Archives For WWI

Desiring Silence

July 19, 2016 — 12 Comments

coptic quietDo you enjoy noise, or do your mind and soul long for moments of silence? If you appreciate escaping the cacophony of sounds that weigh against you, you’re in good company. The Inklings were men who respected the value of silence.

I attended a funeral for a former parishioner today. The fact that I did not conduct the service allowed me to sit beside my wife who shared my sincere fondness for the saint we were bidding farewell.

The service was comforting, being resurrection-focused as such matters ought to be. Despite our singing three hymns during its course, it was also quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and peaceful like a deep brook that rushes along in relative silence, compared to its chattering companions that dance across the rocks in a shallow creek.

Joe was a humble man, though he was one of the rare breed who truly deserve the accolade of being part of the “greatest generation.” Though he never bragged about it, he served throughout the Second World War, and survived D-Day while landing in just the second wave at Omaha Beach.

It was a service that befitted a humble ninety-two-year-old man who faithfully ushered at his church up until his death. A man who had spent most of his life in activities serving others, and who kept his marital vows to his now widowed bride for seventy years.

Reflecting on that quality this afternoon, I recalled how silence was appreciated by the Inklings. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought on many occasions. One of the best known comes from The Weight of Glory.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

Lewis’ opinion of noise went beyond disdain. He even included a description in The Screwtape Letters of how noise itself could serve malevolent purposes.

My dear Wormwood: Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father [Lucifer] entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.

We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The world has only gotten noisier since Lewis wrote those words. And silence is in ever-shorter supply. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I appreciate living in the forest, where even the tentacles of cable television do not reach. Their absence contributes to an involuntary amplification of the silence that resides around our home.

Tolkien Shared Lewis’ Opinion

Since I’ve been reading some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s correspondence recently, the following excerpt came to my mind.

Like many thinkers, and nearly all writers, Tolkien found noise distracting. In a 1964 letter, he wrote the following description of the sounds that assaulted him in his neighborhood. (The last sentence is particularly delightful.)

Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m.

In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group.

What a vivid description. But one would expect nothing less from the creator of Middle Earth.

The same year as the Allied attack on Normandy, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was in South Africa earning his wings with the Royal Air Force. A veteran of the First World War, the concerned father knew all too well what might lie ahead. In 1944 he wrote the following:

I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination, other than a series of quiet inns. One of the too long delayed delights we must promise ourselves, when it pleases God to release us and reunite us, is just such a perambulation, together, preferably in mountainous country, not too far from the sea, where the scars of war, felled woods and bulldozed fields, are not too plain to see.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was also a veteran of the “war to end all wars.” The Inklings, like all Europeans of their generation, were acutely acquainted with warfare and its costs. Still, because of their wisdom and faith, Tolkien and Lewis were confident the Allies would prevail. They trusted that the blessed silence of peace would ultimately triumph over war’s cries.

In that light, we continue reading from Tolkien’s letter to Christopher. Immediately after his suggestion to Christopher that the two of them take a walking tour, Tolkien describes the plans the Inklings had already established to celebrate the eventual end of the war.

The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it entirely in beer and talk, without reference to any clock!

I don’t recall reading about their intentions before, but it has made me curious as to whether or not these dreams were ever realized. If they were, I am certain that the absence of other guests, and the removal of all clocks, would have made for a calm, quiet and renewing week indeed.

_____

The image above comes from an eighth century Coptic fresco.

A more modern image of silence, although originating all the way back in 1965, would be the “cone of silence,” which will be familiar to fans of the series Get Smart. For reflections on that theme, you might want to check out the this article.

If you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned cone, take two minutes to rectify that shortcoming by watching this video.

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.

Pet Names

July 14, 2015 — 5 Comments

hypocorismHow many hypocorisms do you have? Which of them are your favorites? Are there any you would sooner never hear again?

I subscribe to one of those “word of the day” emails sent by services such as dictionary.com or thefreedictionary.com.

The truth is, more often than not I’m already familiar with the word they choose to define each day. However, when something hits me out of the proverbial blue—I am amazed and pause to ponder its meaning, history, and reasons why I may never have crossed its path before. (I imagine this behavior is widely replicated among word lovers.)

“Hypocorism” is one of those surprises. It had no place in my lexicon, although the concept of “pet names that are bestowed with affection” is something my family and I have always practiced.

I grew up being called Robbie, and as a young adolescent told my family I preferred to go by Rob. Rob is probably verbal shorthand for Robert, but Robbie is definitely hypocoristic. It is amusing to me that my beloved grandmother never ceased to call me Robbie—even though every precious letter I received from her while serving in the military far from home began, “Dear Robert.”

We’ve already noted the key aspect of a hypocorism. It is a name expressing endearment, not disrespect. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is not embarrassing. Many people bestow pet names on their loved ones that are best shared only with family.

