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!*
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
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.
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. ***
*During the last two years of the WWI Centennial, Connie Ruzich and her blog Behind Their Lines, which 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 WWI”by 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, Regeneration" by Jennifer Orth-Veillon
Connie 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).