Tuesday, November 13, 2012

'An Afternoon Tea'

As stated in my introductory post, my current PhD project centres around the life, works, and documents of poet FW Harvey. One of the first Will Harvey (like me, he preferred his middle name) poems that I read which I was particularly drawn to was 'An Afternoon Tea', published in his second book of poetry, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp.

The poem as published reads:

An Afternooon Tea

We have taken a trench
   Near Combles, I see,
Along with the French.
We have taken a trench
(Oh, the bodies, the stench!)
Won't you have some more tea?
   We've taken a trench
Near Combles, I see.

As Harvey stated below the title, this poem is a triolet. For those who are not students of poetry, a triolet is in the rhyme scheme ABaAabAB, where the capital letters indicate a line repeated verbatim. In a triolet, the meaning of the repeated lines is meant to change throughout the poem, often with a clever or ironic twist. The initial observation of having taken a trench is made somewhat lightly, as indicated by the slightly flippant 'I see'.
Private FW Harvey, prior to commissioning.

However the parenthetical statement acknowledging the disturbing aftermath of such an event gives the final two lines a gravity not felt in their incarnation in the first two lines. In the final line, 'I see' now implies insight.

After my first reading of the poem, I thought Harvey was demonstrating the removal of general officers and their staff from the fighting which they would be monitoring and observing from a point of safety, which would allow the enjoyment of an afternoon tea. This is a theme often associated with the Great War. Reading the poem this way, the senior officers and their staff observe through reports that an objective has been taken (French and British forces achieved success in the area around Combles during the initial months of the Battle of the Somme), pausing for a moment to consider the havoc wrought, before returning to their tea. The poem ends with them reflecting again on the seized trench with a bit more gravity.

The poem could also be taken to reflect the removal of civilians in England from the dire realities of the trenches, perhaps reading the reports in the afternoon paper at tea time. As Anthony Boden points out in his biography of Harvey, articles published in the 5th Gloucester Gazette (the trench-newspaper which Harvey helped to publish) indicate that he felt some disillusion with civilians' lack of knowledge of the realities of war, which he observed while on leave from France (Boden, pp. 103-107). In this case, the parenthesis indicate that the civilian reader has no concept of the bodies and the stench resulting from taking the trench.

As with most poems, there are many ways it could be read. I am sure that Will Harvey intended that it have several meanings. Having access to his manuscript draft of this poem that was sent to the publishers gives insight into his intent. Notes in the margin of this manuscript show that he originally wrote the triolet almost as a script, with the speakers of the lines indicated in the margin. His handwritten copy reads:

Host Speaking: - We've taken a trench
                          near Combles, I see,
                          Along with the French.
                          We've taken a trench
myself thinking:- (Oh, the bodies! The stench!)  <-- Italics
H. Speaking:-    Would you have some more tea?
                         We've taken a trench
                         Near Combles I see.

Harvey later crossed out the notes in his margin, perhaps wishing to allow the poem more ambiguity. However, this gives us some insight into what he was thinking as he wrote (I am not yet sure if the slight wording and punctuation changes were Harvey's or the publishers). Placing Harvey in this conversation gives further possible readings. One is that he is imagining himself home from the front, as he was earlier in 1916 when he was removed from the line and sent to England to receive officer's training. In this situation, he opposes his non-combatant host's casual remarks about the capture of the trench with his personal knowledge, which he holds back, of the truth of what happens when a trench is taken.

If we place this poem and Harvey's notes in a strict historical timeline, then we have another, and I believe most likely scenario. The gains near Combles were taken shortly after Harvey's capture in August 1916. Harvey likely felt guilty about not being able to support his comrades who were still fighting, as indicated in some of his poetry (Boden, pp. 145-146). In view of this, the poem may well have been Harvey's lament that the fight continues, while he and other prisoners relax to afternoon tea. They receive news from the front (surely restricted to some degree by their captors) of Allied advances, initially glad of the victorious news, then internally reflecting on the true horror of the event, which they are now spared from, before continuing to drink their tea, speaking again of the trench's capture with the somberness brought by personal experience and guilt. The horrific facts need not be stated out loud, the tea-drinkers all know it, and so they continue their tea, trying not to think too deeply about it.

