By Eric Byrd
Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918
The Belle Époque cosmopolitan, after bidding Rodin adieu at the Gare du Nord the day of the Austrian ultimatum, returned to Germany and donned the feldgrau tunic, to battle for the fortunes of the Reich. The 1914-18 entries of this famous diary can be hard going for those of us unfamiliar with the Eastern Front campaigns or the intrigues of the German High Command – but occasionally Kessler unfolds a comprehensive collage of prewar Modernism – with which he was so intimate – as it continued and changed behind the national parapet. On the day he heard of Rodin's death, after a visit to Grosz's studio, Kessler set down this astonishing vista:
Berlin. November 18, 1917. Sunday. I think Grosz has something demonic in him. This new Berlin art in general, Grosz, Becher, Benn, Wieland Herzfelde, is most curious. Big city art, with a tense density of impressions that appears simultaneous, brutally realistic, and at the same time fairy-tale-like, just like the big city itself, illuminating things harshly and distortedly as with searchlights and then disappearing in the glow. A highly nervous, cerebral, illusionist art, and in this respect reminiscent of the music hall and also of film, or at least of a possible, still unrealized film. An art of flashing lights with a perfume of sin and perversity like every nocturnal street in the big city. The precursors are E.T.A. Hoffmann, Breughel, Mallarmé, Seurat, Lautrec, the futurists: but in the density and organization of the overwhelming abundance of sensation, the brutal reality, the Berliners seem new to me. Perhaps one could also include Stravinsky here (Petrushka). Piled-up ornamentation each of which expresses a trivial reality but which, in their sum and through their relations to each other, has a thoroughly un-trivial impact.
All round the world war rages and in the center is this nervous city in which so much presses and shoves, so many people and streets and lights and colors and interests: politics and music hall, business and yet also art, field gray, privy counselors, chansonettes, and right and left, and up and down, somewhere, very far away, the trenches, regiments storming over to attack, the dying, submarines, zeppelins, airplane squadrons, columns marching on muddy streets, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, victories; Riga, Constantinople, the Isonzo, Flanders, the Russian Revolution, America, the Anzacs and the poilus, the pacifists and the wild newspaper people. And all ending up in the half-darkened Friedrichstrasse, filled with people at night, unconquerable, never to be reached by Cossacks, Gurkhas, Chasseurs d'Afrique, Bersaglieris, and cowboys, still not yet dishonored, despite the prostitutes who pass by. If a revolution were to break out here, a powerful upheaval in this chaos, barricades on the Friedrichstrasse, or the collapse of the distant parapets, what a spark, how the mighty, inextricably complicated organism would crack, how like the Last Judgment! And yet we have experienced, have caused precisely this to happen in Liège, Brussels, Warsaw, Bucharest, even almost in Paris. That's the world war, all right.
Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger
From Paul Fussell'sThe Great War and Modern Memory I somehow got an impression of Ernst Jünger (1895 – 1998) as a gas-goggled steampunk berserker with a Will To Power prose style. Storm of Steel, it turns out, is not a Futurist vociferation, an avant-garde hymn to mechanical war – but neither is it ruefully anti-war, with the Western Front a literary inferno where Europe is burning and nobody wins. Jünger does not celebrate the infernal engines plowing the landscape and vaporizing whole platoons, but neither does he think they cancel his chivalric-gymnastic idea of soldiering. “Nothing is ever so terrible that some bold and amusing fellow can't trump it,” he writes. In Jünger's cold and stylish testament – much admired by the bookish and half-blind young Borges, deep in his cult of gaucho daggers and macabre tangoes – war is still an arena of individual dash, a personal tournament, athletic and apolitical. A private errand through the collision of empires.
Lobbing grenades while storming British trenches is just updated swordplay, really:
Then you hurled your own bomb, and leaped forward. One barely glanced at the crumpled body of one's opponent; he was finished, and a new duel was commencing. The exchange of hand-grenades reminded me of fencing with foils; you need to jump and stretch, almost as in ballet. It's the deadliest of duels, as it variably ends with one or other of the participants being blown to smithereens. Or both.
