Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Death in the Somme

Wednesday they buried a fellow member of Tolkien's regiment, Private Richard Lancaster, ninety years after he died on the Western Front. The full story can be found here:

It's a rather forlorn account in its very simplicity. Apparently about seventy bodies are found each year in the Somme even now, almost ninety years after the war ended. Lancaster, who like Tolkien belonged to the Lancashire Fusiliers, was one of 360,000 British war dead whose bodies could not be recovered. Some, like the remarkable horror writer Wm Hope Hodgson (THE NIGHT LAND, CARNACKI THE GHOST-FINDER, "A Voice in the Night"), were blown to bits, leaving nothing to bury; others, like Lancaster, died in action and were simply never found among the mud and chaos of No Man's Land (reflected in Tolkien's work in The Dead Marshes, which envisions the rotting bodies transformed into their folklore equivalents, Corpse Candles). Lancashire is unusual in that, unlike most of the bodies or body parts uncovered in recent years, they were able to identify him (unlike the two other bodies found with him).
Reading this, it's hard not to think how lucky we were. Tolkien could easily have died in that battle, leaving behind only a few odd poems about Earendel (i.e., the abortive volume THE SHORES OF FAERIE), as his friend G.B. Smith left behind only enough poems to fill one slim volume, the aptly named SPRING HARVEST. Having entered the war so late, we Americans don't remember it as the devastating event it was for all the countries of Europe*: Lord Dunsany tells the story of having gone to the funeral of an old teacher of his around 1930 or so and realizing that Dunsany himself was the only survivor from his year. It somehow seems apt to quote what Dunsany intended to be his epitaph, written when he was posted to the Western Front (not long after having been shot in the head by the rebels during the Easter Uprising, but that's another story):

Farewell my readers. Though the Press Bureau
Is dumb about the way by which we go
Yet somewhere close I know there waits for me
A nameless ship upon a censored sea.

And so farewell, for bits of nickelled lead
Flit all day long about our destination.
A poet, if he gets one in the head,
Does no more singing in that incarnation.


*(my own grandfather served in it and came home safely, while a great-uncle returned a life-long invalid from a gas attack).

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