The pilots African American Soldiers 1 Mule Rearing African American Officers pilots in dress uniforms Riveters gas masks doughboys with mules

The WWrite Blog

The Weariness of the Thing - "The Boys Who Live in the Ground"

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

The Weariness of the Thing - "The Boys Who Live in the Ground"

By Connie Ruzich

Of the American aviators who flew over enemy lines in the war, only fifteen percent were left after the signing of the armistice.  Donald S. White, one of these few survivors, served as a pilot on the Western Front with the 20th Air Squadron. He was cited for “exceptional devotion to duty” as a bombing aviator as “he had served in a day-bombing squadron in every raid since the squadron had been called into active work during the severe fighting in the Argonne.” For this week’s post, Connie Ruzich from Behind Their Lines shares her rare discovery exclusively with WWrite: White’s poem about his service, a poem that seeks to speak “for thousands of his fellows.” Read “The Boys Who Live in the Ground” followed by Ruzich’s analysis this week!*

 RUZ4BowdoinDonald S. White in the Bowdoin Bugle, 1916. Image credit: Connie Ruzich

Songs from the Trenches: The Soul of the A.E.F. was published in Paris in April of 1918 when masses of American troops were beginning to arrive in France and prepare for battle.  The anthology was a collection of poems chosen from the thousands submitted to the New York Herald’s Literary Competition and dedicated to the memory of Alan Seeger, “The First American Soldier Poet who gave his life in France.”  The foreword of the book states that the poems were “a message from the American soldiers abroad to the home folks.... Each writer speaks for thousands of his fellows.”  

 

The Boys Who Live in the Ground

Some sing the glory of the war,

      Of the heroes who die in the fight,

Of the shock of battle, the roar of guns,

      When armies clash by night.

Some mourn the savagery of war,

      The shame and waste of it all,

And they pity the sinfulness of men

      Who heard not the Master’s call.

They may be right, and they may be wrong,

      But what I'm going to sing

Is not the glory nor sin of war,

      But the weariness of the thing.

For most of the time there’s nothing to do

      But to sit and think of the past,

And one day comes and slowly dies

      Exactly like the last.

It’s the waiting that’s seldom talked about;

      Oh, it’s very rarely told

That most of the bravery at the front

      Is just waiting in the cold.

It's not the dread of the shrapnel’s whine

      That sickens a fighting soul,

But the beast in us comes out sometimes

      When we’re waiting in a hole.

Just sitting and waiting and thinking,

      As the dreary days go by,

Takes a different kind of courage

      From marching out to die.  

And I often think when the thing is done,

      And the praises are all passed around, 

If, with all their words, they'll say enough 

      For the boys who lived in the ground. 

            —Donald Sherman White

RUZ4frontlineAmerican soldiers of the 77th Division on the front line, 1918. Image credit: Connie Ruzich

It doesn't matter whether the war is gloriously heroic or savagely misguided and meaningless—this poem sings “of the weariness of the thing,” the numbing tedium of warfare in all its stasis, boredom, and enforced inactivity.  Mastering one’s mind when “the beast comes out sometimes” demands a “different kind of courage” than the bravery needed to charge enemy lines.  Germans are not the only enemy, for the men also must battle the damp, the rats, and the endless circle of their own thoughts. Death is ever present, but what saps the spirit is imposed paralysis: every man has surrendered control of himself to a larger force that demands endurance more often than gallantry.  

Ironically, although many of the boys will die far too young, the poem says that these soldiers are plagued with far too much time, time given to recrimination and regret as they contemplate the past.  Waiting diminishes the men.  They are literally buried alive, asked to live a half-life of repeated postponements while they wait for the order to challenge death.  Advertisements during the First World War promised to alleviate the boredom: the portable gramophone was offered as an answer to life’s existential questions.  

RUZ4DeccaIn an instant, the boredom vanishes. Image credit: Connie Ruzich

The poem’s author, Donald S. White, graduated from Bowdoin College in 1916; the class yearbook noted that he was devoted to ragtime music and had so earned the nickname “Raggy.” White also enjoyed “writing fond verses to the probable and improbable feelings of himself and others.” He did not wait for the United States to enter the war, but instead, early in 1917, he joined the American Field Service (AFS) as an ambulance driver attached to the French army.  

