, we shouldn’t think that they can’t change their world. 

The only negative, if negative it be, occurred precisely because my WWI military dead were so strongly about me. Linking in as I was to their sensory memory and experiences of the war, I was having ongoing cognitive disconnect. They liked the movie but the men were taller, broader, more well fed, and overall healthier than any infantryman would have been at that time. Also, and they really kept going on about this, everything was too clean. The lice, the mud, the piss and shit, the stench of fear, the smell of rotting horse carcasses, rotting human bodies, unwashed living bodies, gunpowder, the lingering of the chemicals used in mustard gas, the vermin (rats, mice, etc.), the blood didn’t come through in the film. Of course, there’s no way it could since we cannot smell a movie, but still, it was very strange on this count what I was experiencing from them, especially combined with my own emotional response to the film. 

It’s unfortunate, and I think very, very dangerous that WWI has passed out of living memory. The consequences of this war have been felt through the entirety of the 20thcentury. This war destroyed a world and we’re living in the echoes of what was left. 

As an aside, I also recommend the series Anzac Girls, available on amazon prime. It focuses, at least as much as I’ve seen, on a group of Australian and New Zealand nurses during WWI and I think we forget that world war meant world war. NZ and Australia served as well.  Then, there’s one of my favorite historical series Crimson Field. It’s one of the best WWI series I’ve ever seen. It was cancelled after one season, probably because it showed the incompetence of the leadership far too honestly. Still, that one season is worth watching. It also focuses on a group of (this time British) nurses.  Sadly, and to our lasting shame, the “War to End All Wars” didn’t. It only prepared us for worse. 

Dulce et Decorum Est
By Wilfred Owen, who died in the trenches right before Armistice.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

(Affiliate advertising disclaimer)

WWI Dead or What It’s Like to Be A Spirit-Worker

Today is so bad. I woke with a migraine bad enough to make me vomit. Too much spirit contact and unexpected at that. Last night, I already wasn’t feeling great. I had a bit of a migraine mostly from the weather so I took migraine medication and settled in to watch some tv with my housemate and my husband. I wanted to show them a WWI show that I like: The Crimson Field. It’s all about VAD nurses in WWI (got cancelled after one season, probably because it showed how fucking incompetent military leadership was). I didn’t think to first make offerings to the military dead, even though they are one of my primary group of spirits, especially the WWI dead.

I’ve since decided that whenever I watch anything having to do with WWI, I’m just going to make offerings to that family of the dead as a matter of course. That’s my new protocol now and forever a-fucking-men.

As we were watching the series last night, I started getting enraged and wanting to grind my teeth and at one point the man who had risen up with his brothers-in-arms behind me actually used my voice to hiss bitter at the story being portrayed and that’s when we all realized the dead were around us. An ancestor worker carries the dead always. We carry them with us and whether it is men who sing like angels or men and women who plodded through mud and piss and shit and hell they are with us always. I realize the story being depicted was so very close to what had happened to the spirit behind me and he was still so very angry so we gave him voice and gave him and the others there offerings and the room grew crystalline bright and I saw the spirits of the dead ringing us misty and pale and that is how we spent out night and today I feel as though I have been beaten. My head is not large enough for the multitude that wanted to pour their stories and their pain into it. The honeycombed halls of my heart are willing to receive their stories, to carry their pain but oh I feel as though someone clubbed the back of my head hard.

Sannion: “the spirits take everything.”
Me in response: “OMG that’s absolutely the truth. They so do, but they give everything too.”
And he and my housemate concurred. They take and they give and we are stretched thin in between.

Lest we forget

flanders

Shrouds of the Somme

What a powerful act of remembrance. If i were in the UK, I’d definitely see this. Let us remember our dead, let us remember our dead, let us carry them with us always in heart, mind, and spirit. May our fallen warriors be honored and may they find peace. 

