An artist’s memoir of Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel

I received a parcel from McFarland Publishers today, containing a memoir of an enlisted US Marine, Louis C. Linn, who served at Belleau Wood, Soissons and St Mihiel. At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad. I wrote the chapter introductions and footnotes for the book.

I also wrote the following summary and assessment of Linn’s memoir, only part of which appears in the book.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Louis Linn wrote his memoir of service with the Marine Brigade in France in 1918 about ten years after the end of the war. This is just when the great majority of memoirs, novels and books of poems about the First World War began to appear, in the late 1920s and early ‘30s. For nearly all the participants of the war, from whatever country, it took at least a decade before combat veterans could “come to terms” with the trauma of the war, and gain the perspective necessary to write about it with some clarity and dispassion.

Linn’s memoir is rough-hewn. It reads like a rough draft written straight through and never revised, with passages of lyric force and clarity interspersed with passages which are much less certain, where Linn is clearly struggling to capture experiences that are not easily rendered into language.

Memoirs are difficult to write at best, for a host of reasons, and memoirs dealing with trauma are the most difficult of all. Yet unlike many memoirists from the war, Linn never resorts to easy shortcuts with the language. There are no euphemisms or clichés, or any of the easy formulaic phrases heard so often during the war itself. There is no talk of “dash” or “valor” or “elan”. There is not the slightest whiff of patriotism, esprit de corps, or demonization of the enemy. He never even refers to himself as a Marine, but just as a plain infantry soldier.

Linn’s perspective is personal and ground-level. There is no sense of larger issues, strategic objectives, or being part of a Great Crusade. What he writes about is getting through each day. If there is a moral compass in Linn’s account, it too is personal and ground-level. What Linn describes again and again are relations between individuals, and their rank and nationality scarcely figure into it. He observes numerous instances of callousness, cruelty and injustice, and these become a part of his record. Some of those he meets elicit his sympathy, or pity, even occasionally his admiration, but many more provoke his ridicule and contempt, especially if they are officers.

What strikes the reader most of all is Linn’s uncompromising frankness, whether about human flaws, including his own, or the sordid particulars of life in the trenches. He never fudges, or makes excuses, or offers explanations. He just puts it down as he remembers it, in detail, and with no apparent concern for the impression he makes, either of himself, or on the reader. This is what gives Linn’s memoir its great value as a document of core human experience. If his phrasing is not always polished, his forthrightness never falters.

Louis Linn was a member of 77th Company, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, 4th Brigade of Marines, Second Division (Regular), A.E.F. Of all the American divisions participating in the Great War, the Second Division suffered the most casualties, captured the second most territory, captured the most enemy prisoners and equipment, and won the most decorations for valor.

The Second Division was the only Army division in the history of the United States to contain a brigade of Marines, and the only Army division ever to be commanded by a Marine. It was due to the participation of this single Marine brigade that the Marine Corps, in six months time, went from being a minor expeditionary fighting force attached to the Navy, to being considered a first-rate force of shock troops by the German Army. It was this single Marine brigade which made the Marine Corps a participant on the world stage, and prepared it for playing a major role in the next world war, and which provided the crucial core of experienced field officers for that war.

Of three major battles, all of which were devastating for the Marine Brigade, Linn participated in two, Belleau Wood and Soissons, and in those two he participated in the very worst of the fighting. He came through Belleau Wood unscathed, was badly wounded at Soissons, and then, at St. Mihiel, during an attack when only seven Marines were wounded by a concealed grenade, Linn was one of the seven, and he was wounded badly enough that he remained hospitalized until after the Armistice.

Regarding his experiences in the war, Linn’s daughter, Laura Jane Linn Wright writes that ” . . . [he] always carried a sketchbook and a stub of a pencil in his pocket. He carried them all through the war. He drew, whenever he could, to try to maintain his sanity in a terrible situation. Drawing gave him a measure of mental peace. He was tormented by nightmares. He wrote his memoir several years after the war, partly as a catharsis, using his sketches as illustrations. Or perhaps the sketches brought back his experiences. He made woodcuts from some of the sketches to more vividly convey the bleakness and horror of the war . . . ”

BJ Omanson

For more about this book, go here.

 

BJ Omanson

Published in: on January 17, 2012 at 1:55 am  Leave a Comment  

Rendering a ravaged landscape: the steady eye of John Allan Wyeth

A poet of the First World War who has only recently come to light is John Allan Wyeth whose book of sonnets, This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, published originally in 1929, was reprinted last year by the University of South Carolina Press, as part of Matthew Bruccoli’s “Great War Series”.

J.A. Wyeth in 1919

Wyeth was a staff officer with the 33rd Division and thus served on the British, French and American fronts through most of 1918, most notably at Amiens and St. Mihiel. He was taken out of action on the eve of the Argonne Offensive by influenza.

Wyeth’s sonnets form a unified series, presented almost like the pages of a diary, in chronological order, and organized according to geographical location. I will not attempt a thorough introduction to Wyeth here. That has been done already, and quite ably, by Dana Gioia, in his introduction to the South Carolina edition. I will also sidestep the topic of the poems’ detailed adherence to historical accuracy, which is demonstrated by extensive annotations to the poems in the same edition.

What I wish to discuss in this essay is what critic Tim Kendall referred to briefly as Wyeth’s “understatement” (see Kendall’s article,  A Long Lost American Poet of the Great War). Dana Gioia describes this quality briefly, but cogently, in the following paragraph: …Although Wyeth’s central subject of unrestrained modern war should equal or surpass the domestic violence in (Joseph Moncure) March or Jeffers, his narrative seems decidedly quieter and calmer. Although the book presents a first-person account of the first great modern war — a conflict generally depicted in literature through shock, horror, and confusion — the speaker seems to observe his own life from a safe distance. If Wilfred Owen famously declared that his poetry was ‘in the pity,’ Wyeth’s method locates its imaginative energy in objectivity.

