Putting It Together

The initial avoidance of my memories is over and I find I’ve been able to sit down with the available resources and, between “Maginficent but Not War,” the KSLI Battlefield Tours Facebook, and my own memories, I can give an approximate account of what happened that night in 1915 just over 100 years ago.

I was with Y Company (a fact I have not yet confirmed), near the mid-point along a line roughly parallel to Begijnenbosstraat, near Witte Poort Farm.  Zouave Wood was to my right perhaps 100 yards away.  The ditches that are along the road now were probably enlarged to form a trench at that time.  If I looked straight in the direction we were advancing, I was looking slightly to the right of where the Railway Wood cemetery now stands.

There’s an interesting anecdote from an officer with the 84th battalion of a car picking up some of the cavalry officers’ kit that had been left behind from a road between our line and the German line, but I don’t have any recollection of that strangely enough.

When the whistle blew, we advanced toward Railway Wood.  The German line was roughly parallel to what is now Bellewaerdestraat.  To get there I and a large swath of our company had to pass across an open field and through the wood which slowed us somewhat.  The moonlight gave us just enough ambient light to see where we were going but there was also light from fires that had a dim orange or red cast.

The field was strewn with barbed wire.  I got my leg caught at least once.  The fear was worse than the pain; I think that moment was the single most terrifying in all of my fragmented memories and I’m still not sure how I was able to free myself.  They had also laid out bear traps; I saw a man get his foot caught in one near enough to see how deep his wounds went but I couldn’t do anything for him, I don’t know what happened to him.

Most of the casualties it seems were reported missing and are commemorated on the Menin Gate.  I think most of them were simply lost in the fields and in our retreat we had no time to bury them before mud and subsequent shell fire on the 26th left us with nothing to bury; I do not recall being under especially heavy shell fire that particular night.  There was small arms fire and machine gun fire, mostly, but the Germans hadn’t set up as many machine gun nests as they should have.  We still took heavy losses owing to the bright light that left us exposed, so the deficiencies in the German defense didn’t make it easy for us.

Thankfully I don’t think this was the time my rifle developed a stiff bolt.  That was a daylight assault as far as I can remember and probably happened at St. Eloi much earlier in 1915.

Passing through Railway Wood, which was there but thinned considerably by small arms and shell fire by this time, we saw a gruesome sight.  They’d decorated the trees and snags with some of the bodies of dead Canadians who had been holding the line when they broke through.

We took the German line and held it with a modest two machine guns and our rifles, but were pushed back the way we’d come by Dawn as the German reinforcements were on their way by this time, and our best intelligence said they had us badly outnumbered and out-gunned (if memory serves the rumor was twenty-to-one but I don’t know if that was the actual number).

Sunrise gave us a view of a landscape not quite the idyllic farmland you see today and not quite the moonscape you see in pictures from later in the war.  It was one of those bright red sunrises, intense and in a way, foreboding.

It’s a sick tragedy to think I survived that night, knowing that I only had seven more weeks to live as John Harris.

Some of the details recounted here are things that I have not found in any official report of the battle, but are of the gruesome sort that often goes unreported in war diaries and correspondence.  Given the strict censorship British command imposed and the reluctance of survivors to talk about these things, the world may never know.  As my long-time readers might be aware, I have confirmed that at least some of these more lurid details- among them the bear traps- are at least possible given that there are confirmed reports from later in the war.

Farewell, Doris

I just found out that Doris Sauter, someone I loved in my previous life, has died at the age of 63.

She was a long-term cancer survivor, had actually been declared terminal, but she lived on for another 33 years after Phil had succumbed to a stroke.

It’s strange, you can anticipate losing someone across two lifetimes, but it still hurts when it comes.

A Century Now…

It’s now been a century since the Battle of Bellewaerde Ridge.

I remember only a few hazy fragments that I believe happened on that day, of moving across darkened fields lit only by moonlight and the reddish glow of distant fires, of barbed wire and bear traps that snared the legs of our best men, and of a feeling of profound and sustained horror, like the feeling of shock you get when your car goes out of control but attenuated and stretched over several long, agonizing hours.  I remember hearing things buzz by my head, unsure if they were bullets or the large corpse flies that seemed so ubiquitous on the Ypres Salient.

I still don’t know if the wood I remember was Polygon Wood from earlier on in the spring, or Railway Wood during this particular battle; if it was Railway Wood then in all likelihood I was in Y Company which managed to take the German front line, though I have yet to confirm this.  My memories are far more visceral than exact; I just remember there were good men being killed and maimed all around me and I was somehow left standing.

I can’t say I’ve been much at ease knowing this anniversary was looming but I’ve been trying not to think about it.  Here in the quiet suburbs west of Portland, a whole century and several lives later, it seems far away but I have only to be reminded of what happened and it’s real again to me.  If I close my eyes I can still see the sun rising blood red on those shell-scarred fields the next morning.

Not sure what I’m going to do today, besides rest and try not to dwell too much on those memories.  It was another life altogether; the eyes I saw it through are closed forever and there is nothing but to accept that what’s done is done.

For My Upcoming Trip

I thought of a little test I could set up for myself while I’m on this trip to see places from Phil’s life.

