100 Years Ago Today

It’s been a hundred years now. A century. Gone. Slipped away. Where am I now, and where is the world in its course?  Are we any closer to finally ending war like they said we would?

Was it really worth it to die that way?

I feel I’ve been robbed of something that can never be replaced.  I can heal but I can never forget.  His life- a life that was once mine- is etched into the fibre of my being now.

Farewell, John.  But not goodbye.  I’m not ready for that yet.

DSCF3074

100 Years Ago Today

A century ago today, a boat filled with raw recruits, too wet behind the ears to be Old Contemptibles but serving alongside them as Kitchener’s Army had not been formed yet, arrived at Le Havre, France.

I remember nothing of that day.  There was an episode during my childhood that I’ve always suspected was a sign that some vestigial memory is still there though.  I was about six years old watching the familiar shoreline of Charleston Harbor disappear from view, growing further and further away from the stern of a large tour boat.  I was so afraid I would never come back and never see my home again, that no amount of reassurance would console me.  I cried so much that day, I shook, I was terrified.  I was so upset that my parents threatened never to take me on a tour boat again and I was forced to re-live the incident when my mother brought it up for my doctors later that week.  I’ve suspected for a while now that this episode had something to do with a buried memory of that ferry to Le Havre but I cannot prove it.

What haunts me to this day are how many things I’ve half-remembered, or that seem to make eerie sense when I consider a past life in the war as a possible explanation.  I found proof this past week that I had told the bully beef and crackers story before my memories broke, by the way.  It’s an e-mail I sent in December 2010 that has an early draft of my one realistic novel that I’ve never been sure how to market (it was originally a NaNoWriMo project).  Later drafts don’t have that story as I completely re-wrote the ending, so this proves (to me at least) that this last meal in the UK was not just a confabulation on my part.

Then of course there’s the wandering looking for a village that I knew I would recognize as soon as I found it, and the photos I took of WWI memorials, and my skill with a rifle, and my life-long hatred of large flies, my early awareness of mortality and suffering…  All of these things are just stubs that seem meaningless on their own but in the context of the memories I’ve had, my entire life suddenly has the feel of a ghost story.

What other inexplicable things about me, things I’ve said, done, reacted to, or taken an interest in, might be linked to things about John’s life?  How many things- like the ferry to Le Havre- have been invisibly shaping my life and my emotional reactions all this time from just beyond the horizon of conscious memory?

A century later, I’m doing the exact opposite of preparing for war.  I’m relaxing with my fiance listening to prog rock albums with our big audiophile headsets.  But am I really through letting go of that life?  A century later I’m still coming to grips with a decision I made that cost me my innocence across two successive lives.

Moody

Definitely feeling moody.  Seems to happen this time of year.

It’s been almost 99 years since that stupid battle.  The things I recalled can’t be un-seen though.  Sometimes I really do wish this was just a mental illness that could be treated, but even my doctors say it’s not as simple as that.  

The sad fact is, even if these memories aren’t real, I somehow created a vivid, realistic, and accurate mental image that was believable enough to pass for a real memory.  They say that a vivid false memory registers on the same circuits as a real one so even if I wasn’t a private at the Second Battle of Ypres, I’ve managed to freak myself out pretty bad with the thought that I was.  About the only possibility I can rule out is “wishful thinking” because I wouldn’t wish that level of terror on most people, except maybe jingoistic politicians.

I have to keep reminding myself that whatever it was, I’ve been through a difficult experience and I have to take ownership of my feelings even if I always find it difficult to take full ownership of the memories.  And even if I wasn’t him, I’ll never forget John Harris or what he had to go through as long as I live.  

Auspicious Timing

It seems 2015 will be a very interesting year to make my trip to see past life sites.  The Second Battle of Ypres won’t be the only anniversary being marked next year.

It turns out the Magna Carta will be marking its 800th anniversary in 2015, and William Longespee’s personal copy happens to be in the collection of Salisbury Cathedral: http://magnacarta800th.com/events/salisbury/
 
The few hazy impressions I have of that affair are of simply trying to get everyone to settle their problems without cutting any more throats.  It was meant to be an immediate solution to an immediate problem, not a legacy of social progress that has lasted the better part of a thousand years.  It really makes me wonder what makes the difference between solutions that stick and solutions that get forgotten and how I can apply that distinction here and now.
 
