WWI Centenary

While it’s not a huge deal here in the US, I’ve been surprised by just how much attention the WWI centenary is getting.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s good that there are people who are finding out (some for the first time) just how horrendous the First World War really was.

Also, of late more and more people who recall past lives in the war have come forward. I think on the various reincarnation boards there are maybe a dozen or so who have clear enough memories to at least place where they were and maybe 5 or 6 of us who have identified who we were back then. I know of maybe 2 or 3 Americans (one of whom now lives in the UK), 3 to 5 British (two of us now in the US) and maybe 6 to 8 Germans. I can’t recall if any French, Belgian, Turkish, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, or the various colonial troops have surfaced yet. Obviously, there will be cases that are possible cryptomnesia (and I’ve never been entirely sure about my own case), but it’s gotten much less lonely than it was when my memories broke back in late 2012.

However, one thing I’m worried about is a flood of “me too” cases where people either promote their stories aggressively to the media, steal the stories of others, or make up stories whole-cloth just to sell books about themselves, which could cast some notoriety on those of us who would rather not use our claims to get attention. If I find out that someone has been claiming John as a past life for the money, then I will confront them; I would consider that the equivalent of stealing his medals and pawning them for whiskey. Even if I wasn’t him, I feel I have some duty now, knowing what he went through, to defend his honor against profiteers.

Another thing I’m worried about is that the great tragedy of the war will be obfuscated for political gain and the stories of bedraggled men who went over the top more dead than alive will be polished into a safe, glamorous image of undaunted valor. I hope the truth about the war- derogatorily called the “Blackadder version of history” by its detractors- doesn’t drown in a sea of red poppies and blockbuster movies. It was filthy, it was nasty, and there was nothing noble about it. They’re still picking tiny pieces of men John served with out of the soil near Ypres to this day, quite often no more than a shard of bone or a strip of cloth left of what was once a human being who had no clue what he was getting himself into when he enlisted.

In all, the centenary carries with it a flood of mixed emotions for me. There’s pride in the prospect of being the vessel of memories for a soldier who would otherwise be forgotten. There’s joy at finding others who have had the same harrowing experience of remembering what it was like. There’s sorrow, shame, and fear knowing that the human race, for all our pride, has not evolved beyond the savagery we expressed at Ypres and Verdun. There’s longing to go back to the battlefield and the home John left behind and finally get some closure. There’s astonishment that a century has come and gone. There are emotions that I can’t even begin to name or describe, strong and uncomfortable, and a nagging feeling that there are more memories just below the surface that will be wrenched loose over the next four years.

As to how I’m dealing with it lately, I’ve actually been kind of dealing with it in a detached way.  I simultaneously tell myself “it probably wasn’t real” while my emotions and the memories I’ve confirmed nag at me to the contrary.  The flood of emotions is kind of a dull roar, and I find I’m losing myself in day-to-day distractions more to try not to think about it;  I don’t want to seem like a downer or get any more anxious or depressed than I have to be.

There is no question that it is there, though, and nagging at me to find some outlet.

Oh God…

This documentary is the first I’ve come across that actually focuses on how life was for soldiers early in the war.  Then again, I’ve been avoidant about this kind of thing for months but I felt strongly that I needed to purge more bad memories because it seems to help me somehow.  I decided to deliberately trigger myself and I did it.

I’ve had to stop it momentarily because it had me crying hysterically when the reenactors read actual memoirs, even though the actors weren’t tremendous and the costumes were much too clean.  It hit extremely close to home because the conditions I remember were this bad and worse.  The one describing the rats in the Armentieres sector was the one that had me in tears but the one with the fellow telling his father he’d gone off to war had already caught me off guard with the emotions it stirred up for me.

I haven’t confirmed anything I didn’t already know, but it resonated with me because they focus on the minutiae of a Tommy’s life for once.  I was not prepared to find something like this.

EDIT: OK, the Brian Blessed dramatic reading was in poor taste (this isn’t fucking Henry IV, Mr. Blessed!)  That’s what I get for not posting this after I’d seen the whole thing.

Memory Fragment

For a while now, I’ve had my suspicions that my battalion were attacked on the road to Ypres.

It started when I clicked through the route on Streetview (I know it was the correct route because of all the cemeteries and memorials along the way).  I had a memory of being involved in a fire fight in one of the wooded areas on that road.  

More recently, I had a memory of being in a fire fight where the smoke from .303 cartridges was so thick, my eyes watered and my nose began to run.  I asked my father, a military veteran himself, and he said that the watering eyes at least sounded like Cordite though that was the only effect he knew of from burning cordite but that it certainly had an effect on the nose as well in its raw form.  

