Sunday, June 28, 2015

One woman's war and resurrection

Vera Brittain, World War I nurse and memoirist.
Diplomacy collapsed. Hubris reigned. Blithe patriotism seized the day. War came. Because of technology, mainly the machine gun, wholesale murder in the mud masqueraded as battle. Life was cheap, gains were few. Statesmen and generals resisted plain facts, and war went on and on.

Perhaps the only good that came of World War I was the vast literature it unleashed. During the Vietnam War that literature came back into vogue, and I couldn’t get enough of it. (If you’re inclined to embark on a similar literary journey, start with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.) Later, my wife Monique and I visited many battlefields of the Western Front, including the Somme, Ypres and Verdun.

Now, during the centenary of this war, we are reading and rereading a few of its classics. One of my favorites is the postwar memoir of Vera Brittain. She was a feminist and a war nurse. Like thousands upon thousands of young women of her time, she suffered devastating personal losses during the war. In 1933, using her copious diary, she wrote a heartbreaking book called Testament of Youth. (The diary itself, published as Chronicle of Youth, is also excellent.)

A war of machine guns and gas masks.
Testament of Youth tells the story of Vera Brittain’s war and her painful resurrection from its sorrows. While rereading it, I was tempted again and again to share excerpts in this blog. In the end I chose these four brief ones.

The horrors of war. In 1917, during the now-forgotten Cambrai offensive, casualties became heavy. The field hospital where Brittain worked had to wake patients in the middle of the night and turn them out of their beds to sleep on the floor in order to make room for new masses of badly wounded men. At this stage of the war, a new and terrible weapon was in common use. Brittain wrote in her diary:

“We have heaps of gassed cases at present who came in a day or two ago; there are 10 in this ward alone. I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case – to say nothing of 10 cases – of mustard gas in its early stages – could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes – sometimes temporally (sic), sometimes permanently – all stick and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke. The only thing one can say is that such severe cases don’t last long; either they die soon or else improve – usually the former; they certainly never reach England in the state we have them here and yet people persist in saying that God made the War, when there are such inventions of the Devil about.”

Wartime jokes: As in all wars, black humor was common. Brittain recorded this example of the wry logic of trench warfare:

Three men in Vera Brittain's life: Edward Brittain, her brother, Roland
Leighton, her fiance, and Victor Richardson, her friend.
“When you are a soldier you are one of two things, either at the front or behind the lines. If you are behind the lines you need not worry. If you are at the front you are one of two things. You are either in a danger zone or in a zone which is not dangerous. If you are in a zone which is not dangerous you need not worry. If you are in a danger zone you are one of two things; either you are wounded or you are not. If you are not wounded you need not worry. If you are wounded you are one of two things, either seriously wounded or slightly wounded. If you are slightly wounded you need not worry. If you are seriously wounded one of two things is certain – either you get well or you die. If you get well you need not worry. If you die you cannot worry, so there is no need to worry about anything at all.”

The “lost” cause: Brittain often raises the central questions whose answers became less and less clear as World War I ground on, becoming a gruesome tragedy with a life of its own. Why are we fighting? Why can’t we stop? The best answer, she suggested, may have come in a British marching song sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.”

“We’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here because
we’re here.”

Beautiful writing. Because Brittain quotes often from the diary and wartime letters, the book is long, but she often expresses a thought with startling clarity. Here is the view from 15 years after the war:

“Whenever I think of the War to-day, it is not as summer but always as winter; always as cold and darkness and discomfort; and an intermittent warmth of exhilarating excitement which made us irrationally exult in all three. Its permanent symbol, for me, is a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle, the tiny flame flickering in an ice-cold draught, yet creating a miniature illusion of light against an opaque infinity of blackness.”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A singular death at Cold Harbor

When the dawn came up on June 4, 1864, the men of the 13th New Hampshire Volunteers found themselves 500 feet from the enemy lines at Cold Harbor. For three days the piney sand where they lay had been a slaughter ground, especially for the Union army. The 13th would remember this day for the death of a single officer, Lt. Aaron K. Blake of Brookfield, N.H.

