In Flanders Fields*

My father was a history major in college, and we kids grew up discussing it at the dinner table. It was my first experience with how interpretation and perception shape the events that we (or our children) will one day call history. This is a longish post and I apologize, but I want to tell you about a book. :)

I recently read A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry, one of Ireland’s finest writers, and I’m still shaken by it, by what I didn’t know or didn’t understand about the first World War (that’s just for starters; God knows there’s plenty I don’t know). As I was thinking about the history I learned, it occurred to me that as an event moves from the present into the past (and it never stops, my friends, it never stops; we grow older so quickly) we learn about it first from journalists, reporters, participants—people who were there. As distance and perspective are gained, the historians and memoirists begin to weigh in.

And then the artists take over, and playwrights, screenwriters, the poets and the novelists.

For those who have eyes to see (and hearts, I think, to comprehend), there’s a lot to learn from them. That’s probably why our teachers had us read All Quiet on the Western Front in high school, although by that time I’d already read Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms and Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 not long after that. Last year I tracked down a used copy of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse after a World War I–reading hiatus of a couple decades.

These novels and others like them will live on long after those present at the events have left us (in fact, the last veteran just died in February).

I have no personal connection to the Great War. My parents were born too late and my grandparents too early for me to have an immediate family connection. But history—no matter whose it is—is personal. It’s horrible enough to think of all those boys dying; nine million of them. Nine million.

Nine million.

Two hundred thousand Irishmen fought in British uniforms, as Ireland was then a part of the United Kingdom; many of them signed up because they were promised this show of solidarity would lead to Home Rule (that is, self-government). Some went for the idealistic reasons young men tend to go; in this case, to stop the Kaiser. Others did simply because that was what their government called them to do; the Acts of Union in 1800 had forced Ireland into the UK and further under England’s thumb. There was a lively opposition to the Brits, but a great many Irish even in the south accepted the status quo; there’d been four generations of peace.

And then … the Rising. An insurrection staged during Easter week 1916 by young men who believed Ireland belonged to the Irish changed everything.

Willie Dunne, the protagonist of A Long Long Way, has been fighting in a British uniform for considerably more than a year when he finds himself home in Dublin on a brief furlough during Easter 1916. Because he is in the British army, he is sent to help quell the Rising. Think about that: an Irishmen called to bear arms against his own countrymen. Willie’s father knows exactly which side he is on, but Willie himself, just nineteen, is mightily confused.

How could a fella like Willie hold England and Ireland equally in his heart, like his father before him, like his father’s father and his father’s father’s father, when both now would call him a traitor, though his heart was clear and pure, as pure as a heart can be after three years of slaughter?

Willie is in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 16th division, which saw action at the battle of the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy, and Ypres, sustaining enormous losses. At the third battle of Ypres (July 1917) casualties were so high the battalion virtually ceased to exist. Willie is wounded there, so it is only later he learns that most of his comrades are gone, and that the English generals blamed the dead men for not fighting well enough.

There was a terrible lack of new Irishmen now in the army. You could hardly meet another fella in transit. It had all dried up, those thoughts and deeds of ’14. It was all a thing long done and past. No one now thought it was a good notion to kit up against the Kaiser and go to Flanders. The 16th was gone the way of all old, finished things. … Ceased to exist! And then to be blamed for that themselves. That was a test of loyalty anyhow, to hear a thing like that, never mind a rake of Germans rushing at you. But Willie heard it on the trains; he could smell that opinion almost in the sea air of Southampton. Better forget about the Irish. They always had been a strange crowd anyhow. … Between your own countrymen deriding you for being in the army, and the army deriding you for your own slaughter, a man didn’t know what to be thinking. A man’s mind could be roaring out in pain of a sort. The fact that the war didn’t make a jot of sense any more hardly came into it.

Of course, they blame them because they’re Irish. Because the Irish in Ireland are in open insurrection against the British king.