Will Harvey was a spokesman for the hardships experienced by allied POWs during the war, as seen in his poem 'Prisoners', also published in Gloucestershire Friends. The poem speaks of the humiliation 'that we have come to this', having once been fighting men who 'Adventure found in gallant company' but now are 'Safe in stagnation'. His feelings of guilt were no doubt compounded for him in 1918 when he received news that his brother, Captain Eric Harvey, was killed during the final offensive of the war. Understanding this guilt, I am beginning to believe, is a key component to understanding Will Harvey.

Regardless of which reading of this poem one chooses to accept, it is written to make one think more deeply about the news one receives, and what actions may have occurred in making that news. It serves as a good reminder to always think of the second and third order effects of any action.


Anthony Boden, FW Harvey: Soldier, Poet, revised edition (Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd, 1998)

FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. (London: Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1917)

Gloucestershire Archives D12912/2/3, notebook 2, FW Harvey, Gloucestershire Friends: poems from a German prison camp. author's manuscript, 1917. (This is a temporary catalogue number and subject to change.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Engaged and Destroyed: One Enemy Cow

Some posts in this blog will deal with the history of recent conflicts, and often from my own perspective as a participant. This story takes place early in my Iraq deployment. I have tried to keep the language used by the soldiers as true to reality as possible, so please forgive the rather large amount of swearing. I am not known as one who swears much now, and certainly not in professional environments, but the Army and wartime causes one to act a bit differently than one might in civilized society. I have kept the names of soldiers involved anonymous (merely out of politeness due to not having asked their permission to use their names), other than my own and Chris Kimmet's, who also contributed to this story (if you were there and read this, and want your name added in, just message me).
In January 2007 the war in Iraq was at its height. Sectarian violence was tearing the country apart, one village, one tribe, one family at a time. That month the President of the United States had announced the new ‘Troop Surge’ strategy, one that would flood the country with American and allied soldiers, destined to bring the country to a fever pitch of bloodshed before ultimately leading to the ‘Sunni Awakening’ that would curb the violence and restabilize the country. But we did not know that then.
I was second-in-command of a 250-soldier cavalry headquarters troop that had been strengthened with additional infantry platoons in order to conduct ‘kill or capture’ operations, targeting key figures from al-Qaida in Iraq. We had just been inserted near a village that was a suspected safe-haven for insurgents, tasked to hunt down several key figures, or failing that, to stir-up the hornet’s nest and see what came out looking for a fight. Most conventional units in Iraq were out trying to win hearts and minds by conducting ‘stabilization operations’ while still fighting insurgents. We didn’t have the former obligation. We were sent out for enemy body-counts.
A twin-rotor CH-47 Chinook helicopter had inserted near our target house. Intell had told us that the enemy had occupied the area in large numbers, and that we could expect resistance at any turn, even on the landing-zone. As the Chinook evaporated into the darkness and the dust we started doing what we were trained to do. I had inserted with the infantry platoon led by my best-friend in the unit, Lieutenant Chris Kimmet. I was to move with them, while our troop commander moved with a different platoon for the first phases of the operation. That way, if either the commander or I was ‘schwacked’, the other would be far enough away from the fighting to still command the troop.
I had never been in combat before. Nor had Chris. Though we had been in Iraq since November and conducted several combat patrols, we had not yet been involved in any firefights. Most of Chris’s men were veterans, having spent time in Iraq, but mostly Afghanistan. They knew their business, but as young lieutenants, Chris and I still had to prove to the men and to ourselves that we knew ours.

Me talking on the radio sometime during early
2007 in Iraq, around the time of this story.