Some pet names are simply silly. Two of my granddaughters often call me “Bumpa.” That is not a reference to any lumpiness on my part, but to the way the eldest of them began pronouncing “Grandpa” when she was oh so tiny. It was cute, special, and passed on to her younger sister, at first through aural osmosis . . . and later through conscious affection.

C.S. Lewis’ family members were enthusiastic practitioners of hypocorism.

One of the things that new students of Lewis often find confusing is his own name. The fact that he was known to family and friends as “Jack” begs the question of the source of that name. The story, though oft told, remains quite entertaining.

The initial version of Lewis’ adopted name was Jacksie. Lewis loved dogs, and his stepson Douglas Gresham writes that Jacksie was one of these childhood animals.

When he was a small boy, he didn’t like the name [Clive] and soon changed it to “Jacksie” by simply refusing to answer to anything else. It was actually because of a small dog that he was fond of that he picked the name Jacksie, which was what the dog was called. It was run over (probably by a horse and cart as there were almost no cars at the time and place where he was a child), and Jack, as he later became known, just took the name for himself. (Jack’s Life)

I have shared in the past how Lewis’ brother Warnie [Warren] related the event.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.”

He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

Lewis’ life was filled with other hypocorisms. One of the most curious was the nick name “Minto,” given to Janie Moore. Mrs. Moore and her daughter were supported in his home by Lewis after her son Paddy had been killed in WWI. The two men had pledged that if only one survived, he would care for the other’s widowed parent. Lewis kept that promise.

As you reflect on the pet names that you share with those you love, you are in good company. An affectionate hypocorism is a truly precious gift.

Parachute Optional

January 27, 2015 — 8 Comments

c141Under what circumstances would you tell an airman that pulling their rip cord if they exit the plane is optional? I never knew of any until I read an article about resupply missions to the South Pole.

The current issue of Air Force Magazine includes a fascinating article about resupplying McMurdo Station and a second temporary site at the Pole itself. Because of the extreme cold, 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (that’s -73.333 degrees Celsius), any airman who accidentally fell from the plane as the pallets were dropped, could not expect to be rescued before freezing to death.

Parachute-laden crewmen standing near open doors of a C-141B Starlifter during a midwinter Antarctic airdrop in 1983 were told they could pull the D-ring ripcord if they fell overboard—or just not bother. The chance of being safely recovered in the darkness and [bone-freezing] temperatures was practically nonexistent.

Putting things in historical perspective, we can consider the fate of WWI pilots in Germany. Theirs was the first nation to provide standard parachutes, and during the first 70 bail outs, a third of the pilots perished. With those statistics, one wonders how many airmen followed the “just not bother” course of action and chose to remain with their plunging aircraft.

C.S. Lewis had a friend named Leo Baker who had served in France as a pilot of the 80th Squadron of the Royal Air Force. The two combat veterans hit it off because of shared interests, including their mutual love of poetry. Here is how Lewis initially described Baker to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves, in 1920.

You ask about Baker, and I hardly know how to describe him. He was at a mixed school of a very modern type, where everyone seems to have written, painted and composed. He is so clairvoyant that in childhood “he was afraid to look round the room for fear of what he might see.” He got a decoration in France for doing some work in an aeroplane over the lines under very deadly fire: but he maintains that he did nothing, for he was “out of his body” and could see his own machine with “someone” in it, “roaring with laughter.” He has a bad heart.

He was a conscientious objector, but went to the war “because this degradation and sin might be just the very sacrifice which was demanded of him.” He maintains that everything in Algernon Blackwood [writer of ghost stories] is quite possible: and though the particular cases may be fictitious, “things of that sort” are quite common. He is engaged to be married.

In appearance, he is about my height, with very fair hair, glasses, remarkable eyes and according to the Minto [Janie Moore], rather like you. I like and admire him very much, though at times I have doubts on his sanity.

Like Lewis, Baker had been seriously wounded during the war. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. Fortunately, it appears he did not have to rely on a primitive parachute. Or, if he did, he was one of the fortunate survivors.

Returning to Antarctica for just a moment, it seems that South Pole mission would have been an exciting adventure in which to share. Terrifying too, perhaps. Fortunately, like Lewis and Baker (and Tolkien, as well), all of the service members returned home safely, mission accomplished.

_____

The picture above is a military photograph of a pair of Emperor penguins observing an American C-141 resupply mission during the summer months.

Rescuing Orphans

April 14, 2014 — 14 Comments

orphansWar is a terrible thing. It should be avoided at (nearly) all costs. As C.S. Lewis wrote during Hitler’s atrocities, “If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful” (“The Conditions for a Just War”).

I was writing this weekend about one of the sad consequences of war—the creation of orphans. As an adopted child of God, I possess deep compassion for children without parents in this world. Over a decade ago I was privileged to represent the United States Air Force at the dedication of the Korean War Children’s Memorial.