Mothers in Ireland said they would stand in front of their sons and be shot before they’d let them go, and that was a change … They could raise one hundred and fifty thousand men immediately, and that would win the war. But the Nationalists wouldn’t stand for it. Said King George could find lambs for the slaughter in his own green fields from now on.

There is much more in the story than what I’ve told you, of course. It’s very compelling. A Long Long Way is not a typical historical novel, but it’s got the kind of history that will make you think. That will make you glad for the circumstances of your own precious life, and your children’s.

The prose is breathtakingly beautiful. You should read it.

*We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, / Loved and were loved, and now we lie, / In Flanders fields. (John McCrae)

 

Tweet:  A fabulous novel about World War I. The prose is breathtakingly beautiful. You should read it.
Tweet:  First journalists, then historians, memoirists; finally artists, screenwriters, poets, novelists.

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6 Comments

  1. Enjoyed this post, Jamie… and can so relate to finding a book that makes you feel in a way that changes you. I will have to read A LONG LONG WAY, as I am especially drawn to this era, myself. In fact, have a little book that sits on my desk, called A JOURNAL OF SMALL THINGS, written by an American woman who got stuck in France during that war, and very much caught up in it. The writing was so beautiful (if you can say anything beautiful about a time like that), and she made you feel as if you were right there with her. I read it over, every couple of years, just to remind myself… to not forget to look outside myself. And to remember that I am only one small person in a great sea of glorious humanity.

    It’s so refreshing to meet someone who enjoys books that make you think, and even change you. And especially nice when they like to discuss them. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Jamie says:

      Thank you for this lovely comment! I love it when I learn something or gain insight from a novel. :)

  2. Isabel Rogers says:

    Very interesting, and I’m going to look out Barry’s book, thank you. I think there’s a case these days for the artists/writers (in film-maker form) to get ahead of everyone except the journalists: I’m thinking ‘Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’ etc. You even catch journos saying ‘it’s like a scene out of a film’. We have changed the way we look at the world. @Isabelwriter

    • Jamie says:

      You’re right: Foer’s book (Extremely) came out in 2005 (the same year as A Long Long Way! Ha!); DeLillo’s Falling Man in 2007. Given what I know about book production, Foer had to have started work on his while they were still cleaning up Ground Zero. But films! David Benioff’s (Spike Lee–directed) The 25th Hour came out in 2002! It’s not about 9/11 but it certainly leans on the event to flavor the movie. Good point!

  3. Michelle Ule says:

    My grandfather fought in WWI as a cook in the Army. As a Sicilian immigrant, this was his ticket to American citizenship.

    He was a with a unit that trained in Louisiana prior to shipping out in 1917. While hiking through the swamps and bayous, he contacted spinal meningitus and wound up in the hospital fighting for his life while his unit deployed overseas.

    Most died in France. He survived and spent the rest of the war as a cook at San Francisco’s Presidio, one of the last surviving men who was stationed there before he died at 103 in 1993. Today is his birthday.

    So often in war, men go off with high hopes and when faced with the reality of the mud and grime, illness and death, the high hopes are dashed and they’re frequently left with disillusion.

    I’ll never figure out the British and the Irish schism. What a crime for the way they have taught each other how not to look past the minor to what is true and real and the same.

    • Jamie says:

      To your grandfather: well done, good and faithful servant!
      It was interesting to hear Barry tell of the Americans’ entrance so late into the war: well trained, with expensive uniforms, and they were tall and healthy. After the European boys had been dying for 3 years. But if the Americans hadn’t joined the fight, it might well have been lost to the Kaiser. Just so…heartbreaking.
      The Irish story is like the elephant and the blind men. I tried for year (long before Gerry) to wrap my mind around it myself. I have a little book we bought at the UN a few years ago that really explains the Irish story in a simple, understandable way. Short; you can read it while you’re here. :) And talk with Gerry, of course. :)

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