KrasskovaGalina doughboy

 

(my image of the WWI memorial statue in Rhinebeck, NY)

A Neat Ancestor Find

Part of my work spiritually, as an ancestor worker, involves honoring not just my own ancestors but several specific groups of the dead. One of those is the military dead. I maintain an extensive shrine to them at which I make regular offerings and I’ve gone on pilgrimage to honor them several times. I also keep an eye out for things that they may like, at flea markets, at antique stores, and so forth. While I was at Villanova last week participating in a theology conference, I took some time out to do a bit of antiquing. I was traveling with my friend Allen, who has a real gift for finding just the right thing that one might want or need (he’s really amazing at it). As we were hunting around one store, he picked up this bright, brass box and showed it to me. I was quite taken with it immediately and thought it might be Trench Art from WWI. When I spoke with the proprietor I found out that it wasn’t, instead it was a Mary Box.

cig box closed

In the last year of WWI, Britain’s princess Mary raised money on her own to create and send these boxes to every single soldier serving in the British forces, from highest to lowest (officers received silver boxes, enlisted brass). They were typically filled with tobacco or sometimes, if the soldier wasn’t a smoker, candy and sweets. They’re rarely in such good condition, because they were carried and used by these men. I was really, really lucky to find one – thanks to my friend Allen – in pristine condition. Of course, I bought it.

cig box open

I decided that I would dedicate it to the military dead and use it as my cigarette case. That way, every time I smoke, I would be making an offering to them. So far, it’s been working beautifully and every time I hold it or open it, I’m reminded to give thanks for them, and to reach out to them, pray to and for them. Such a small thing has made me more intensely mindful and I am grateful. Most of all, I’m grateful that the Gods have guided me wisely in this practice of honoring this group of dead. May I learn from them and may I honor them well.

 

 

 

One of my favorite WWI poems

DULCE ET DECORUM EST(1)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares(2) we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest(3) began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots(4)
Of tired, outstripped(5) Five-Nines(6) that dropped behind.
Gas!(7) Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets(8) just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime(9) . . .
Dim, through the misty panes(10) and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering,(11) choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.(15)

Wilfred Owen
Thought to have been written between 8 October 1917 and March, 1918

Notes on Dulce et Decorum Est
1. DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.

2. Flares – rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)

3. Distant rest – a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer

4. Hoots – the noise made by the shells rushing through the air

5. Outstripped – outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle

6. Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells

7. Gas! – poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned

8. Helmets – the early name for gas masks

9. Lime – a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue

10. Panes – the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks

11. Guttering – Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling

12. Cud – normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew usually green and bubbling. Here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth

13. High zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea

14. ardent – keen

15. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – see note 1 above.

These notes are taken from the book, Out in the Dark, Poetry of the First World War, where other war poems that need special explanations are similarly annotated. The ideal book for students getting to grips with the poetry of the First World War.

 

Taken from this site.

Every One Remembered

I’ve been consistently impressed with the work of the British Legion, both in furthering remembrance of those who died in WWI and in providing for current veterans. One of the ongoing projects they have is “Every One Remembered,” which allows contributors to learn about a particular soldier, nurse, or other combatant from WWI, contribute to various programs, and set up digital memorials. I get lost in this site way too often and way too much, but if you’re wondering where to start in honoring the military dead, I think this is a good place to go. Here is the link to that site and here is the link to their poppy shop. 

I have heard Pagans say “that which is remembered lives” and there is truth in this. We should carry our dead with us, tell their stories, learn from them. WWI has passed out of living memory (in that we have almost no one who lived through it or fought in it currently alive) and WWII will, within a few years, a decade at most likewise no longer rest in living memory. I think this is a very dangerous place for us to be. I think we need to carry the weight of that remembrance, to carry the grief, the horror, the hope, the humility of two wars that effectively destroyed our world. It’s dangerous to forget, a grace and protection to remember. 

red poppies

The Origins of WWI

This is an excellent and entertaining series about WWI. November 11, Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day was instituted originally to honor those who served in WWI. This war changed the face of our world. It was a Ragnarok of sorts. Now, it’s pretty much no longer in living memory (that is, there are no more, or very few WWI veterans still a live. There are few people who lived through that war even as civilians still alive). WWII is also rapidly moving out of living memory with our veterans dying off and I think this is a very dangerous point at which to be. We need to remember these wars and the devastation they caused. The world as it was before them ceased to exist. We have been shaped by that devastation and not, I think for the better. 

Anyway, this is a good series on the origins of WWI. All the parts can be accessed on youtube. Check it out. 

Remembrance

_72431244_97764402_getty_graphic_soldier_andfield_of_poppies

Today I honor all those who died in our wars. I honor all those who died in WWI. I honor especially, my first cousin twice removed Private Wesley Heffner who fought with Pershing’s First expeditionary Force. He wasn’t drafted: he enlisted. He wanted to be a good man. He was proud of being an American and wanted to bring freedom–he thought that was what being an American was about: fighting wrong and standing for liberty. He died in France in 1918. He never made it home. 

