Tuesday, April 9, 2013

War and remembrance

On July 10, 1863, just a week after the battle of Gettysburg, the journalist Charles Coffin left the Union army and rode to Antietam Creek. Coffin was from Boscawen, N.H. He used “Carleton,” his middle name, as his nom de plume. Beginning with the first battle at Bull Run, Carleton’s accounts in the Boston Journal had made him a popular war correspondent among his most demanding audience – the soldiers.

Carleton knew Antietam. He had covered the battle on Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history. But now he was curious about what the battlefield looked like ten months later – how it felt as a place of remembrance. The story of his return there is a chapter in Our War.

The compulsion to turn tragedy into solemn and meaningful memory lasted for decades after the war. Visit Antietam today and you will see the result.

I just finished a book about the same compulsion during and after another war – World War I. The book is Geoff Dyer’s often lyrical, usually insightful, sometimes bristly The Missing of the Somme. I’ve read a lot about World War I and visited many Western Front battlefields and cemeteries, but Dyer’s book made me think. It changed the way I’ll see war monuments, statues and graveyards in the future.
The Thiepval monument to the missiin of the Somme.
Here, for example, is what Dyer had to say about the memorial in Thiepval, France, to the missing from the battle of the Somme:

“Permanent, built to last, the monument has none of the vulnerability of the human body, none of its terrible propensity for harm. Its predominant relationship is to the earth – not, as in the case of a cathedral, to the sky. A cathedral reaches up, defies gravity effortlessly, its effect is entirely vertiginous. And unlike a cathedral, which is so graceful (full of grace) that, after a point, it disappears, becomes ethereal, the Thiepval Monument, after a point, simply refuses to go any higher. It is stubborn, stoical. Like the deadlocked armies of the war, it stands its ground.”

Our Civil War had much in common with World War I. Especially by 1864 and ’65, the weaponry had advanced much faster than the tactics. This led to slaughter and stalemate. In 1914, the age of the machine gun had arrived, but some military commanders still believed in horse cavalry and the bayonet. It didn't take long for the trenches of Petersburg to become the trenches of Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The difference was one of scale. As bad as Cold Harbor was, the Somme was far worse. By mid-afternoon on July 1, 1916, the first day of the battle, 20,000 British soldiers were dead and 40,000 wounded and missing. The Thiepval Memorial lists 73,367 men whose bodies – or body parts – never made it home.

The ossuary at Douaumont honors the missing hordes of Verdun.
The enormity of the slaughter resists words. After I visited the memorial more than 20 years ago, all I managed to scratch in my journal was that the nearby poppies were “symbols of life in flower but also of spilled blood.” In other words, I had to avert my gaze to try to see what I had seen. 

Near Verdun, site of similar pitiless fighting, many efforts were made after the war to bring the slaughter down to a comprehensible scale. The prevailing idea seemed to be to tell stories about individuals or squads who had accepted death without complaint.

But the dominant memorial is the Douaumont ossuary, a low structure a football field and a half long. In its center stands a phallic tower that looks a bit like a space shuttle. It houses the bones of 130,000 French and German soldiers collected from the battlefield. Eschewing the ossuary’s Latinate designation, the Germans call it a beinhaus – bone house.

The landscape around the Somme and Verdun is so well-kept that it is hard to imagine the mud and desolation in which the soldiers fought.

At Antietam in July 1863, Carleton found that battlefield already changed. Even though the war was far from won, he also understood its historical place.

To see the ground around Burnside Bridge was to understand the valor of the Union men who finally took it, he wrote. But he also met Samuel Mumma, a farmer whose barn and fields had been destroyed during the battle. Mumma had already rebuilt. A reaper was cutting grain in one of his fields. Near the Bloody Lane Carleton found the gear soldiers had left behind, but the elements had erased their names.

Headboards that marked graves had been tossed aside for plowing. There was “nothing to mark the places of burial but the deeper green of the growing corn,” Carleton wrote.   

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