11 November 2014

Pinned Down

by Thomas Penrose Marks
Published by William Kimber, 1977

Today, first-hand memories of the First World War lie buried beneath the inevitably changing landscape of history. Over the years they have regularly been turned up like the bullet-ridden helmets and rusting gun parts that snag on the gardeners’ forks and builders’ diggers of northern France. We have quite a collection of them now.
Each letter and photograph and diary is a jolt back to a place we can all too easily imagine but can never truly explain. How the hell did it happen? No amount of watching the dominoes fall from Sarajevo to Belgium will ever explain it; no evocation of innate human evil or analysis of fracturing empires will ever really tell us why so many millions had to experience the day-to-day horrors that they faced over those four bloody years.
Thomas Penrose Marks, who signed up as a Cornish lad not long out of school, took his memories with him when he emigrated to South Africa in 1920. Sixteen years later, after meeting a German pastor who had been in the opposite trenches at Arras, he wrote them down and stuck the manuscript in a drawer. Their tale told to a sheaf of paper, he let them lie for forty years. Then, on the instigation of his wife, they were made up into a book and published by the military history publishers William Kimber in 1977.
Marks, known to friends and family as ‘Pen’, has an uncomplicated, immediate style that consists of short, efficient sentences swinging at random between present and past tense. It's like a diary written at a distance, the pages filled from a deeper recall than the daily totting up of an efficiently maintained journal. The nightmare of the war, though it must have been ever-present to him, picks up debris from the writer's new life as it is recorded. A barrage, for example, is compared to a lion roaring defiance across the grassland which might be a natural comparison to make from a desk in South Africa, but which is unlikely to have occurred to the fresh-faced 19-year old from Cornwall who was actually cowering under the bursting shells.

But the immediacy survives the distance, and reading Pen’s book is an immersive experience. We sink with Nip and the scalding burden of soup he carries in a huge canister strapped to his back as he takes a wrong turn off the duckboards and disappears into a crater full of slurry. We wince at our own good fortune as a group working its way back along the trenches to take a respite from the front line are obliterated by a shell that strikes where we ourselves have just walked. We wonder at our own sense of curiosity about the wood full of the corpses of middle-aged German soldiers, blue-black in colour and probably gassed. With Pen, we are in a world which has been reversed. Peace for most of us is a life where we know death is ever present, but silent until it speaks and we are forced to make terms with it. In this war, death is the normality; it is centre stage and everywhere you look. When Pen and his comrades sit down among the corpses in the wood to eat their rations and idly pelt the dead with their crusts and laugh, it is they who are the ghosts.

From his book, it is clear that Pen had no hatred for his enemy. He, like them, was pinned down by time and circumstance as much as by shrapnel and bullets. It was as if all the participants had somehow agreed to the dance, or at least succumbed to its inevitability. The only thing left to fall back on was their humanity with all its conflicting instincts for survival and kindness. 

One day they embark on an attack where orders are given that there can be no prisoners taken as the unit does not have the resources to look after them. In forcing the Germans back, they come across a dugout where frightened young men are hiding. They throw a grenade in. Voices plead with them in German. One comes out and he is shot. Others follow one by one. Each of them is killed. There are 36 of them in all, all killed. All the soldiers know that, if the scene were reversed as it often had been, the same thing would have happened. On another occasion, British heavy artillery pounds the German line relentlessly. When the bombardment is over, German troops come staggering through the curtain of gun smoke. "They have passed through hell...We are sorry for them, and we stop them and give them cigarettes. They look grateful, but many of them cannot say a word...Their eyes are protruding. Their expressions are of horror and terror...Some of them cannot light their cigarettes, and so we strike the matches and hold the cigarettes steady."

Despite the individual hands that pulled the triggers and loaded the mortars, the real brutality at the Front lay in the political machinery that had forced so many sons and brothers and fathers from all parts of the world into a blood-soaked bear pit. Pen's book is studded with asides about how the soldiers feel about this. In their idle moments they lament the fact that they "are caught like rats in a trap". They wonder about those who "pull the strings behind the scenes" and conclude, rightly, that someone somewhere is making out handsomely from their suffering. They know too that the men beyond No-Man's Land feel the same. By the simple, and clearly unquenchable gift of human empathy it is obvious to Pen and his comrades that those beyond the barbed wire are no more keen on lice and bursting shells than they are. "We know from experience that they are no different from ourselves."

At one point, Pen proposes the kind of solution that you would hope and expect from a young person with a world to grow up in: "If the top six politicians from all the combatant countries were to spend twenty-four hours in the trenches, the war would end the following day." If only that were true.