 

“Carry the dead with us. Carry the dead. Never not carry them,
never not act in their name.

Carry the dead in our dreams, all the great deeds; carry the dead in our days,
all the great deeds.

Morning, morning. Let there be their light.

What they would want, what they would ask of us, carry them with us,
never not bring them along.

Never for nothing their brutal departures. Never let justice go lonely.

Morning. Morning.

Ever the heart, ever the spirit, ever the longing. . Earth is not past,
not a ghost, not lost to us.

Ever the believing.
(“Credo Coda,” Michael Dennis Browne)

One of the Fallen

Every so often I return to genealogy research. I have to be careful – I can get sucked down the genealogy whirlpool for hours and hours or even days if I’m not careful. Ancestry.com recently partnered with Fold3.com which allows one to search military records and somewhere in a couple of hours of random searching, I discovered that my great grandmother’s nephew had fought and died in WWI.

I don’t know much about him. I’ve got queries out to Heffner genealogists but I’ve made a complete hash of my ancestry.com chart (I was tired one night and merged information for him, his father, and another John Wesley Heffner so now I need to go sort through all the documents and sort it out, a task I’m not looking forward to doing), but here’s what I know.

Wesley Heffner was born on April 30, 1898 in Chanceford Township, PA. He was the son of Amos Heffner and his wife Lottie Ardella (“Della”) Heffner nee Welsh.

He served in Hoboken and was fighting in France from June 14, 1917 to June 5, 1918 — according to his mother’s application for a military pension (apparently if a young man was unmarried, their mothers could apply for a pension at that time, or at least so it seems) and went overseas with Pershing’s first contingent. He was a private first class in Company B, 26th Infantry. He did not come home again.

I have so many questions, so many things that I would like to know about him. Is he buried in France where he died or is he buried here in the states and if so, where? Are there any extant photos? What made him enlist?

When Pershing’s forces first went over it was standard operating procedure to bury the soldiers in the land where they fell. This didn’t sit well with the folks back home and pressure was put on the military to bring their sons back. In an article that made me cry, about WWI, burying our dead, and bringing them home again we’re given a vivid picture of General Pershing facing the atrocious body count of that ‘great’ war:

“THE GENERAL WEPT when he heard the news. About 3 a.m. on November 3, 1917, German troops overran an isolated Allied outpost near Verdun, killing three men from the 16th Infantry who had slipped into the trenches for their combat debut only hours before. These were the first of Jack Pershing’s men to die in the Great War. One was shot between the eyes; another had his skull smashed. The third was found face down, his throat cut. All three were buried near where they had died, amid the beautiful rolling hills of northeastern France. This was as it should be, General Pershing believed. There was no time to bring fallen soldiers back to the States, he said, nor any space on ships crossing the Atlantic. And he couldn’t bear to think of mothers opening caskets to see their boys ravaged by the fearsome new weapons of the industrial era. Within days, however, the War Department discovered that the families and friends of the dead thought differently. Letters and telegrams arrived in Washington asking when the soldiers’ remains would be shipped home. Grand funerals were planned. No matter that the men had died an ocean away or that the war was still going on. Bring them home. This was a refrain Pershing and the military establishment would hear for the rest of the war, indeed, for years afterward. History had given the American people definite ideas about what to do with the war dead. And they weren’t to be denied.”

Read the full article here

Bring them home. I would like to know if my great great uncle was ever brought home.

There is so much I don’t know but at least I have a name. At least I know he exists and I know he fought and I know that he died somewhere on a bloody field in France. It’s a start. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

Processed with Snapseed.

 

Edit: before I posted this, I actually found a picture of his grave. My great great uncle is buried in Chanceford Township, PA, in St. Luke’s Lutheran Cemetery. I will have a chance to visit his grave, and that of his parents when next I go down to MD. I’ll make a detour to PA. This doesn’t necessarily mean that his body is there – it could have been just a grave with the body actually buried in a field in France, but all things considered, and given what I know of my family, I think it’s safe to assume that it’s his actual in situ grave. I wonder now whether he was shipped back immediately or only after the war…and what it must have been like for his family, first to receive notification of his death (sent to his father Amos) and then his body. How was he remembered by his brothers and sisters (he had 14 siblings) and what stories might they have told?