Wicked October in the Haunted Theatre of France
Robert Graves, Louis Barthas, and the abyss of 1915
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. 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. 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. Graves laughs at the detailed operations plan for advancing behind the opening barrage of chlorine gas, which blows back into the faces of advancing British troops in a cartoonish 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, 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. Twenty thousand British dead are restless, 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.
A year has passed since both sides fell into their exhausted Western Front stalemate while the season turned cold and dark. Now they look at the Battle of Loos as a sequel-worthy franchise with ever-improving explosions and gore. Erich von Falkenhayn, Chief of the German General Staff, aims to attack French national pride in the new year at Verdun, “bleeding them white.” After changes in leadership, French and British armies will resume their search for a breakthrough in 1916, producing slaughter 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 so badly as to be left for dead at the dressing station, Graves jokes because his name has been listed with the dead. Nearly annihilated by a dud shell, Barthes remarks that he and his friends reacted with howls of laughter. “Who can explain the reason for it?”
This comic horror story has hardly begun. Only a true wit can contain such breathtaking madness, and only the blackest humor can transmute such absurdities into meaningful tales.
Photo via Derbyshire Territorials