When I contacted the coordinator of that event, Dr. George Drake, he provided me with the photograph above, which shows the speakers that day. Drake appears to the left, and yours truly is in uniform, to the right. The primary speaker was Chaplain Russell Blaisdell, center, who saved the lives of at least a thousand Korean orphans during the war, delivering them from almost certain death as Seoul fell to the Communists. (My next post will reflect on his heroism and humility.)

The war in Korea was horrific. The frontlines swept across the peninsula, leaving desolation and tragedy in their wake. The number of orphans created by the violence was legion. In the cruel ebb and flow of the conflict, many perished. Still, even in the crimson terror there were expressions of mercy and grace.

Chaplains often led the way in reaching out to the children, but their efforts would have accomplished little if the compassion of the common Soldier, Marine, Sailor and Airman had not moved them as well to make sacrifices to care for the children.

Chaplains who serve in Korea today have maintained the strong bonds of support for orphanages that was so vital to the wartime chaplains represented by Blaisdell.

During my year in Taegu (Daegu), I coordinated the ministry of the airmen at Taegu Air Base in partnership with Love and Hope Orphanage. Love and Hope has a unique role, caring for the least of the least . . . children with serious physical and/or mental handicaps. There is little room for them in most societies, and Korea is no exception.

Orphans are made not by war alone, of course, but by a variety of tragic confluences of suffering. Some lose parents to accident or disease. Today, we find the greatest number of orphaned children in various parts of Africa where AIDS has devastated local adult populations. Similarly, following natural disasters such as major earthquakes and tsunamis, many orphans are left alone in the rubble or receding waters.

Some children flee abusive homes, or are rescued from dangerous environments; in one sense these were orphans even before their legal bonds with cruel predators were severed.

Many causes account for the existence of orphans. And, as long as we live in this fallen world, orphans will be among us. This is why we must never forget that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV).

C.S. Lewis was well acquainted with the sorrow of wartime violence and the shattering of families. A veteran of World War I, he saw many friends perish just as they were embarking on adulthood. After World War II, one of his many correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria, who operated an orphanage in devastated Italy

In 1951, Lewis sent his friend a newly translated copy of the first book in his Chronicles of Narnia. He invited the priest (who would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church less than fifty years later) to pass the book on to one of the orphans in his care.

I am sending you my tale recently translated into Italian in which, frankly, I have rather played than worked. I have given my imagination free rein yet not, I hope, without regard for edification—for building up both my neighbour and myself. I do not know whether you will like this kind of trifle. But if you do not, perhaps some boy or girl will like it from among your “good children.”

While I imagine the volume remained close to the future “saint,” I trust that Lewis’ powerful tale delighted many of the young children in his care.

As Chaplain Blaisdell says about caring for innocent children, the act itself provides more than sufficient reward. Formal recognition is not required, and may in fact detract from the intrinsic satisfaction that accompanies the giving of oneself in service. Ninety-nine percent of those who sacrifice for the widow and orphan remain essentially anonymous to all but God, and this is just fine. (You can read more about the Kiddy Car Airlift and who received credit for it here.)

Military Helmets

January 16, 2012 — 3 Comments

War is deadly business. And, if a kingdom or nation hopes to emerge victorious, they are wise to equip their soldiers properly. That’s why this fact, included in today’s Ripley’s Believe It or Not comic, is so shocking.

It’s inconceivable that as the world marched to war in 1914, not a single one of the world powers equipped their troops with steel helmets. Elegant helms that looked superb on the parade ground . . . yes. Elaborate crests that exaggerated height to intimidate the foe . . . of course. Comfortable fabrics that kept the scorching sun off of the scalp . . . certainly.

But steel helmets that might actually spare men from bullet and shrapnel wounds . . . not those.

It’s not like the danger of ballistic wounds caught the Europeans off guard. Muskets had given way to deadly rifles long before. Artillery had advanced to the point where the Germans actually built not one, but two unique weapons: (1) Big Bertha, a huge howitzer that lobbed an eighteen hundred pound shell nearly eight miles, and (2) the Paris Gun, a siege cannon able to fire its shell eighty miles!

As soldiers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien rallied to the flag and fought the Huns, they would eventually be issued more protective equipment. But it didn’t exist at the war’s outset. And even with it, Lewis was severely wounded in combat. in 1939 he wrote, “My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years.”

The irony about metal helmets is that even ancient peoples recognized the importance of protecting the skulls of their warriors with the strongest materials available. In my office I have a replica Roman legionary helmet. Trust me, it was capable of saving lives.

Today’s combat helmets are highly advanced, and great effort is made to protect military members from head trauma. Sending them into battle with anything less than the best equipment available should be a crime.