Tuesday, July 10, 2012

`But They're Not Tough Guys'

Winston Groom in Shiloh 1862 (National Geographic, 2012) describes the battle fought at Pittsburg Landing, Tenn., on April 6 and 7, 1862, as “the first great and terrible battle of the Civil War.” Union and Confederate forces suffered 23,741 casualties – more in two days, Shelby Foote noted, than in all previous American wars combined. Groom adds: “The casualties at Shiloh were fully twice those in all the earlier battles of the Civil War.” It was the sixth bloodiest of the war, after Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Spotsylvania Courthouse, The Wilderness and Chancellorsville.

Groom injects a family theme into his book, one that links soldiers across generations. His great-great-great-grandfather fought at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. He had blood relatives who served in the Confederate cavalry (though not at Shiloh), his grandfather fought in World War I and his father in World War II. He served in Vietnam. Near the end of Shiloh 1862, Groom recalls the Battle of the Somme during the second year of the Great War. On a single day – July, 1, 1916 – and mostly in the first hour of the engagement, more than 21,000 British soldiers were killed. Almost every member of the Ninth Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment was killed, and their bodies buried in the trench they had been holding. Among them was a 23-year-old lieutenant named William Noel Hodgson, the son of a bishop of the Church of England and an aspiring poet. He wrote his best-known poem, “Before Action,” on June 29, one day before the start of the Battle of the Somme. Groom quotes the final stanza:

“I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; -
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.”

Not great poetry, but heartbreaking. Robert Graves titled his autobiography, much of it describing his experience in the Great War, Good-Bye to All That (1929). This theme of kinship among soldiers transcending time and place is expressed by our great poet of the Vietnam War, R.L. Barth, a Marine Corps veteran, in “A Letter to the Dead” (Deeply Dug In, 2003):

“The outpost trench is deep with mud tonight.
Cold with the mountain winds and two weeks' rain,
I watch the concertina. The starlight-
Scope hums, and rats assault the bunkers again.”

“You watch with me: Owen, Blunden, Sassoon.
Through sentry duty, everything you meant
Thickens to fear of nights without a moon.
War's war. We are, my friends, no different.” 

In the spring 2010 issue of Sewanee Review, Barth published “Doughboys: Photograph c. 1917.” A note precedes the poem: “—found among my grandfather’s papers”:

“Around a folded blanket seven doughboys
Intently watch the dice turn six the hard way.
Like pre-noir tough guys, three or four clutch sawbucks
Half curled, ready to shell out or increase
A conscript private’s base pay. One, raffish,
Tilts his campaign hat like an old salt.
All seven would shame Bogart with the angle
Of dangling cigarettes and arched eyebrows.
But they’re not tough guys, just heartbreakers all,
Stunning the viewer with impossible youth.”

The average age of soldiers in the Civil War and in the British army during World War I was slightly younger than twenty-six years. In Vietnam, the average age of an American service member was slightly older than twenty-three years. Of those killed, 11,465 were younger than twenty.

1 comment:

George said...

Groom's first novel, Better Times than These is not bad as a first novel, though one is constantly aware of what war novels he had in mind while writing.