Like every uninitiated lieutenant, I wondered how I’d react when I was finally fired upon. Would I freeze-up? Cower with fear? Or lead the men like I was trained? One never knew until the time came. Chris and his Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First-Class H, had ascertained with maps and GPS that we were at the right place. I checked my maps too, just for the sake of making myself feel better. Though I was the troop Executive Officer and technically senior to Chris, and his next level up in the chain-of-command, it was his platoon to lead. I and my radio operator were just extra-baggage for them, or at least that is how I felt. Until we could link up with the troop commander, when I would establish and run a ‘TOC’ (Tactical Operations Center) for the troop, I had little role other than to stay alive until any event in which the commander failed to do so. The best I could offer as the representative of the commander on-site was to relay radio reports up to him from what I observed, saving Chris the trouble so he could lead his men. So I did.

‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5’
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 Romeo.’ The word ‘romeo’ following a call-sign meant that a radio operator was speaking for the officer he was assigned to, rather than the officer himself speaking. ‘Well, I’ll do mine myself for now,’ I thought.
‘Havoc 6 Romeo this is Havoc 5, be advised that Havoc 2 and TOC 2 are assembled on HLZ (Helicopter Landing Zone) Budweiser and beginning movement to Objective Coors.’
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6 Romeo, good copy. Out.’ ‘Outed’ by a mere radio operator, ‘Great,’ I thought. If Havoc 6 himself were on the line, he could ‘out’ me and end the conversation whenever he wanted, but not so much for his ‘romeo’. ‘I’ll have a word with that private when we link-up’, I thought.
‘F**k!’ a soldier near me whispered, as he pulled the charging-handle on his M4 carbine to cock it. He should have done that when we were still on the chopper, one minute out from landing. Had we not been trying to be so quiet, his sergeant would have given him a thrashing for that one.
We fell into a ‘wedge’ formation and began movement towards the target house. Night vision on, one viewed the world through a green hole the size of a beer bottle cap, which only covered the soldier’s non-shooting eye. Forget what you see in Hollywood movies, night vision is much less clear than is usually portrayed, and the flat image it creates causes you to lose depth perception. Top that off with having to walk through roughly-ploughed, hard-earth fields, with a forty-pound ballistic vest loaded down with ammunition and equipment, and a pack on your back with another fifty pounds of food, water, and radio batteries; I was lucky not to fall flat on my face every few steps. Of course, fifteen months of combat operations later I became an old hand at moving under such conditions. Though it was never ideal, and occasionally threw one off balance still, it became much easier to deal with.
The limited visibility certainly did little to help you with the nerves associated with awaiting your ‘baptism by fire’, whenever that might come. You at least knew that the enemy had it worse, having no night vision to speak of, but an advantage in familiarity with his home soil.
Even the ‘old’ veterans could still be affected by the drawbacks of heavy equipment and night-vision. Not far into our movement, Sergeant First Class H managed to fall over an unseen obstacle, severely spraining his ankle. There was no way he could patrol on that injury, so we called in a MEDEVAC chopper to come and take him out. He would only be a liability if we had to carry him everywhere for the next three days. We were not far from our original landing-zone, so we carried him back, put him on the incoming bird, and continued on our mission.
This was not a lucky start.
Having a truly professional and experienced senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) like Sergeant H with us was a comfort to younger, less experienced, yet higher-ranking officers like Chris and I. The next most senior NCO was Staff Sergeant L, who took over as platoon sergeant for the rest of the mission. L had a few tours under his belt, and we trusted him to step up to the plate.
As we approached the house, Chris signaled the platoon to form into a ‘file’ formation in order to move more quickly through the palm trees ahead, and to cross a small foot-bridge over an irrigation ditch that we had identified pre-mission through satellite imagery. I fell to the back of his platoon with my radio operator, to stay out of their way as we crossed. Crossing even a small obstacle like this caused trouble; if you met the enemy with half your men on one side and half one the other you could not immediately bring your full force to bear. At best it would slow your ability to react, at worse it gave the enemy the chance to defeat you piecemeal.
