Rumor, ‘painted full of tongues,’ is in attendance, as Shakespeare knew, at every war. Yet the Great War seems especially fertile in rumor and legend. It was as if the general human impulse to make fictions had been dramatically unleashed by the novelty, immensity, and grotesqueness of the proceedings. The war itself was clearly a terrible invention, and any number, it seemed, could play. What Marc Bloch recalls about inverse skepticism is from his experience of the French trenches, but it is true of the British scene as well. ‘The prevailing opinion in the trenches,’ he notes, ‘was that anything might be true, except what was printed.’ From this skepticism about anything official there arose, he says, ‘a prodigious renewal of oral tradition, the ancient mother of myths and legends.’ Thus, ironically, ‘governments reduced the front-line soldier to the means of information and the mental state of olden times before journals, before news sheets, before books.’ The result was an approximation of the popular psychological atmosphere of the Middle Ages, where rumor was borne not as now by ration-parties but by itinerant ‘peddlars, jugglers, pilgrims, beggars.’
-Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
There is a great deal of fascinating history undergirding my latest short story, “We’re Here Because We’re Here.” Well, the fantastical, slipstream elements of it are decidedly not historical, but they are inspired by and in the mode of WWI trench legends. Under the cut I have included annotations, of sorts, to the story. Obviously they make more sense if you have read the story, but hopefully the annotations provide some interesting history, even if you have not read and have no intention of reading “We’re Here Because We’re Here.”
Most prominent among my sources is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, so you could also just go read that.
“We’re Here Because We’re Here” was a song sung by WWI soldiers to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. You can listen to Edward Dwyer singing it here. I first learned of it from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, when the characters are talking about “last-war” songs.
My reference to the shells’ “weary” sighs is an homage (read: plagiarism) to some lines from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End:
A familiar noise said: ‘We…e…e…ry!’ Shells always appeared tired of life. As if after a long, long journey they said: ‘Weary!’ Very much prolonging the ‘e’ sound. Then ‘Whack!’ when they burst.
-Ford Madox Ford, A Man Could Stand Up
Ford was rather brilliant at anthropomorphizing the mechanized sounds of the War, and Parade’s End is a work full of interesting noises. I once wrote an essay about that: “Wee Whizz Bang: Englishness and Noise in Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End.”
I was inspired to include a scene with a piano in the trenches thanks to The Wipers Times, a very enjoyable black comedy. The Jelly Roll Blues and Canadian Capers were both popular songs during the War. For specifically war-themed contemporary songs, check out this playlist I made:
“Oh, It’s A Lovely War” is a particularly delightful song.
Phosgene really does smell like decaying plant matter. The Wikipedia article describes it as like “freshly cut hay or grass” but I found it more unsettling than that. The Canadian War Museum currently has an exhibit called Fighting in Flanders – Gas. Mud. Memory. which includes these little boxes where you can safely smell various chemical gases that were used during the War. I smelled them all, of course, and I found them all fairly innocuous (you know, what with the fact they weren’t obliterating my lungs) with the exception of phosgene, which was less like “freshly cut hay” and more like mouldering plants mixed with cleaning solution.
This does not exactly pertain to WWI history, but at one point in the story the narrator mentions the taste/smell of bog bodies, which are well-preserved corpses from the Iron Age. I liked the idea of including bog body imagery, because of the parallels between those bodies (they were almost all subjected to violence before being tossed in the bog) and the bodies lost in the mud of the trenches. Of course, bog bodies are preserved, whereas trench bodies are annihilated.
[M]ud stands for much more than a mere amalgam of water and soil. It is made up of excrement, dead soldiers and animals, shrapnel, barbed wire and the remnants of poison gas. For all the opportunities it offered bacteria, surrounding splintered trees and dead men, it seems to be opposed to nature. This mud bears the terrifying potential to engulf the soldiers who struggle within it, to suck them down — spluttering, choking, drowning — and to convert their corpses into yet more mud.
-Dan Todman, The First World War: Myth and Memory
My fascination with bog bodies began when I first read Seamus Heaney’s incredible bog body poems. I especially recommend “The Tollund Man.” In addition to corpses, peat bogs can preserve a number of otherwise perishable items, including butter. Let us all take a moment to fantasize about spreading 2000-year-old butter on our morning toast.
Many of the characters exhibit symptoms of shellshock, such as memory issues which are inspired by the amnesia that Christopher Tietjens suffers in Parade’s End. The video I’ve included above shows some of the stranger, physical manifestations of shellshock, and is the inspiration for Lizzie’s “weird” walk and Callum’s ocular tic.
Yellow skin was a side-effect of working in munitions factories during the war. I am fairly certain I first learned this from Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.
The corpse in the tree in No Man’s Land is based on a photograph I saw last year at the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibit The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography. My visit to that exhibit was the genesis of much of “We’re Here Because We’re Here.”
Most of the fantastical things in the story may be merely inspired by trench legends, but the crucified Canadian was an actual trench legend. Paul Fussell mentions it in his book, and the Wikipedia article isn’t half bad. The Canadian War Museum also has a sculpture depicting the legend, and it is very cool in person.
The soldier who kicks the football about in No Man’s Land (and about whom I wrote a vignette a while ago) is based on accounts of soldiers playing sports on the battle field, even going so far as to kick a football around during an advancement.
One way of showing the sporting spirit was to kick a football toward the enemy lines while attacking. This feat was first performed by the 1st Battalion of the 18th London Regiment at Loos in 1915. It soon achieved the status of a conventional act of bravado and was ultimately exported far beyond the Western Front. . . . [T]he most famous football episode was Captain W. P. Nevill’s achievement at the Somme attack. Captain Nevill, a company commander in the 8th East Surreys, bought four footballs, one for each platoon, during his last London leave before the attack. He offered a prize to the platoon which, at the jump-off, first kicked its football up to the German front line. . . . Captain Nevill was killed instantly. Two of the footballs are preserved today in English museums.
-Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
What goddamn lunatics.
BONUS FUN FACT ABOUT ME
Sebastian’s rosary, which I describe in some detail in the story, is actually my rosary. It’s a good rosary. Possibly less powerful as far as rosaries go, seeing as it’s missing Jesus and three Hail Marys, but it dates from around the time of the Great War, so what can you expect?