Tellingly, Storm of Steel closes in September 1918 – and not with a lament of Germany's impending defeat, or some reflection of world-historical momentousness, but with Jünger's own apotheosis as a soldier. The last line is the text of a telegram he received in hospital: “His Majesty the Kaiser has bestowed on you the order pour le Mérite. In the name of the whole division, I congratulate you.” The Kaiser, who is two months from abdication and exile; the Croix pour le Mérite, established by Frederick the Great, is near-defunct but still the highest decoration available to servants of the dying Kaiserreich, and here awarded for (almost) the last time, to convalescing Lt. Jünger.
The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Subtle, ambiguous, built of ironies, The Stranger's Child is precisely the historical novel one would expect from a writer who has claimed Henry James as one of his “grand and shadowy masters.” James insisted on the “fatal cheapness” of historical fiction. He scoffed at the notion that one could decant “the old consciousness” – “the soul, the sense, the horizon, the action of individuals” – from mere “pictures, & documents, relics & prints.” The Stranger's Child is informed by those scruples. It is a historical novel about the pitfalls of writing history; it dramatizes the lineage of misunderstandings that make a memory.
Cecil Valance's death at the Somme and the resonant misreading of his most ambitious poem (a privately allusive reverie become a patriotic-pastoral statement) ensures his fame as a beautiful Georgian war-martyr, sweetly expiring and thinking of England. Two biographers, one official, the other stridently revisionist, get him wrong in their different ways. After their biases the biographers have only the testimony – senile or mistaken or consciously falsified – of those who knew – thought they knew – Cecil Valance. My favorite scene is set in 1926 – a decade after Cecil's death; this fastidious novel occurs in History's intermissions – when two of Cecil's lovers surprise each other in the Valance chapel. In an atmosphere of innuendo and allusion, with “a sense of their unequal intimacies in the air,” they inspect the marble effigy the family commissioned, which “seemed to place Cecil in some floating cortege of knights and nobles reaching back through the centuries to the Crusades. George saw them for a moment like gleaming boats in a thousand chapels and churches the length of the land.”
Naturally the rather bulbous eyes were closed, the hair short and soldierly, as it must have been latterly, pushed back flat about a central parting. The nose had grown somehow mathematical. The whole head had an air of the ideal that bordered on the standardized; it simplified, no doubt, in some acceptable accord between the longings of the parents and the limits of the artist's skill. The Professor had never set eyes on Cecil – he must have worked from photographs, chosen by Louisa, which only told their own truth…He drew his fingers thoughtfully down Cecil's arm, and glanced for an abstracted moment at the marble hands, which lay idly on his tunicked stomach, almost toughing, the hands of a sleeper. They were small and neat, somewhat stylized and square, in what was clearly the Professor's way. They were the hands of a gentleman, or even of a large child, untested by labor or use. But they were not the hands of Cecil Valance, mountaineer, oarsman and seducer.
Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins and The Social History of the Machine Gun by John Ellis
…the devastation was so wide and the task of reconstruction so staggering that notions of how this was to be accomplished dissolved often into daydream and wishful thinking.
Eksteins' description of a dazed and traumatized interwar Europe flirting with Fascist politics of mystic restoration followed me into The Social History of the Machine Gun, where John Ellis provides pictures of indigenous peoples embracing mystic cults which promised adherents invulnerability to the Europeans' automatic weapons. During the Maji-Maji revolt against German rule, in current-day Tanzania in 1905, 8,000 warriors from three different tribes, convinced that under a spell the machine gun bullets would turn to water, repeatedly charged a German fort and were slaughtered. This occurred in the United States as well, in the shape of the Ghost Dances that originated with the Paiute and then spread to other Plains tribes, most famously the starving and reservation-confined Lakota Sioux. The Lakota ghost dancers donned what they believed were bulletproof shirts, for frenzied dances intended to bring about an apocalypse in which the ancestors would revive, the buffalo return, and the whites vanish. Jumpy troops massacred many at Wounded Knee.