The 13th New Hampshire's tattered flags.
If you go to Cold Harbor today, you can see remnants of the trenches the soldiers dug to shield themselves from withering fire from trenches across the way. The warfare there was a harbinger of World War I, although the Cold Harbor trenches, like those that remain at Spotsylvania, are much closer to each other than those at Ypres, the Somme and Verdun.

The 13th arrived at its new position after dark, too late to dig proper trenches. Some of them lay in small pits left by the pickets who had been there before them. In the pitch-black night they enlarged the holes with bayonets and spoons. In front of the holes they stacked a few logs and the bodies of dead soldiers – their own and the enemy’s – “anything to keep the rebel bullets back,” as the regimental historian S. Millet Thompson wrote. They solidified these barricades with sand.

From first light, the 13th’s colors, planted in the ground, became an easy and popular target for rebel marksmen. When a bullet split the staff of the national colors, David Bodge, the color sergeant, fixed it with barrel staves and a strap from his knapsack. Years later, he wrote that this repaired staff could still be seen with the regimental colors at the New Hampshire State House.

The regiment was under fire most of the day, even during the afternoon rain showers. Six men were wounded, and only Lt. Blake was killed.

Private William B. Luey of Columbia, N.H., who was attached to the 13th and had himself been wounded on June 1 at Cold Harbor, wrote the details in his diary:

“Aaron K. Blake, of A, is shot through the upper part of his head to-day, a rebel bullet entering and exposing the brain. He is laid near the Pine at first, close to the north side of it, and breathes almost all day. He is utterly unconscious, making no sign when spoken to or touched – every effort being made to revive him – and can suffer no possible pain; yet he is strangely nervous, breathing more quickly when a shell strikes the tree, or near him, or the noise of the firing increases. Later in the day he is moved to the covert way, a few feet to the south of the Pine, where about 5 p.m. he quietly ceases to breathe; and dies without showing any sign of consciousness or of suffering from the time when he was struck.”

Blake’s 21-year-old cousin, Pvt. George P. Blake, also of Brookfield, served in the 13th’s Company F. After two weeks of constant fighting, it was he who wrote to his aunt and uncle, Aaron’s parents, to share the details of their sons death.

Here is his letter:

June 19, 1864

Dear Uncle & Aunt,

I wrote to father the sad news of Aarons death, the particulars of which I could not at the time enumerate. His company and regiment were in the advance holding a line of rifle pits in close proximity to the enemy. Watching carefully the doings of the enemy, he advanced bravely to the line and having seen that there was a sharpshooter whose unerring eye had picked off many of our boys, brought his rifle to bear on him and fired. After firing he remain[ed] to[o] long to watch the effect and another sharpshooter fire[d] his rifle, the fatal bullet of which caused the death of one of our country’s bravest sons, who through all the privations of a soldiers life was never heard to grumble and whose sense of duty was highly commendable.

He was much liked in his company both as an officer and as a companion, always endeavoring to cheer the hearts of those who were weary of a soldier’s life and had forgotten their duty to their country. His fate has been like that of many others in winning for the 13th N. H. Regt. laurels which it will ever be proud of, and a name as unperishable as has ever been gained since this cruel war commenced. He was noted for cleanliness, never being seen in a filthy condition, even when under great adversities. His place in the ranks has been but very seldom vacant. In fact he was a perfect soldier, being admired by both officers and men. It hardly seems possible to me that he is dead, for whenever I visited the regiment, he was sure to call me, and whenever I had any news from home he took great delight in telling me of it.

His effect[s] were taking care of a part of which I have in my own possession and will send to you at the first opportunity. Lt. [Charles B.] Gafney* has his watch and one or two other trinkets which he will send you. He was buried near Coal Harbor by the side of many of his regiment and a slab was erected to denote his final resting place.

The loss of him is I am well aware a very severe blow to the heart of his parents and the fact of his being so watchful to promote your ever[y] interest seems to hold his memory more dear. He never [k]new what hit him, being senseless from the first. George G. Ricker watched by him until he was dead and then marked his place of burial. George Ricker is reported killed.**

Your affliction is I am well aware more grievous than I can imagine and you have my heartfelt sympathies in enabling you to be up against this dire misfortune.

