Strange Arts & Visual Delights
An extraordinary diary to emerge from the war was written by Piete Kuhr. Aa teenager during the war, she went on, as Jo Mihaly, to become an anti-war Expressionist dancer in Berlin in the 20’s and 30’s, to write novels, and in 1933 to flee Germany with her Jewish husband.
The following passage, from 30 August 1918, juxtaposes her grief at losing a friend, Lieutenant Waldecker, with the funeral of the fictitious Lieutenant von Yellenic elaborately staged by Piete and her friend Gretel. Like Piete herself, one hardly knows whether to laugh or cry:
“No one else was in the house. I covered the camp bed in [my brother’s] room with a cloth and with old sheets and pillows. I made up a life-size dummy…, covered it with a black coach-rug to make it look as if there was a body underneath. Then I put Uncle Bruno's old army boots under the rug. I put a dented steel helmet where Lieutenant Yellenic's head was. I placed my uncle's old cavalry sword and a little bunch of dried lilac … where the hands should have been. I made two Iron Crosses, first and second class, out of cardboard and a paper 'Order of Merit' which Lieutenant von Yellenic had been awarded after his 80th 'kill' in his fighter-plane 'Flea'. I laid out these three medals on Grandma's blue velvet pincushion, then I drew the curtains and lit two candles at the head of the corpse. They were only two little stumps really, but as they were stuck in Grandma's tall brass candlesticks they looked a bit like big funeral candles. After all this I shut the door.
Meanwhile, Gretel had dressed up as the mourning 'Nurse Martha'. She wore Grandma's black dress,… a thin black veil and ... a white handkerchief.… I sat down at the piano and played Chopin's 'Funeral March', then I beat a slow-march rhythm on a saucepan covered with a cloth. It sounded just like a drum roll at a military funeral. The procession then made its way from the bedroom through the dining and drawing rooms. I rushed back to the piano to play 'Jesus, my protector and saviour, lives', and Gretel instantly started to cry—they were real tears.
Now came the high point: I opened the double doors. Gretel whispered 'Oh God!' when she saw Lieutenant von Yellenic's corpse in full war regalia in the candlelight, and I must say that it really looked as if there was a dead officer lying there. Nurse Martha sobbed as if her heart was about to break, for she was of course secretly in love with Lieutenant von Yellenic.
I didn't know whether to roar with laughter or cry. I was near to both, but then it suddenly struck me that the whole affair resembled Lieutenant Waldecker's funeral procession. I made a speech about Flight Lieutenant von Yellenic, honouring his 80 'kills' and burst three paper bags which I had blown up.
And so ended the game of Nurse Martha and [Lieutenant] von Yellenic.” [Source: Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, ed. A War in Words: The First World War in Diaries and Letters].
by Wilfred Owen
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,--
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
[Source: Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, The Winter of the World]
Editors’ note: “Written March–May 1918…. Owen’s first, worst memory of the front was of a captured dugout where he and his men had almost been buried alive, a horror that must often have recurred in his shellshock nightmares. As Edmund Blunden noted, the poem is ‘a dream only a stage further on than the actuality of the crowded dugouts’. But it is also a very literary vision, Owen’s farewell to poetry, with echoes of Homer, the Bible, Dante, Spenser, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson and many others. Acutely aware of the crisis at the front, he foresees his own likely death, expects his poetry to achieve nothing and – unlike most of the war’s poets – faces up to the full implications of killing.”
Although written in early 1919, this poem by a survivor of the war, Siegfried Sassoon, captures the joy of being liberated from the war.
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
[Source: The Winter of the World]