Fascist chimeras like Hitler's “Thousand Year Reich” and Mussolini's promise of a restored Roman Empire might be the Ghost Dances of a shattered postwar Europe; though, it seems the Europeans were Ghost Dancing long before they turned their machine guns on each other. Many Europeans tried to dance away the machine gun as soon as it was invented. A major theme of Ellis' book is the refusal of European military elites – especially the British – to consider what a machine-gun dominated battlefield might be like. In the decades preceding the First World War, even as they were using the guns to mow down Africans, the British higher ups insisted the guns would have no place on the conventional European battlefield, and that war among civilized nations was a matter of battalions of stout-hearted heroes charging home, not mere machine operation. The newfangled contraptions might repel a skirt-wearing native with a bone in his nose; but Englishmen were made of stronger stuff. In their Ghost Dance, the British brass hats believed machine guns would make no difference. Field Marshall Haig could order his men to walk up to German machine guns because, as he declared a year before the Somme, “the machine gun is a much over-rated weapon.” Ellis concludes:
Of all the chickens that came home to roost and cackle over the dead on the battlefields of the First World War, none was more raucous than the racialism that had somehow assumed that the white man would be invulnerable to those same weapons that had slaughtered natives in their thousands.
Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead
At the outset, at the embarkation, their hearts are light, as hearts always are if you have a large force on your side and nothing but space to oppose you. Their weapons are in their hands; the enemy is absent. Unless your spirit has been conquered in advance by the reputation of the enemy, you always feel yourself stronger than anybody who is not there. An absent man does not impose the yoke of necessity. To the spirits of those embarking no necessity yet presents itself; consequently they go off as though to a game, as though on holiday from the confinement of daily life.
Simone Weil, “War and the Iliad”
To Conquer Hell by Edward Lengel
Recommended to anyone given to wondering how the United States raised a million-man modern army, shipped it to France, and supplied, trained, and deployed it decisively – all in 18 months. Lengel's answer is: just barely. During the first four days of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the US First Army was supplied from a single jammed road, and the frontline troops ate captured German rations and drink pooled rainwater. Many of the draftee replacements hadn't been taught to fire their rifles – they were just bodies, a helpless weight of flesh, pushed against the enemy. The planes, tanks, artillery, and most of the light machine guns were French-made. It seems that if it had not been for the organizational wizardry of First Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, later architect of US mobilization in WWII and the nominal rebuilder of postwar Europe, the thing wouldn't have come off at all.
Never fight the Russians in their snow – or the Germans in a wooded stronghold. In 9 AD, in the depths of the Teutoberg Forest, a confederacy of Germanic tribes ambushed and annihilated a force of three Roman legions. In the fall and winter of 1944 a number of US divisions bled out in the Hürtgen Forest, where the Germans had nested machine gun teams in cunningly camouflaged log redoubts and artillery batteries that fired into the treetops to make “airbursts” of razor-sharp splinters. In the fall of 1918, in the closing Allied push, the US First Army threw itself against the three lines of fortification – each named after a witch in Wagner's Ring – the Germans had laid across the steep wooded hills of the Meuse river valley and the muddy, misty ravines of the Argonne Forest.
…they entered a fog-shrouded wasteland of shattered logs, stumps, barbed wire, and bracken. Sniper bullets pinged through the fog, and Private Martin watched his comrades warily circle the few trees still standing. Unable to see the treetops through the fog, the Doughboys fired blindly. Sometimes a sniper's body hit the ground with a thud. But they didn't get them all.
The offensive succeeded but victory took six weeks, and cost 26,000 dead and over 100,000 wounded. The largest US military cemetery in Europe is not in Normandy – it's in the Meuse-Argonne.
26,000 dead is a short butcher's bill by Great War standards – but the American wastage stood out then, and stands out to historians now, because many of the casualties can be directly traced to US officers' inexperience and ignorant, pigheaded disdain of French and British advice. The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, actually thought his troops were stronger and braver than the supposedly timid, trench-cowering Europeans, and that the vaunted American rifleman, striding across No Man's Land with his bayonet fixed and his aim sure, could overcome the barbed wire, machine guns, gas, and artillery barrages – all the innovations of war – that had stopped the British and French the previous three years. Lengel describes US troops being shot down while struggling to cut through belts of wire hung with skeletons in tattered French uniforms. Chauvinism like Pershing's had also allowed three generations of European officers to ignore the data of the American Civil War and of their own colonial wars – namely, that the range and accuracy of the infantryman's rifle, and the rapid fire of the machine gun, had made frontal wave attacks against an entrenched defender suicidal. I guess we shrug with Ulysses Grant and mumble “war is progressive,” and an incommunicable obscenity. To Conquer Hell is page after page of green draftees learning war quick.
Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality by Richard Slotkin
Recommended to anyone given to wondering how the deeply, provincially racist United States motivated and mobilized its minorities, its international welter of despised laborers, for the global war. In Lost Battalions, Slotkin focuses on two New York City formations: the 77th, “Statue of Liberty” Division – “Jews, Wops, and Dirty Irish Cops” according popular ditty, officered by Ivy Leaguers trained in Teddy Roosevelt's prewar paramilitary “readiness” camps – and the 369th Regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters.” As in his study of a particular black division in the American Civil War, No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864, Slotkin weaves together engrossing combat narrative and analysis of America's defining racial and economic cleavages. This little attempt at a blurb is a travesty.
Three Soldiers by John Dos Passos
They are: Fuselli, a simple-hearted naïf who goes to war thinking it'll be like the movies, like D.W. Griffith. He's a careful conformist whose reaction to the obvious indignity and cruelty is to reassure himself that if he just keeps his mouth shut and gets noticed by the right people he'll be promoted to corporal, thereby elevated a few privileged inches out of the engulfing bullshit. The army breaks him down anyway, which is both hilarious and totally what he deserves for being such a gullible lickspittle, and also really, really sad. Chrisfield is an Indiana farm boy. He inhabits a bubble of hallucinatory hillbilly violence – pulls his knife on another soldier, detonates grenades in the night for kicks, frags a wounded sergeant who once picked on him –when not in the elevating (and restraining) company of Andrews, wayward haute bourgeois, Harvard man in the ranks. Andrews is the novel's Sensitive Soul, its artist-nerved register of the coarsening conditions. Andrews nourishes his superfine sensibility with the erotic fantasia of Flaubert's The Temptation of St. Anthony, and harbors compositional ambitions of an Art Nouveau/Ballet Russes lineage, absorbed in polishing fragments of a luscious tone poem he plans to call The Queen of Sheba.
The novel's lean descriptive prose, its austerity and obliqueness co-exist with the garrulous soul-searching and aesthetic reveries of Andrews. Indirect discourse is indirect discourse, but still: one feels that both character and creator are half-baked. Three Soldiers was the second novel of a twenty-five year-old Dos Passos, and, with a publication date of 1921, very close to the wartime experiences that fed it. In this novel Dos Passos seems not yet emerged from the crisis of style we associate with the Great War – he portrays and experiences that crisis through Andrews. The mind in a youthful lyrical fervor undergoes a brutalizing nervous shock, and must accommodate an inescapable disillusion, must shape an aesthetic out of what's unavoidably at hand. In the margins of The Queen of Sheba, Andrews occasionally dreams of a dry, rhythmic style, a white man's jazz, with which he might set audiences aquiver by conveying the machined movements of infantry drill, as Honegger conveyed the locomotive (Pacific 231) and Prokofiev industrial labor (his Sovietish ballet Le Pas d'Acier, “the steel step”).
The less articulate Fuselli and Chrisfield don't hold forth, and in their episodes the novel is freshest. Fuselli transfers to a headquarters company in hopes of getting noticed by the higher ups in a genteel indoors assignment. Enlisted men are slaves, so he's mostly cleans up. When this kind of thing happens to Andrews, he has feelings at paragraph length; Fuselli's feelings are never explicitly described, but the depth of his disappointment is elegantly suggested by an exact account of what we don't need to be told is a numbing and dispiriting servitude. The precise image of Fuselli cleaning a staircase, sweeping the dust down from step to step, is all the reader needs to see. Three Soldiers is fine-grained and quietly devastating, full of striking images and sharp vignettes. And needless to say, underrated.