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Bakhmut Has Fallen, Russia Has Won The War
Ha! April Fools, Wagner-led forces are still grinding away at the stump of Bakhmut, just like they have been for (checks notes) ten months.
In fact, the Russian spring offensive is going hilariously wrong. This has been a cruel joke. Ukrainians watch one assault squad after another act like good Russians and huddle in booby-trapped buildings, step on land mines, fail, and die. Logistics? Don’t be silly, dead men don’t need food or fresh underwear. Slaughter of wartime enemies is not fun, or funny, but it is still a joke, even if we do not laugh. Soldiers eventually do resort to laughter under such conditions in order to cope with stress.
Here is a revised and updated post from October 2021, when I had only 40 subscribers.
It is October 1915, and the Battle of Loos has gone hilariously wrong.
This may seem like a terrible thing to say about the consumption of 20,000 British lives for practically no gain of ground, but it is true, because the carnage is too incredible for any other reaction.
Humor is as necessary in war as prayer or training or national imperatives. Without humor, war is impossible to discuss on reasonable terms, for combat is madness and chaos — the very opposite of all the military order and regimentation that men (they are still mostly men) organize to manage the business of human butchery.
Laughter leavens. Hilarity highlights. Without comedy, we will never appreciate the lessons of the tragedy, for it will not make any sense.
In his semi-autobiographical postwar farce Goodbye to All That, poet and classicist Robert Graves writes of the gross and repulsive conditions of the Western Front for comic effect.
A product of the upper class, he crawls through corpses, bears fond memories of his meals, and observes hundreds of men dying on their own wire in grotesque symphonies of catastrophe. Watching the opening to the Battle of Loos, Graves is struck by the sensation of unreality, as if he is standing on the stage of a haunted Edwardian theatre. Vignettes of his time at the front are recounted with stage directions for the characters’ dialogue.
A grey, watery dawn broke at last behind the German lines; the bombardment, surprisingly slack all night, brisked up a little. ‘Why the devil don’t they send them over quicker?’ The Actor complained. ‘This isn’t my idea of a bombardment. We’re getting nothing opposite us. What little there seems to be, is going into the Hohenzollern.’
‘Shell shortage. Expected it,’ was Thomas’s laconic reply.
We were told afterwards that on the 23rd a German aeroplane had bombed the Army Reserve shell-dump and sent it up. The bombardment on the 24th, and on the day of the battle itself, compared very poorly with that of the previous days. Thomas looked strained and ill. 'It’s time they were sending that damned accessory off. I wonder what’s doing.’
A wind change had blown the gas the wrong way. Seeing casualties, Graves asks someone what has just happened. “‘Bloody balls-up,’ was the most detailed answer I could get.”
Such is the recollection of the singular snuffing of eight thousand lives in a single day: We laugh to kill our terror. We laugh ruefully. A detailed operations plan for advancing behind the opening barrage of chlorine gas, meant to clear the way for advancing British troops, has ended in a cartoon-ready comeuppance.
The future author of I, Claudius shall write of the declining Roman Empire with the same amused, ironic detachment.
Louis Barthas, the Occitan barrel maker who kept nineteen notebooks during his wartime service and produced one of the finest memoirs of the war, Poilu, wrote of the French role in the same campaign.
His sardonic scenes are just as gruesome, haunted, and harrowing. He remembers when food was hot, or cold, or unavailable, and when he slept well on good hay, or when he scratched at fleas or huddled with corpses.
Leading a squad of fourteen men into unknown ground to relieve another unit, he encounters German defenses in the confusion and becomes convinced that officers are tricking them into suicidal assaults.
As October turns gray, General Niessel explains the overwinter mission of harassing Germans — a complex plan explained with a chalkboard and supreme optimism. Barthas and his men are to “dig an approach trench to take a listening post or a trench … get close enough to the enemy to throw grenades, wham-bam-bam, and he concluded each sentence with the words, ‘It’ll be easy.’”
Barthas only comments: “How wrong he was!” Ordered to put service stripes on his sleeves in keeping with his minimal rank, he rubbishes “the indispensable signs of prestige necessary to impose authority upon the unstriped rabble.”
If we are unable to laugh at this vista, at least a grinning Death is entertained in the Western Front theater.
Twenty thousand British dead are become restless in this offensive, their corpses becoming flowers of putrefaction in the pummel and tumult of the earth; they have no graves of their own, transformed into an undifferentiated compost.
Graves writes of ghosts, which are a popular literary device in the age of spiritualism and Victorian occult fads, but the 46th Division has suffered 180 Officers and 3,583 men killed, wounded, captured, or ‘missing’ today, and this is what actually haunts us.
Never spiritual, Barthas is still appalled at the disinterment of graves by random explosive shells, then revolted by the unburied corpses, and finally unbothered by the rotted hands grasping at his heels from the walls of a trench; they are the Frenchmen who died taking the position from Germans in September.
In September and October of 1915, the Battle of Loos was a franchise-worthy sequel to prior battles with ever-improving explosions and gore. A year had passed since both sides fell into their exhausted Western Front stalemate while the season turned cold and dark. Nothing had changed in the meantime.
Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, wanted to attack French national pride the next year at Verdun, “bleeding them white.” After changes in leadership, French and British armies resumed their search for a breakthrough in 1916, slaughtering armies on an epic scale with the highest production values.
Recovering at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital after the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded and gassed so badly that he was left for dead at the dressing station, Graves writes that his “lung healed up easily, and the doctors saved my finger.”
I heard here for the first time of my supposed death; the joke contributed greatly to my recovery. People with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life, wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my mother.
Graves abhorred being compelled to huddle close in trenches with people he avoided in civilian life. “At Rouen they asked me where in England I should like to be hospitalized. I said, at random: ‘Oxford.’”
Nearly annihilated by a dud shell, the syndicalist barrel-maker Barthes remarks that he and his friends reacted to the experience with howls of laughter. “Who can explain the reason for it?”
At this point, however, the comic horror story in northern France had hardly begun. Only a true wit can contain such breathtaking madness, and only the blackest humor can transmute such absurdities into meaningful tales.
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