When I look back, I think I always wanted to do big things.  Maybe this is why.  Maybe I’ve always wanted to be more than a “one hit wonder” when it comes to big solutions to big problems.  It would explain what John wanted by going to war as much as it would explain what Phil wanted by writing works of philosophy in the guise of sci-fi novels.  The approach is always different but the goal, it seems, is always the same: I just want to fix things.

Centenary

For maybe a year now, I haven’t had any more disturbing memories of the Western Front.  I still can remember what I’ve recalled but I tend not to dwell on it, because those memories were taking a toll on me.

It’s affected me in profound ways.  I tend to remember anniversaries related to that life now, I tend to see small things that remind me of the war or of the painfully innocent years leading up to it.  I tend to be hypersensitive to every sign or rumor of war, and I always speak against unnecessary military action.  I can’t really watch realistic war movies, even when they’re not necessarily about WWI.  I’ve started to shy away from any and all reminders of that past as I shift away from a “better out than in” approach and back to a “let it rest” approach.

Still, the centenary of the start of the First World War is upon us.  This means another round of anniversaries, and this time, I won’t be the only one marking them.  I’m just trying to accept that over the next 4 years, I’m likely to experience many triggers.

Admittedly, some triggers will probably be self-inflicted.  I plan to go visit John’s grave next year, before he’s been dead 100 years, and of course this will also mean a trip to Ypres.  I really hope I don’t end up making a scene, since I doubt any of the tourists there would understand the intensity of emotion I’m likely to feel.  I will do my best to at least keep a stiff upper lip at the Last Post though.

On the plus side, the centenary of the First World War also means a lot of resources previously unavailable to me- particularly the 2 KSLI war diaries- will soon be available.  The National Archives recently began a project to digitize these records and I will be anxious to see what, if anything, is noted about one Pte. John Harris.  I might finally discover what killed him; my memories are so vague and the end was so quick, I don’t think even he knew.

On This Day 99 Years Ago

On this day 99 years ago, British and German troops on the Western Front put down their rifles for a moment and celebrated Christmas together in the trenches in a series of informal truces called the Christmas Truce.

I feel like I should say something else about it, but I’m at a loss.  John wasn’t there; he was either in Shrewsbury or in Hereford, seeing his family for perhaps the last time.  But it seems wrong to leave an event like that with nothing but a neutral description.  For what that moment represents about the human condition, about how deep down we’d rather celebrate holidays than fight each other, says volumes about the acts of righteous disobedience we’re capable of.  Maybe this didn’t end the war, but it stopped the killing on both sides for one precious moment and someone, somewhere, is a grandchild or great-grandchild of a soldier whose life was spared that day.  I wonder if they know that they are alive today because a bunch of soldiers disobeyed orders en masse.

Sometimes, fighting the good fight means not fighting at all.  Never forget that.

A Year And Then Some

Wednesday will be a year since I started this blog, but it’s already been a couple weeks since the first terrifying memories surfaced.

Before that day, I hadn’t really given much thought to the Great War.  It was a long ago tragedy that seemed to have very little to do with me aside from being one more step toward the troubled world we live in now.  I hadn’t done any research into it, and most of what I knew came from movies and from the memoirs of Eddie Rickenbacker; obviously, my bias was toward aviation and I knew very little about the life of an infantryman other than it was nastier, more brutish, and shorter than a 13th century soldier’s life on those same fields.

I’m not the same after that experience.  I’m still recovering from it and frankly, it’s slow going.  Over the last year I’ve gained more perspective than I had ever bargained for and when you understand what it’s like to watch others die while anxiously waiting your turn, life seems so frighteningly tenuous.

More than that, I’ve given a voice to someone who really needed it, a Somerset farm boy who never married, never made it beyond Private, and died violently at 38 with only scant records of his ever having existed.

I am overwhelmed by John’s memories, but I hope I can be worthy to link myself in any way with this unlucky but remarkably brave man and come to terms with what I saw- what he saw- on the battlefield more than 98 years ago.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7FUcu5OD3Y

Aucto Splendore Resurgo