Normally when I go on road trips, even if it’s a place I’ve been before (like my own mother’s house in Las Vegas), I usually have to write down street names and make small notes.  Even though I have a good sense of direction and often memorize directions from Google Streetview, I almost never get where I’m going without looking at notes.

This time, I want to do it different.  I’ll still have my notes just in case I forget, but I will hand them to my fiance and I will see just how far I can get without using them.   The area thankfully hasn’t changed too much in the last 50 years or so, and there are still plenty of landmarks Phil would have found familiar so that’s not really a concern.

Considering how good I am at memorizing directions and my generally good sense of direction it won’t completely prove or disprove anything if I don’t have to look at my directions at all, or if I have to look at them once or twice.  Still, f I find that I can navigate the area just fine without being reminded too often about where things are, then that does at least strengthen my circumstantial case for having been Phil.  After all, at that point I’d be doing better than I’d do trying to find my own mother’s house.

It’s going to be weird though, going back.  If I’m right about having been Phil then I left there with too many bridges burned and too many swords over my brow.  Perhaps it’s better that I’m returning to Marin County as a stranger this time.

Remembering A Dream

I remember a dream I had years ago (I was probably between 12 and 15) that at the time I thought very little of but now, in hindsight, it kind of makes sense.

It was during a rebellion of some kind, or a war or something of that nature.  There were three or four knights (or at least they were men at arms with some nice kit), still in their armor, who were being hanged.  I was an observer and felt detached from the scene save for a slight twinge of horror, as if I had no involvement.

I’m pretty sure that since I had this dream, I have come across several accounts of knights and fighting men being hanged in their armor, but by then I had forgotten all about this dream; I had given more importance to dreams that had more of an emotional impact (which surprisingly, this one didn’t beyond the usual feeling of an unpleasant dream).  I desperately wish I had access to my counselor’s files from high school since I must have told him all about these dreams!

For the record, if I try to remember the dream the armor I see is not 13th century armor, so I don’t think this is from Count William’s time.  What I see instead is 14th century armor, with significant plate elements and pointed sabatons.  At the time I would have known no such distinction.

The 14th century is still kind of an area of mystery for me.  I’ve had brief flickers that I initially attributed to Count William’s life but suspect I was dressed in 14th century clothing (the colors of my hose were one red and one black and my tunic was short and close-fitting; that is so unlike the style in Count William’s time in which solid-color hose and baggy tunics were favored).  I initially attributed this to an aesthetic bias toward 14th century fashions, art, and literature but in light of remembering these dreams from high school, I’m not so sure now.

The two events that immediately come to mind in which knights or men-at-arms might have been hanged in their armor are the 100 Years War and the Peasant’s Revolt.  Admittedly I’m a little weak on those beyond the most cursory history book details of the conflict because I’ve been so obsessed with the Angevin Empire for the last couple of years.  I need to shift my attention back to the 14th century.

EDIT: I just looked up “knights hanged in armor” and what comes up as the first thing actually related to medieval history?  The Albigensian Crusade! WEIRD!

Only one problem, the Albigensian Crusade was in the 13th century, so this probably isn’t it.  Also, I was not involved in prosecuting the Albigensian Crusade myself as I was in the service of King John (who was excommunicated and allied with Raymond of Toulouse against France who allied with the Pope).  Being an ally of Raymond of Toulouse might have sent me into Cathar Country while this was going on, but I doubt this is what I saw.

It’s Close To Time

It’s close to time for me to graduate.

I only have 2 1/2 more weeks of classes, I’ve got the first draft of my essay on that old manuscript done and ready to hand in today, and I’ll also be picking up my pre-ordered cap and gown today.

I can’t believe it’s almost time.  I can’t believe I’ve almost finished.  I’m actually doing something that I can’t remember doing in any lifetime before this one.  If I can go just 2 1/2 more weeks, it means I’m not doomed to keep making the same mistakes I’ve always made.  It doesn’t have to be like Berkeley in the 40s; I’m a new person with new possibilities.

Maybe I won’t have to struggle so much once I have a degree in hand.  That was something I never had in my last life and it always stung because I was a smart person, I just didn’t have a piece of paper to prove it to a credential-obsessed culture.  The trade-off is that a 4-year degree is worth less now than it was back then so I’m kind of at a loss as to what I should really expect.

Chess

An incredible moment happened between myself, my fiance, and a friend of ours at a little tea shop deep in the suburbs of Portland (in an area that smelled of nutmeg and wildflowers).  My fiance and I each had a round of chess with this friend of ours, and something about the way we played against each other was electrifying.

I had the strangest feeling that we had all played together during the reign of King John, though just who my fiance and our friend might have been, I don’t really know.  We each seemed to know each other’s strategies before even beginning, with my fiance and I playing as if we had played this guy before.  I’ve played chess before in this life (it’s probably been about a decade), but it was never once this exciting or interesting.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and I haven’t said anything to my fiance, but I do know that as Count William I was fond of games like chess, backgammon, and apparently card games if some sources are to be believed (though there’s little evidence of playing cards before the 14th century so I’d like to know what primary source this came from!).  It was generally a popular pastime in those days so it’s not surprising.

Still, it really feels like something of those long-gone days came back today. I have never had a chess match like this one and I hope it’s the start of many more.