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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Conclusion. May 13, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, history, military history, World War One.
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Deneys Reitz. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

This is the fourteenth and final part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

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A land of bar’d boughs and grieving wind;

Yet would I not forego the doom, the place,

Whither my poets and my heroes went

Before me; warriors that with deeds forlorn

Saddened my youth, yet made it great to live;

Lonely antagonists of Destiny,

That went down scornful before many spears.

Who soon as we are born, are straight our friends;

And live in simple music, country songs.

And mournful ballads by the winter fire…

(From Marpessa, 1897, by Stephen Phillips)

Toward the close of the war, Deneys Reitz was walking along the infamous sunken road near Masnieres and saw “a solitary German machine-gunner, sitting behind his weapon in a shell crater.  Before him lay nearly a score of British soldiers that had fallen to his gun.  The man himself was riddled with bayonet thrusts.  I heard afterwards that he had refused to retire or to surrender, and here at his post he ‘went down scornful before many spears.'”*

The English poet Stephen Phillips is long forgotten, but he was popular in the first decades of the 20th century, and Reitz was familiar with him. Reitz had grown up reading of “warriors with deeds forlorn…lonely antagonists of destiny.”  His father was a loyal reader of Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and members of the family knew many of their poems by heart.  In the Boer War, Reitz had thought of himself and his comrades as “moss troopers” in the style of Scott.

“Scornful.”  The word is harsh, but that is how Reitz felt about the refusal to surrender to fear or to foe.  His unpublished 1903 account of the Boer War has that edge to it all the way through, that disdain, that refusal to give up.  In Commando, the book he published about the Boer War years later, in 1929, he adopted a mellower  tone.  He was an amiable man who loved a good funny story, one who easily made friends, but underneath his anecdotes and his down-to-earth, practical approach, that sense of scorn remained.  That is why he became so attached to his friend George Bissett, who insisted on telling a joke in the face of death.  And this was a place where discouragement was everywhere.

Stretcher bearers, Passchendaele, August 1917

According to one estimate, 65 million men fought in the First World War.  The number is nearly inconceivably large, equal to three times the current population of New York City.  Of that number, 9 million were killed.  It’s hard to measure the experience of one man against this galaxy of lives.  And it’s hard to measure the importance of one battalion that pushed forward a few miles against the enemy line.  But this was a man who deliberately focused on the picture right before him, who made a practice and an art of converting the impossible into the possible.  I can picture him walking quietly among his men in the tense moments just before they dashed over the top, and somehow I know that the men were encouraged by his calm, friendly words and probably, once they got to know him, just by the mere sight of him.

And in this way something invaluable got passed from one man to another, and from that one to the next.  And through his written words, his experience is passed on to future generations of soldiers and, also, to people in other spheres of life who face other kinds of challenge.

One of the questions people often ask about the First World War is: How did men continue to fight in such appalling conditions?  Reitz shows us one way it could be done.  It had to do with maintaining a calm observation of the exterior world rather than focusing on the fear that lurked inside, as it must have done inside every single soldier.  And it had to do with that certain powerful freely chosen refusal that is expressed in the idea of scorn.

Reitz tells us that at the moment of the Armistice, when a wave of cheering swept across the Western Front, “I saw the beginnings of a new era for the world and for my country.”  Surely this unprecedented conflict would usher in a new period of global harmony.  One London newspaper proclaimed that this was the “Greatest Day in History.”  For many people, there must have been an idea not quite spoken that this terrible war in which millions had died must—surely must—have a lasting and positive outcome.  That another even larger war would start in just 29 years was of course utterly inconceivable.

And the consequences of the war were certainly gigantic: the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires smashed, monarchies toppled, new republics created, economies collapsing, African colonies changing hands.  But this wasn’t the war to end all wars, and history keeps bumping forward, carrying us helplessly along.  Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”  He meant not just that history is often nightmarish (wars, plagues, poverty, slavery, and so on), but that we never do manage to awaken—we’re embedded in history, there’s never a way to stand outside our own time and see it with some sort of external truth.  But as we stumble along, we can take heart from the examples of those who went into the worst of the particular nightmare of their own time and emerged unbeaten.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

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