Today I finally got a moment to relax and I had a flash that seemed to stitch it all together.  I think the Germans weren’t trying to stop our column so much as harassing us on the go.  I seem to remember a sequence of events that started with light shelling.  They didn’t need to do much.  I only remember one shell hitting near us.  It was horrifying though, it was a large shell and it must have killed a dozen or two men.  After that, they opened up with rifle and machine gun fire and we took cover in the woods near the road, returning fire until the air was so choked with smoke from our rifles that our eyes watered from the smoke.

I could be confabulating, or I could be stitching together unrelated memories in a sequence that kind of makes sense.  Shy of getting hold of the 2nd Shropshires’ war diaries (whenever they end up getting posted) the best I can do for now is look for the physical evidence.

Looks like it’s off to the CWGC website again to see if I can find a cluster of Shropshires in one of the cemeteries along that road… I don’t like this kind of research; it’s always sad when you can read a casualty list in a war cemetery and find evidence of one particular moment of calamity.  It’s one thing to read about the event but it’s quite another to actually be able to see the cemeteries where the victims are buried.

If I can confirm this it’ll be up there with when I identified that pockmarked hill with light-colored soil from my memories as Hill 60; it’ll be a gut-wrenching confirmation.  

Come to think of it, writing this actually got me thinking about Hill 60 again too.  I don’t know why, but I’ve been numb about it for a long time, and now it’s starting to hit.  If memory serves, the only reason I survived was because our company got strung along, as the going was slow on parts of the hill.  It left me exposed but somehow, I got through.  Why?  I only had a few months left to live.  Why did it matter?  Yes, surviving Hill 60 meant I got a known grave in a distinctive location that helped my confirmation.  But what difference does it make really?  Instead, I had to endure several more months of the same and I still got it in the end.  What kind of cruel joke is that?

I don’t think I’ve been this upset about this sort of thing in a while.  I’ve had a few moments where I got triggered and felt kind of “off” for days on end and even cried for a little while, but I numbed up again quickly.  This is really the worst I’ve felt about it in months.

Memory Fragments

I had a memory fragment from John’s life today, and it reminded me that I had written down another fragment a few days back and forgot about it:

Circa 1884-1891

I remember a Mr. Trelawney coming to our door one day in Yeovil, saying my father owed him some amount of money (if memory serves it was under ten Shillings). My father insisted he knew nothing about this debt, and Mr. Trelawney came back over the next several days, increasingly agitated. He finally came back with a police constable one day, who threatened my father with arrest if he didn’t pay Mr. Trelawney his money. My father reluctantly agreed to pay and seemed extremely frustrated and tired afterward; this was at a time when even five shillings was a considerable amount of money after all, and I seem to recall I and my brothers and sisters had to help work off that debt to stave off losing our home.

It seems this was fairly common. Random strangers (or people who appeared to us to be random strangers) would often come demanding money from my father. I don’t know if he legitimately gambled the money away, but he seems to have had a reputation with the local police for being a source of bad debt (whether the reputation was earned or not I don’t know, and it seems we were never sure ourselves).

We somehow had enough to keep the house until my father died, and my sister must have come by some money to travel to Australia (as census records show; my memory of that period is hazy), but money was a constant source of stress even for a self-sufficient family like ours.

Late Summer 1914

I recalled that it wasn’t just the recruiting poster outside St. Peter’s church, but a sermon that got me willing to sign up.  Whipped into a religious fervor, just as I had been during the Third Crusade, I volunteered for what I believed would be a holy war. It seems the preacher even mentioned the crusades, and Pope Urban’s declaration “God wills it!” that touched off the First Crusade. It was the most passionate sermon I had ever seen; Church of England is known for more sedate, sober services.

A bit of research does turn up some hints that sermons were used as recruiting tools, and this might explain why I stopped going to church in the early 2000s when the sermons were so blatantly political that I felt our church had lost touch with the needs of its parishioners entirely.

Spring 1915

During a fire fight while at Ypres, a shell buried itself in the ground just in front of the timbers we had shored up the trench with but did not explode. In terror, I ran from the unexploded shell but was greeted by an officer screaming at me and waving his revolver. I finally decided that the shell would be a more merciful and quicker way to go but thankfully, it didn’t explode as I walked back to the breastworks and began firing again.  I was nervous the whole time and my aim was off thanks to knowing that shell was right there, threatening to cave in the trench on top of me. The smell of cordite was strong, so strong it made my nose burn and run, and wiping my nose on the sleeve of my coat only rubbed dirt, grit, and a thousand different kinds of filth right under my nose.

Apparently, burning cordite does have this effect; most of the data available online is related to unburned cordite used in ammunition factories, though.

Triggered Again

There goes my mood.

Long story short, in one of my art history classes we were shown Winsor McCay’s “The Sinking of the Lusitania.”  I was already getting the creeps because the look and feel of old films (especially the text they use, the way the characters dress and act, etc) always puts me in an odd mood, but this really soured things.

