Thursday, November 11, 2010

`The Memory Lets Escape What is Over and Above'

My only living link with the First World War was my maternal step-grandfather, James Aloysius Kelly, a diminutive house painter who maintained his good nature despite advancing age and dedicated drinking. I wish I had paid better attention as a child, as only two of Kelly’s war stories survive in memory. In one, he described a restaurant near the Army base where he underwent basic training in 1917. In the window hung a sign: “No Dogs or Irish.” The other is set in France. His unit had pitched camp in a beet field, where Kelly and other doughboys staged a beet fight. No recollections of combat, as with my father in the next war.

More than nine million died in four years, exceeding five-thousand five-hundred for every day of the war, an unprecedented slaughter exceeded two decades later. On Tuesday I asked three of my fifth-grade reading students what Veterans Day was about. “Soldiers,” one said. Had they ever heard of Armistice Day? No recognition. What about Verdun, the Marne and the Somme? Who fought whom? Nothing, as though the Great War had never happened.

As a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Welsh poet and artist David Jones served on the Western Front from December 1915 to March 1918. In Part 7 of In Parenthesis he writes:

“The memory lets escape what is over and above---
as spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out,
and again drenched down---demoniac-pouring:
who grins who pours to fill flood and super-flow insensately,
pint-pot---from milliard-quart measure.”

Another of Kelly’s war stories comes to me: “Ypres” he pronounced “YIP-pers.”


Eric Thomson said...

A variant of 'YIP-pers' was 'Wipers', which David Jones himself mentions (in note 35 to Part Three of In Parenthesis) as a pronunciation jealously guarded as a kind of campaign medal by the veterans of the early years of the war: '... that habit of calling Ypres 'Wipers', the use of which by a new-comer might easily elicit: 'What do you know about Wipers - Eeps if you don't mind'. It was held by some that 'Wipers' was only proper in the mouth of a man out before the end of 1915, by others, that the user must have served at the first Battle of Ypres in 1914.' I wonder if there are languages that distinguish events as experienced from those same events as described by non-participants? 'Ypres' is one thing, 'Wipers' another entirely.

William A. Sigler said...

The Jones quote is one of the most poetic descriptions of grief I've ever read - the way spirit and tears (and self-abuse) re-occur in unfathomable gusts.

Not to worry. The children will experience all this in time. It's one of our basic human custodies.

Nige said...

There was a British trench magazine called the Wipers Times, full of gallows humour and 'hysterical hilarity' - it offers a fascinatingly different perspective on the trench war, and shows the long-suffering Tommy's ability to extract a kind of comedy from absolutely anything.

Eric Thomson said...

Just a postscript on a possible origin of Wipers. The town of Rye in Sussex appears in E.V. Lucas's Highways and Byways of Sussex, published in 1904 (London, Macmillan). Lucas writes on p. 369: 'One only of Rye's gates is standing—the Landgate; but on the south rampart of the town is the Ypres Tower (called Wipers by the prosaic inhabitants), a relic of the twelfth century, guarding Rye once from perils by sea and now from perils by land.' One of the battalions to take part in the first Battle of Ypres was the 2nd battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, nicknamed 'the Iron Regiment'. It seems likely that the battalion took Wipers with them to Flanders: Ypres belonged to them. Rye War Memorial, incidentally, records the names of 193 of its 'prosaic inhabitants'.