When America declared war later that year, White resigned from his position with the AFS, enlisted in the American army, and served as a pilot on the Western Front with the 20th Air Squadron.  Lieutenant White was cited for “exceptional devotion to duty” as a bombing aviator; an article in the Bowdoin university magazine reported that “he had served in a day-bombing squadron in every raid since the squadron had been called into active work during the severe fighting in the Argonne.” Of the American aviators who flew over enemy lines in the war, “only fifteen percent … were left after the signing of the armistice.”**  Donald S. White survived the war. ***

RUZ4SIGNALSignal Corps photo of doughboys in the trenches, no date. Image credit: Connie Ruzich

----------------------------------------------------------------------

*During the last two years of the WWI Centennial, Connie Ruzich and her blog Behind Their Lineswhich shares lesser-known poetry of the First World War, have generously teamed up with WWrite with timely posts. Ruzich excels at drawing the past and present together by linking current events with pivotal moments from 1914-1918. Her archival work into the lost poetic voices of WWI has served as an incredible resource, providing discussion and research on international lost voices, poems written by those on the home front, and poetry that has been neglected in modern anthologies. In 2020, Ruzich will go from digital to print as she publishes her anthology, International Poetry of World War I: An Anthology of Lost Voices, with Bloomsbury Academic Press.  

** “Lieut. Donald S. White, ’16, Cited,” Bowdoin Orient, vol. 48, no. 18, 14 Jan. 1919, p. 176.

***For more on subjects that touch upon WWI, aviation, and writing, click the titles to read the following posts: "Accidental Tourism and War Memorials" by Eric Chandler;  The Story of Our Time: A Contemporary Story of WWIby James Moad; “Aline Kilmer: When the WWI Poet’s Wife is a War Poet Too” by Peter Molin; “The End of Patriarchy”: Pat Barker’s WWI Novel, Regenerationby Jennifer Orth-Veillon

Author's bio

Ruzich Fulbright PhotoConnie Ruzich is a University Professor of English at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has published on aspects of language, culture, and identity, and has lived and taught in the U.S., Italy, and the United Kingdom. Ruzich was a 2014-2015 Fulbright Scholar at the University of Exeter, where she researched the use of poetry in British centenary commemorations of the First World War. Her blog, Behind Their Lines, shares lesser-known poetry of the First World War, providing discussion and research on international lost voices, poems written by those on the home front, and poetry that has been neglected in modern anthologies.  In 2020,  her anthology, International Poetry of World War I: An Anthology of Lost Voices, will be published by Bloomsbury Academic Press. Her research can also be followed through her twitter feed (@wherrypilgrim).

History Between Humor and Tragedy: Musings on Robert Graves' Memoir, Goodbye to All That

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

History Between Humor and Tragedy: Musings on Robert Graves' Memoir, Goodbye to All That

By David James

DjamesBTAT

*When thinking about the First World War, I am reminded of a quote by Jorge Luis Borges about the 1982 Falklands War, “It is a fight between two bald men over a comb.” In a similar way, we could say that WWI was a fight between a bunch of spoiled children over who got to use the playroom. Though they all had their own toys, sharing and cooperation were unlearned traits. There is something profoundly important to remember about this tragedy, though sometimes the easiest way to deal with tragedy, if not by outrage, stoicism, or escapism, involves a disarming sense of humor and irreverence. I will bring up these four issues in this post by focusing on Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All Thathis memoirs of early life in England, his participation in the trenches of WWI, and his post-war experiences.

Read more: History Between Humor and Tragedy: Musings on Robert Graves' Memoir, Goodbye to All That

Ellen N. La Motte's The Backwash of War. Did a Censored Female Writer Inspire Hemingway’s Famous Style?

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

Ellen N. La Motte's The Backwash of War. Did a Censored Female Writer Inspire Hemingway’s Famous Style?*

By Cynthia Wachtell 

 

Everyone knows Hemingway, but few know of Ellen N. La Motte. According to Cynthia Wachtell, editor of the new and expanded edition of La Motte's formerly-censored book, The Backwash of War, people should. She is the extraordinary World War I nurse who wrote like Hemingway before Hemingway. She was arguably the originator of his famous style – the first to write about World War I using spare, understated, declarative prose. Wachtell first published this article in The Conversation but was kind enough to not only let WWrite reprint it but also to give some background on her inspiration for studying La Motte and Hemingway: her grandfather, who was a conscientious objector during WWI. At WWrite this week: "Ellen N. La Motte's The Backwash of War. Did a Censored Female Writer Inspire Hemingway’s Famous Style?"