That event took place in May of 1915, and seeing that film only reminded me of how much we were whipped into a frenzy over it.  McCay’s film wasn’t made until 1918, but we didn’t need the film to get our fill of it. They made sure we knew about it; they made sure the world knew about it. And there were a lot of things they didn’t tell us about it; all we knew was that a U-Boat had torpedoed an ocean liner.

For some reason that brought up my memory of the flies again (they were thick and heavy at Ypres) and what should I spot while down at the IT help desk after class? A large fly buzzing around, big and fat like the corpse flies in Flanders.

I was wondering what would trigger me but the triggers are always unexpected. I might have to take another break from updating here if I don’t feel OK in a day or two.

An Observation

Hotels in Ypres are actually really cheap.  I’m seeing prices in the $100-200 range for some really plush looking hotels in the heart of the downtown district.  For Europe, that’s pretty good.  I would venture a guess that a cultural and business hub like Brussels would probably have similar hotel rooms in the $300-400 range and a similar hotel in London would cost you $400-1000 a night depending on what neighborhood it’s in.

That being said, with centenaries looming hotels may be in short supply, though I’ll probably miss the anniversary of the Second Battle of Ypres by a month or two since I need to consider my schedule.  But this year’s centenary doesn’t seem to be affecting things too badly so that’s very promising (part of the reason Dad and I decided not to do it this year is because we expected the centenary of the first battle to cause crowds to swell year-round).  It seems that even if it does get difficult to reserve a room and prices go up during this summer, there will be a clearly-defined “off season” that will give me more options.  I’d rather not travel there during the fall or winter since Flanders is a pretty bleak place in Winter, but if that’s more doable that way, I’m open to it.

Plans

I’ve begun discussing plans for next year’s trip to Ypres in earnest.

Currently, the plan is to visit not just Flanders, but to re-trace both John Harris and William Longespee’s steps.  This will not be particularly difficult to do because the two lived and were active in the same regions of the world for the most part.

Still trying to finalize exactly how many places I’m going to see.  Ypres, Houplines, Salisbury, Shrewsbury, and Hereford are at the top of my list, obviously.  My trip to Ypres will definitely include stops at Bellewaerde/Railway Wood, Hill 60, and Tyne Cot though I may also go to Langemarck as well… I did put a few men in there after all and I feel I owe them more respect than I gave them.

Then of course, I feel I have to go see John’s grave though I have to say the thought of being there brings a lump to my throat.  I still don’t know what I’ll do or say or if I’ll even say anything.  I may just ask for a moment alone under that willow tree and meditate for a bit since that seems the only really honest thing to do.  

Since it’s so close, a trip to Bouvines is also likely.  Those wounds have healed long ago, but the extreme coincidence of being captured and then killed in battle about 700 years and a few kilometers apart has not escaped me.

I would like to go to Ile de Re simply because my memories of Longespee’s twilight days at the abbey there, though sparse, aren’t unpleasant.  I’m also very eager to go to Fontrevaud Abbey to pay my respects to Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and above all Richard I (wish I knew what became of him in his later lives).  

Ideally, I would like to leave France via ferry from Le Havre since that’s where John disembarked for Flanders.  I guess this is more a matter of ritual than anything and it brings the whole thing full circle.  If time doesn’t allow for that, I may have to make a concession to 21st century realities and catch the Eurostar from Brussels or Paris, but that will give me more time in England.

As for spots in England, I’m not sure if I want to go back to Dover Castle since English Heritage have gone a bit Disneyland on the place but if I do go, I’m probably going to stop in Canterbury since there’s a good chance I had been there as William; after all, as the son of Henry II, it would have been politically adroit to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas A Beckett.  A lot of this will depend on if I go ferry or Eurostar back to England.

Shrewsbury Castle is an absolute must, since it’s one of several spots relevant to more than one past life.  As Longespee, I was Sheriff of Shropshire and the castellan of Shrewsbury Castle, and it just so happens that the Shropshire Regimental Museum (which houses the archives of John’s regiment, the KSLI) is also there. 

If time allows, I’d like to also see some people and places from my current life that I haven’t seen in nearly a decade.  I’ve got loads of friends in and around London who would be very glad to see me.  I’ve also got a close friend some miles outside of Bristol who I’m very anxious to see again, and another in (I think) Banbury whom I’ve only spoken to online; both of them know about John, incidentally.  

Make no mistake, though, this is mainly a pilgrimage in the truest sense of the word and I can’t say I will be entirely comfortable going back to Ypres and Houplines; I’m going there first so that I can finally let go.  I guess I’ll always be sad for what happened to John and I’ll always have lingering questions as to whether I could have possibly been the same person, but I’ve become so involved in the story and uncovered so many twists that it hardly matters any more.