Among my less harmful fetishes is an interest in what can generally be described as the tangible remnants things which once were but no longer are. By way of example I find myself intrigued by the traces of old road-beds that can be discerned as I drive down modern highways. If you see two parallel lines of trees, fifteen or twenty feet apart and meandering through a field, there’s a good likelihood you’re looking at what was once a road (it might also be a creek, but the tree lines in those cases tend not to be terribly parallel and more importantly their distance apart will fluctuate). Old bridge abutments tacked onto bluffs and leading into nothing but air catch my eye. As you drive down I-81 through the Shenandoah Valley there is visible along a particular stretch of it what was obviously an old railroad; you can see the embankments and there’s even the remnants of a stone-built viaduct. For the same reason I especially recall a weekend trip the wife and I took up the Mohawk River Valley years ago. There are scattered the old portions of the original Erie Canal, mostly stone built or, in the case of some buildings, brick. But there they are, just out in the middle of what’s pretty much nothing.
What do I think about when contemplating them? Mostly I think about all the people who built them, who used them. What sorts of people were they? Where did they come from? Where did they live? Where were they going, on those long-ago trips, and what must the world they travelled through have looked, sounded, and smelled like? What would it have been like to drive down that little country lane, decades ago (and of course back then the places through which those roads went would have been even emptier than they are now), on a crisp fall day, listening to the horse’s breathing and the crunch of the wagon wheels on the rocks? What glorious fun must it have been to lie back on the roof of an Erie Canal barge, in the bright sunshine, with the sound of the water around the bow and the creak of the tow-line leading to the horse on the path? What did the water in the canal smell like? Were their trips successful? Did they get the price they needed for whatever it was they were carrying? What concerns did those people carry with them, what hopes for the future? When they thought in terms of, “Next year I’m going to . . . ,” what kind of a world did they imagine for themselves?
The same movements actuate in me a fascination for collections of letters and oral histories of events long past. Another of my fetishes is the Great War, and there the two curiosities merge. Harry Patch, who died in July, 2009, was the last living known survivor of the Western Front trenches; among other hell-holes he fought at Third Ypres. Frank Buckles, who died in February, 2011, was the last American to have served in Europe in the Great War. They were 111 and 110 years old, respectively.
I recently finished reading a book, Britain’s Last Tommies, which is an update published in 2009 of a book that first came out in 2005, when there were several (a dozen or so) still living. The compiler/editor, Richard Van Emden, has made something of a career specialty of collecting oral histories of the Great War. The book’s got recollections by a bunch of “lasts,” including of course Patch. Emden’s got some of the last surviving Old Contemptibles, who shipped overseas in August, 1914 (and some of whom were captured in the retreat from Mons, spending the balance of the war in prison camps). He’s got some of the last survivors of Gallipoli (I recall reading the obituary of the last one of all, an Aussie, in The Economist several years ago). In several places Emden (how ironic is it that someone named “Emden” would take it upon himself to preserve the last living memories of precisely British soldiers?) has gone back into the Imperial War Archives to validate, or in some cases, correct, his subjects’ memories. What’s amazing is how few corrections there are. I can’t recall precisely where I had lunch two days ago, and these boys are calling forth impressions from 90-odd years before.
I also have, somewhere on the shelves, several collections of letters written by soldiers of both sides during the war. Most of the writers are enlisted, and many of them were what we’d all recognize as just ordinary guys. They weren’t especially learned, or prosperous; in fact, quite a number of them make reference in their letters to things that clue you in that their fathers and grandfathers before them had hacked a living from coal seams and that’s what these soldiers did before the war and expected to go back to afterwards. Quite apart from the substance of their letters is the fact of how literate they were. Paul Fussell points out in The Great War and Modern Memory how Pilgrim’s Progress represents a cultural reference point and analytical structure across all ranks of the British army during the war. Everyone from general officers down to the grunts splashing around on the duckboards continually phrased their impressions in terms of that work. But Bunyan wasn’t, by far, the only specifically literary reference to be found. Nor were the ordinary soldiers confining themselves to ready-made references. The material is just very acutely observing, very well crafted and evocative letters.
One thing is quite certain, though: There is no way at all you would ever get a sampling anything like it from modern Americans of any background or educational level.
Appropriately, Harry Patch appears on the cover of Britain’s Last Tommies. Through the marvels of PhotoShop they’ve taken a silhouette of a simple soldier, laden and struggling through the mud, and reduced it to fill in the pupils of one of his eyes. I like the image; his were the last living British eyes to have beheld the troglodyte world he survived. If you could have shaken his hand you would have touched the hands which scooped out the soup of Flanders long ago.
And now they’re gone, all gone. Nearly a hundred years on, have we learned anything which makes less likely a reprise of the whole blood-soaked shambles? I think not. Sarah Hoyt’s got an interesting post (which I’ve previously linked) on how the facile intellectuals of the 1920s, unwilling to confront the darkness within human nature — and thus within themselves — that had puked up these terrible four years, instead ascribed the tragedy to the one form of organized human existence in the world that actually stands a chance of minimizing the risk of a repeat. And then they set about undermining, de-legitimizing that form of co-existence for the next 90 years. We just re-elected a feller to the White House who signs up for that nonsense lock, stock, and barrel.