This quality in Wyeth’s poems is key, I think, but difficult to characterize. The poems all together possess a remarkable consistencey of tone, which helps to achieve the cohesion of the cycle as a whole, but the tone draws so little attention to itself that it is easy to overlook.

Wyeth’s neutral tone, the narrator’s voice, is never raised, never urges or obtrudes, never prompts or persuades, never calls attention to itself. It is like a neutral, transparent undercoat, a gesso, spread evenly over the entire broad canvas of his 55-sonnet sequence, binding it into a unified whole, and establishing a steady rate of movement through one sonnet after another, a smooth unvarying current flowing beneath an often turbulent surface.

As illustration, one could open Wyeth’s book almost anywhere, picking a sonnet at random.

~~~~~

SECRET TROOP MOVEMENT

A night march under black skies faintly starred–
the trudging columns tramp and jostle by.
“Cut out that smokin’, goddamn it, do as you’re told–
No talking there– we don’t want any noise.”
A scrunch of gravel in the station yard.
We ride all night– The men curl up and lie
askew on the seats and stretch against the cold.
All out by dawn– the harbor pale turquoise
with tugboats belching dirty smoke from charred
smokestacks. We ferry to Hoboken. Clear and high,
with sunrise cutting every roof and quoin,
a skyline all grey shadow slit with gold.
A downtown ferry passes–
                                                        “Give ‘em hell, boys.”
“Giv’em hell yourself, it’s not too late to join.”

~~~~~

Such a neutral, even tone enables all the other features of the poem, whether dialogue or description, to stand forth entirely on their own merits, without heightening or manipulation. Wyeth’s style is the opposite of expressionistic. With a delivery so consisitently monotone, the effect is almost documentary.

Neufmaison, by E.C. Peixotto

Wyeth’s poems invite comparison with certain AEF field artists, particularly Wallace Morgan, W.J. Aylward, W.J. Duncan, J.A. Smith and E.C. Peixotto, who tend to present the war as a series of precisely-rendered landscapes, seen from a certain distance, so that the men and machinery of modern war never dominate the scene, but are shown as transitory elements in a larger landscape which has already borne witness to countless earlier wars and which will endure long after the present war has passed into memory. The war, in other words, is kept in perspective.

Infantry and Tanks Advancing on Field, by Wallace Morgan

Such a drawing, with soldiers and tanks in the middle distance, moving steadily across a broad landscape, is Wallace Morgan’s “Infantry and Tanks Advancing on Field”. Note the nearly identical perspective presented by Wyeth (who after the war would become an accomplished landscape painter in his own right) in the following descriptive passage from “Molliens-au-Bois: Division Headquarters”:

… “What’s that—Oh yes, the brigade goes in today.”
Noon blazing blue gold in a summer sky
and helmets bobbing just above a thick
wheatfield, and through the dust of motorcars,
like streaks of rain the rifles slant and shine.
“Look, there they go—” …

Or this, from “Harbonnieres: Regimental Maps from Headquarters”:

   
                                               … A rush of foaming flanks,
Australian caissons rattling, galloping by
and dust clouds sifting slowly on to the plain.
“You men seen any Americans anywhere?”
“No sir.” …

Or this description from “Corbie to Sailly-le-Sec” of a ruined church in a ruined village, set in a broader landscape, all in neutral tones. The poignance of human loss is all the truer, all the sharper, for its understated rendering, as the war is all the more ominous for being only faintly perceptible beyond the horizon.

                                                       … We motored through
to the poplar marsh along the river’s shore.
Sailly-le-Sec—her church one candlestick
on a broken altar, and beyond it, part
of a rounded apse—a dusty village husk
of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, all blue,
and twinkling with the phophorescent soar
of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk. …

In contrast are the shorter-range drawings of H.T. Dunn and G.M. Harding, far more personal and expressionistic in style, suffused with drama and emotion — drawings where the artist’s style is as much the subject as the subject itself.

Harvey Dunn

What separates these two groups of artists is their view of emotion as an artistic device. Morgan, Aylward, Duncan, Peixotto & Smith eschew emotion, wishing to avoid its inevitable distortions. For Dunn and Harding, on the other hand, emotion is more or less the whole point. In their view it is the horror of war which is the heart of the matter, something which a neutral documentary style can never adequately portray. Emotion may distort, but nothing less will ever penetrate to the truth.

Wyeth, with his imperturbable evenness of tone, belongs clearly to the former camp. Yet Wyeth’s case is complex. A primary subject of a number of his sonnets is the narrator’s own inner state, his strong emotional response to a particular event. Yet even in these cases Wyeth’s method remains objective. He never resorts to expressionism. He makes no attempt to arouse a comparable emotion in the reader; his attempt, rather, is to render the emotion as freshly and precisely as possible — for the record.

~~~~~

SOUILLY: HOSPITAL
~~~~~

Fever, and crowds—and light that cuts your eyes—
Men waiting in a long slow-shuffling line
with silent private faces, white and bleak.
Long rows of lumpy stretchers on the floor.
My helmet drops—a head jerks up and cries
wide-eyed and settles in a quivering whine.
The air is rank with touching human reek.
A troop of Germans clatters through the door.
They cross our line and something in me dies.
Sullen, detached, obtuse—men into swine—
and hurt unhappy things that walk apart.
Their rancid bodies trail a languid streak
so curious that hate breaks down before
the dull and cruel laughter in my heart.

~~~~~


BJ Omanson