Monday, December 08, 2014

The Englishman's Daughter, Death, and Ants

I read a phenomenal book by Ben Macintyre (who's written many phenomenal books) last week titled The Englishman's Daughter: A True Story of Love and Betrayal in World War One. Here's a description:
In the first days of World War I four soldiers, left behind as the British army retreated through northern France under the first German onslaught, found themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Western Front, in a tiny village called Villeret. Just a few miles from the Somme, the village would be permanently inundated with German troops for the next four years, yet the villagers conspired to feed, clothe and protect the fugitives under the very noses of the invaders, absorbing the Englishmen into their homes and lives until they could pass for Picardy peasants. 

The leader of the band, Robert Digby, was a striking young man who fell in love with Claire Dessenne, the prettiest maid in the village. In November 1915, with the guns clearly audible from the battlefront, Claire gave birth to Digby's child, the jealous whispering began, and the conspiracy that had protected the soldiers for half the war started to unravel.

That's right: war, romance, and soap opera drama, all in one book. 

What struck me even more than the incredible story, though, was the story of WWI itself, which is the foundation that the story weaves through. I've read about WWI before, but everything I read was extraordinarily dry. 

This, though, is anything, but dry, and Macintyre includes some stunning works from that period, including this by poet/soldier Alan Seeger:
I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.   
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   
And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.   
God knows ‘twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   
Where hushed awakenings are dear...   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Read this slowly, aloud. It will shake you.

Seeger did indeed die during WWI--in 1916, at Belloy-en-Santerre.

The book does a tremendous job of describing the closeness of war, the suffocation, and I strongly encourage you to read it when you have time.

This ties in with a second story.

I'm swimming 5 days a week at the YMCA while our neighborhood pool is closed for "winter". It's a huge enclosed area with a big pool (8 lanes), and a second, smaller pool for classes like water aerobics. There's a class (frilly bathing caps and many over 70) going on while I swim, and when I got out of the water on Friday, they were all softly reciting "The Ants Go Marching" as they exercised. In combination with the pool acoustics, what emerged was a ghostly, very haunting version of the poem, like a shadow.

As I listened, I realized that "The Ants Go Marching" must be a sanitized version of a poem/song about war, and I guessed that it was WWI. I looked it up when I got home, and as it turns out, it's even older than that. It's from "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again," which was written not during WWI but during the Civil War, in 1863.

Site Meter