That Wind Blowing and That Tide
August 5, 2014 13 Comments
When I was 5 or 6 was the first time I was allowed to go to the funeral home with my parents. The person who had died was my Great Uncle Henry, and yes I knew him although not all that well, I had met him several times at family reunions. He was a very nice, although quiet man, who often seemed to be seeing things the rest of us didn’t. At that age, even if anybody had tried, I would not have understood. At the funeral, another piece emerged.
For in his coffin, he was dressed in the drab of the Doughboy that he had been, back in the Great War. I, of course, didn’t understand it then but I do remember thinking that the wool, especially that high collar, looked very uncomfortable, as well as old-fashioned. As I grew up, I began to read about history, first the great paladins of English History, William the Conqueror, Edward, the Hammer of the Scots, Edward the Black Prince, but also John, and the that was where I found my first hero; William the Marshal of England, 1st Earl of Pembroke, a man true enough to his duty to stand, against his own beliefs, at Runnymede, with the King, whom I felt, then and now, that he detested, because it was his duty. He became a young boy’s first hero in twentieth century America, and now he is still the hero of the old man that boy has become.
But a hundred years ago this week, the world changed beyond comprehension. It happened when Britain declared war on Imperial Germany. Nothing, I think, not even the Reformation so rocked Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire. For this is when the old order passed. Merely call the roll of names, once so well-known: Hohenzollern, Romanoff, Habsburg, Vahdettin, all gone forever. By the end of the war Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had turned into Windsor as well. And so this week Sein Mäjestat put away his British uniforms forever, and His Majesty hung up his German ones, to be found a few weeks ago..
Here are the proceedings from the Parliament, as Sir Edward Grey made his statement
It would not be long before Rupert Brooke would write
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love…
But as the bodies piled up and the word of the horrors came home, to a land where Blenheim Palace had become a convalescent hospital, and the Future Queen Mother a Nurse’s Aide, Brooke’s vision became another far gloomier one, perhaps that of the truest bard of the Anglo-Saxon people, Rudyard Kipling, as he lamented the loss of his only son.
That is, I think a very apt description of the war, “That wind blowing and that tide”, especially for the British, who since time immemorial have been a sea-faring people. But there is another typically English remembrance of the war, the warrior as the gardener.
We see it in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien who served as a First Lieutenant on the Western Front, and where indeed, it has been said.
The Shire must truly be a great realm, Master Gamgee, where gardeners are held in high honour
For Tolkien freely admitted that Sam Gamgee had been based on the English soldiers and batmen that Tolkien himself thought so much superior to himself. And what, other than what we still, all these years later call, “The Front” could have inspired the description of Mordor.
Nothing lived, not even the leprous growths that feed on rottenness. The gasping pools were choked with ash and crawling muds, sickly white and grey, as if the mountains had vomited the filth of their entrails on the lands about.
But that brings us back, as we are wont to be brought, to Kipling. And while it is far too long to quote here, I think we should all read one of his short stories, the one entitled The Gardener. Frankly, I do not believe I have ever seen it in print in the United States, although I could easily have missed it. No matter though because it is available online.
Every one in the village knew that Helen Turrell did her duty by all her world, and by none more honourably than by her only brother’s unfortunate child. The village knew, too, that George Turrell had tried his family severely since early youth, and were not surprised to be told that, after many fresh starts given and thrown away he, an Inspector of Indian Police, had entangled himself with the daughter of a retired non-commissioned officer, and had died of a fall from a horse a few weeks before his child was born.
Mercifully, George’s father and mother were both dead, and though Helen, thirtyfive and independent, might well have washed her hands of the whole disgraceful affair, she most nobly took charge, though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France. She arranged for the passage of the child and a nurse from Bombay, met them at Marseilles, nursed the baby through an attack of infantile dysentery due the carelessness of the nurse, whom she had had to dismiss, and at last, thin and worn but triumphant, brought the boy late in the autumn, wholly restored, to her Hampshire home.
All these details were public property, for Helen was as open as the day, and held that scandals are only increased by hushing then up. She admitted that George had always been rather a black sheep, but things might have been much worse if the mother had insisted on her right to keep the boy. Luckily, it seemed that people of that class would do almost anything for money, and, as George had always turned to her in his scrapes, she felt herself justified – her friends agreed with her – in cutting the whole non-commissioned officer connection, and giving the child every advantage. A christening, by the Rector, under the name of Michael, was the first step. So far as she knew herself, she was not, she said, a child-lover, but, for all her faults, she had been very fond of George, and she pointed out that little Michael had his father’s mouth to a line; which made something to build upon.
Continue reading The Gardener here.
And we do owe them to:
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
For they were not only us, They were the best of us.
English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, French, American, Italian, Anzac, Canadian, German, Austrian, Russian, Turkish, and Japanese, and all the rest. Our world is as it is because of them, Let us see that our use of it honors them as they honored us in their duty.