But he is dead and his grave which is all that is left remains for future generations to look upon as an altar upon which was slain one whose many bright hopes are blasted and who is I trust in that place of rest where wars and rumours of wars can never disturb his holy slumbers. My love to all and may the Almighty in his infinite goodness enable you to bear with Christian fortitude your affliction and assist you in this time of earthly woe.

Adiew and may God Bless You
Your Nephew,
Geo. P. Blake

*Gafney, 21, Of Ossipee, N.H., had enlisted as a private but was promoted to second lieutenant in September 1862. He was severely wounded on June 15, 1864, at Petersburg, but later made captain, served out the war with the 13th, and lived in Rochester.

**Ricker was a private from Brookfield, the Blakes’ hometown. He was killed the same day Gaffney was wounded, in an action known as Battery Five.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A father writes home from the war

In honor of Fathers Day, here is an excerpt from one of the best New Hampshire Civil War soldier letters I ever found. It was written by Lt. James Larkin to his wife Jenny. They had two small children, Bubby and Belle, and the lieutenant was thinking about the burden his absence placed on his wife.

James B. Larkin
Larkin had been an ornamental painter in Concord before the war. He and his family lived in a small house that I drove past often during my years as an editor in Concord. As he relates in the letter, one reason he took a commission in 1861 was that he was struggling to support the family. 

Larkin wrote to Jenny from the Virginia Peninsula just before the 5th New Hampshire Regiment’s first battle, at Fair Oaks on June 1, 1862. Here is what he had to say:

“As the contending armies seem now to be on the eve of a fierce battle, and many a brave form will be layed silent in Death, and Thousands of homes will be called to mourn for loved ones slain, it is not unreasonable to supose that I may be among the number who shall fall on that day. Still I have no fears. On the contrary I feel I shall come out safe & be restored to your loving embraces once more.

“But if it is ordered otherwise I feel that I should leave some advise and a consoling word for I am not unmindful of the greate responsibility which rests upon you in bringing up those Darling little ones. Many is the hour I have lain and thought of these things in the stillness of night before and since I left you.

“It was a greate sacrifice for me to leave you, & you thought it could not be possible I could do it, thinking so much of my children as I did. But the greate love I bore them, & you, was one of the principal reasons which led me to leave you. For in connection with the duty I felt I owed my country I felt I owed as greate a duty to my family.

“Times were hard. I thought if I could save a few hundred dollars to enjoy with my family hereafter, benefit my health, & at the same time serve my country, I should be discharging a solemn duty to my family and my country. But you will say you would prefer poverty with me, to riches without me. But I am to proud to see you and my children want for anything which I could possibly get.

“If I fall you will come in possession of ($1500) fifteen hundred dollars by my life insurance, & with what other property you have will with carefull use & investing it at good advantage enable you to suport yourself & Children & educate them respectfully. 

"But above all things Dear Jenny be watchful of their moral training that there may never be a blot on their dear name or character. Oh with what ceaseless vigilance should you watch over little Bell that she may grow up to womanhood as spotless and pure as she is now. I can see her now, the same little pure Angle that she was the first time I pressed my lips to her sweet mouth. You may think I am partial to her, but I love darling buby just as well. But a boy can make his way through the world easier than a girl. But I would not have you be less careful with his morals.

“The little dears will never know their father, but Jenny, if such a thing is possable, after leaving this earth I shall ever be with you & them to assist your trying and lonley journy through this short life until we meet where partings will be no more.”

A few minutes before crossing the Chickahominy River for battle, Larkin signed his letter: “Good by Dear ones. Yours in Death and Life.”

Maybe he really did believe, as he wrote in his opening paragraph, that he would survive the battle; maybe he just said it to soothe his wife’s fears. But in fact he lived through the battle and several more and rose to be lieutenant colonel of the 5th. The war took a severe toll on his body, as his pension record shows, but after three years he came home to his Jenny, Bubby and Belle.

In 1868, he led Concord’s first Memorial Day parade on Main Street.