With the Guns

PB117756

Buttercup Farm November 2009

With school closed for the day there was time for a walk. Buttercup Farm Sanctuary off Route 82 just north of Stanfordville has one path that tracks along Wappingers Creek as it runs down from the head waters at Thompson Pond south toward the Hudson.

It was quiet except for the rustle of squirrels, a few birds – juncos, jays and titmice mostly – and the occasional commotion of mallard startled up from the rushes. Beavers had been at work with trees gnawn down to sharpened pencil stubs and their work had blocked a waterway and flooded the walks.

A Single Gunshot

And then the sound of single gunshots from across the water toward Stissing Mountain. Hunters perhaps. Or a target range. But because of the incident yesterday I thought of nearby Pine Plains.

And because it is Veterans Day, Armistice Day, my mind went to “With the guns” – D.H.Lawrence’s August 1914 essay from the Manchester Guardian written just as the first world war was beginning. Watching reservists giddy with excitement and anticipation clamber aboard a train he has no such illusions about guns and war:

Last autumn I followed the Bavarian army down the Isar valley and near the foot of the Alps. Then I could see what war would be like – an affair entirely of machines, with men attached to the machines as the subordinate part thereof, as the butt is the part of a rifle.

Many greeted the war with jubilation. The streets of the great cities of Europe were thronged with crowds thrilled by the sense of adventure and the opportunity to take part. But not Lawrence.  He recalled what he saw and felt at that rehearsal for the war to come:

Then out of a little wood at the foot of the hill came the intolerable crackling and bursting of rifles. The men in the trenches returned fire. Nothing could be seen. I thought of the bullets that would find their marks. But whose bullets? And what mark. Why must I fire off my gun in the darkness towards a noise? Why must a bullet come out of the darkness, breaking a hole in me? But better a bullet than the laceration of a shell, if it came to dying. But what is it all about? I cannot understand; I am not to understand. My God, why am I a man at all, when this is all, this machinery piercing and tearing?

It is a war of artillery, a war of machines, and men no more than the subjective material of the machine. It is so unnatural as to be unthinkable.

Yet we must think of it.

It was unthinkable then.

It is unthinkable now. But we must think of it.

Paul Nash Passchendaele1917

Paul Nash Passchendaele1917

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