 

CW2A photograph of Ellen N. La Motte soon after completing ‘The Backwash of War’ in 1916. Courtesy of the National Archives, College Park, Maryland. Source: Cynthia Wachtell

Virtually everyone has heard of Ernest Hemingway. But you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who knows of Ellen N. La Motte.

People should.

She is the extraordinary World War I nurse who wrote like Hemingway before Hemingway. She was arguably the originator of his famous style – the first to write about World War I using spare, understated, declarative prose.

Read more: Ellen N. La Motte's The Backwash of War. Did a Censored Female Writer Inspire Hemingway’s Famous...

WWI Touches Pablo Picasso

User Rating: 4 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Inactive

WWI Touches Pablo Picasso

By David Allen Sullivan

 

While award-winning poet David Allen Sullivan visited the Tate Museum Great War Art exhibition, he was most struck by a painting that seemed almost irrelevant to the other artistic representations of battle carnage in the museum: A Family by the Sea by Pablo Picasso. Sullivan, who has written poetry from the hard lens of the Iraq War in his book, Every Seed of the Pomegranate, contemplates WWI, Picasso, and the ethics of subtlety and beauty in the face of violence. For the poem, he recasts his visit to the Tate as one to the Paris Louvre exhibition, "Disasters of War 1800-2014," Read his poem, "WWI Touches Picasso," published for the first time on WWrite this week.

 

SullivanPaintingFamille au bord de la mer, by Pablo Picasso 

The art of World War I,

displayed on the grey walls

of the Louvre’s special exhibit

are numbing: ranked files

of death-masked soldiers,

faces crumpling into hands,

a brass general fashioned

from spent shell casing…

Read more: WWI Touches Pablo Picasso

"The End of Patriarchy": Pat Barker’s WWI Novel, Regeneration

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

"The End of Patriarchy": Pat Barker’s WWI Novel, Regeneration

By Jennifer Orth-Veillon, Blog Curator

Legendary novelist, Pat Barker, winner of the 1995 Man Booker Prize for her trilogy, Regeneration, based on the life of British male soldiers in WWI, announced in a January interview with The Guardian that "we're at the end of patriarchy and I’m fine with that as long as it’s remembered that among the victims of patriarchy the vast majority are men." In this last post of Women's History Month in which WWrite has showcased women war writers,  blog curator Jennifer Orth-Veillon discusses the meaning of Barker's statement in the context of Regeneration, a novel that takes place in Scotland's Craiglockhart Psychiatric Hospital and features the fictional characters poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and their renowned war psychiatrist, W.H.R. Rivers. Read about Barker and her monumental literary work on WWI at WWrite this week.

 

RegnerationCover

“You could argue that time’s up; we’re at the end of the patriarchy,” announced writer Pat Barker about her newest novel in an interview with The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead. The Silence of the Girls, published in January, retells the story of the siege of Troy in Homer’s Illiad from the perspective of the enslaved Trojan queen, Breseis. Barker is no stranger to the war story; out of 14 published novels, over half are about both world wars written from male and female viewpoints. However, she is best known for Regeneration, a trilogy tracing the lives of British men during WWI.

Read more: "The End of Patriarchy": Pat Barker’s WWI Novel, Regeneration

Army of Shadows

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

Army of Shadows*

By Roxana Robinson

 

When award-winning author Roxana Robinson was writing her critically acclaimed book about a veteran of the Iraq war, Sparta, she only allowed herself to read one war novel: Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. For Robinson, it "beautifully resolves the problems of scale and language" with a narrative that is "both beautiful and desolate." Read Robinson's reflections on contemporary war writing through the lens of Remarque's WWI classic novel at WWrite this week.

 

RobibsonAllQuietAll Quiet on the Western Front film poster. Image credit: imbd

I read only one war novel while I was writing my own.

There were reasons: I didn’t want to hear another novelist’s voice, as I was trying to find my own way into a soldier’s mind. I didn’t want to learn about the wrong war: every war has its own weather and terrain, its own equipment and language, and I didn’t want the wrong ones in my head. I couldn’t read novels about the Iraq war because there were none.

Read more: Army of Shadows

Subcategories

Subscribe to WWrite & More
To sign up for updates to the WWrite blog and WWI topics, or to access your subscriber preferences, please enter your email address below.

"Pershing" Donors

Founding Sponsor
PritzkerMML Logo


Starr Foundation Logo