Monday, March 3, 2008

Somme: The Experiences of a Very Unimportant Officer

It's the title of a book by Captain Alexander Stewart. I just read an excerpt (in the March 2008 Harper's), and it was fantastic. I wonder whether my generation's dearth of such epic, character-building experiences will lead to a spate of rather boring memoirs when we reach retirement.

Harper's provided this background on the author: "Stewart spent two years fighting... during World War I before he was sent home with a shrapnel injury in 1917. He died in 1964 at the age of eighty-six."

My favorite excerpts from Harper's excerpts illustrate the situation and his attitude:

October 29, 1916
We made an attack this morning at daybreak. Am now sitting in a hole dug in the side of a trench. It is raining, and the thick mud is at the bottom of the hole. Outside, in the trench, the mud is about a foot deep and in many places up to one's knee. A heavy bombardment is going on, and this place continually vibrates. my puttees and boots cannot be seen for the mud they are covered with. I have got on a man's overcoat that on account of the mud must weigh about fifty pounds. Round my neck is a muddy, sodden balaclava helmet that I have put my head right through. I have not shaved for three days, and I have not takend off my clothes for ten. I am itching a lot, and my feet are wet. I have lost twelve very good men owing to a bigshell exploding in the trench. I havve a blister on my left heel. Cannot get any food cooked. Rather expect a counterattack tonight, but have just smoked a good cigarette and my pipe is drawing well, s oI am feeling in remarkably good form.

November 9
I am very much annoyed by the memos sent from Headquarters. They come in at all hours of the day and night and stop me from gettinga full night's rest. Some of them are very silly and unnecessary. When I am just getting off to sleep with cold feet, in comes an orderly asking how many pairs of socks my company had a week ago. I reply, 141 1/2. Back comes a memo: Please explain at once how you came to be deficient in one sock. I reply, Man lost his leg. That's how we make the Huns sit up.

May 27, 1917
Attack Hindenburg. After my fourth shot, I found the bowl of my pipe and the smoke from it were obscuring my line of vision. Much to my annoyance I had to put my pipein my pocket alight.

September 28
Was wounded while coming out of the line. When we were about a hundred yards from a road, I, who was leading, stopped rather ostentatiously to show my contempt for the shells and lit a cigarette. A shell landed about ten yards behind us, and a small bit of its casing cut through the left side of my collar and then through my throat, where it came up flop against my wind pipe. I started to cough and brought up some blood and the bit of shell. McLennan very kindly retrieved the bit of iron out of the mud and, handing it to me, remarked that I might like to keep it. This I did.

This post's theme personality traits: dry wit and pluck.

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