(HINDENBURG LINE, APRIL 1917)
Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.
Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.
Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,
And stooped to give the sleeper's arm a tug.
'I'm looking for headquarters.' No reply.
'God blast your neck!' (For days he'd had no sleep,)
'Get up and guide me through this stinking place.'
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.
Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn's ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.
(from Counter-Attack, by Siegfried Sassoon)
Reading about the first world war as described by its soldiers is like reading one long horror story, many times amplified because it is actually true. People really saw their friends falling left and right, went mad, or died alone in agony in the gruesome trench warfare so comfortably decided by those who risked no limbs in it.
Siegfried Sassoon served in the army from the beginning of the war. He lost his brother to it, as well as a close friend, and of course most of his army mates in the endless rows of attacks and counter-attacks. The horrors he experienced alternately made him despair, seethe with anger, and foolhardily risk his life for revenge against those who had killed them - the Germans.
However, Sassoon did some thinking, and eventually he turned his anger against those who had ordered the war - the generals, the politicians, even the women who encouraged their menfolk to enter the fray without knowing what it was really like. Each of his sarcastic, satirical poems aimed at the cheering people on the sidelines reads as horror, for how could they encourage this madness?
But none of these accusatory poems describe the hell as vividly as those directly from the battle lines, such as The Rear-Guard. Those who didn't die early on met death again and again - slow death, painful death, meaningless and certain death. To most of us, finding a ten-day old corpse would be horrible enough. In The Rear-Guard, the discovery is made even worse by the insensitivised treatment of it, and by the lingering reflection that even though the soldier, climbing out, is leaving one hell behind him, he is entering another.
(this is my contribution to the halloween quest)