Staff-Sergeant C’s squad was at the front. C had been in combat before and had performed well, a comforting thought. He signaled his two point men to cross first, and clear the opposite side. Satisfied that it was safe to cross, he began moving the rest of his squad. At the rear, I could see none of this, but I knew what was happening.
Suddenly I heard shouting up front. Had the point-men identified enemy trying to escape? Were there civilians in our path, or a possible threat?
CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK! The unmistakable sound of M4 carbines firing! Everyone immediately dropped to the ground. This was it! My baptism by fire, the moment of truth. Would my training stick with me? What would I do?
My nerves held through, and my training kicked-in. I did what Chris would normally do as platoon leader had I not been present; I sent the ‘contact report’ to the commander.
‘Havoc6thisisHavoc5! Contact! East! Out!’ There, the first step in making enemy contact: send the contact report to your commander letting him know you were engaged in hostilities and the general direction of the enemy. Brevity was key in this report; as you needed to take control of the situation, you were to allowed to ‘out’ your commander immediately so you could get back to the fight. This was the only time you were allowed that indulgence.
‘Havoc 5 this is Havoc 6 (no ‘romeo’ here, now we had the real commander’s attention, and he was not even abiding by my judiciously-applied ‘out’), develop the situation and report when possible, out.’ Of course we knew to ‘develop the situation’, that was step two of the ‘actions on contact’ procedure. Though one did not actually think through the steps, training had drilled them into instinct.
The shooting had stopped, and no orders were being given to the rear squad to act. Normally they would be ordered forward to return fire and manoeuvre on the enemy. Something must be wrong. Perhaps the enemy had already run, perhaps they were already dead. Perhaps we had casualties, maybe even Chris and Sergeant L, in which case leadership was needed up front! I grabbed my radio operator and rushed ahead of the rest of the platoon to see what was awry. I weaved around the now kneeling soldiers, and crossed the foot bridge.
“Who’s the f**k’s that?’, a voice directed towards me.
‘F**kin’ XO’, I replied with some indignation.
‘Oh, sorry sir.’ It was Sergeant L. I was about to ask what was happening, when I spied the cause of our excitement. On the ground lay Private First Class S, one of Staff Sergeant C’s soldiers, grunting in pain while the medic examined his arm. ‘Damn, casualties,’ I thought to myself. Why weren’t Chris and Sergeant L moving the rest of the troops forward to fight whoever did this? Then I noticed a large mound next to Private S… a mound which I ascertained, not without a small amount of bewilderment, was a dead cow.
‘What the f**k’? I asked.
‘F**kin’ cow attacked S, so the guys shot it.’ Sergeant L replied in his country accent, clearly annoyed and yet somewhat amused with the situation.
‘Oh for f**k’s sake’, I exclaimed (That Britishism had always been a favorite of mine). 'Why did it attack him?'
'Don't know sir, he must have spooked it. He didn't do anything to try and piss it off.'
‘How the f**k am I going to call this one up?’
‘Hell if I know, have fun with that sir,’ L smirked, ‘Doc says his arm may be broken, I got to get this MEDEVAC prepared.’
Right. Well, might as well get it over with. I signaled my radio-operator over and grabbed the handset.
‘Havoc 6 this is Havoc 5.’
‘Havoc 5 this Havoc 6, send it. Over’
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5. Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow. Over.’
A longer than normal pause.
‘Havoc 5, Havoc 6, say again. Over.’ I knew he wasn’t going to buy this one the first time around.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, I say again: Havoc 2 has engaged and destroyed one cow, break… The cow attacked one soldier, and was then shot by elements of Havoc 2, break... Currently have one casualty with a potential broken-arm. Over.’
Another pause. The CO wasn’t going to have as much fun calling this up to the Squadron Commander as I was calling him. Our Squadron Commander was what most soldiers in the Army call ‘a hard man’.
‘Havoc 5, what the f**k?’ Well, might as well throw radio protocol out of the window on this one. ‘Assess the situation, and get Havoc 2-4 to send the MEDEVAC report. Over’.
‘Havoc 6, Havoc 5, roger. He’s already working on it. Over.’
‘5 this is 6. Good. Out.’
Due to having just MEDEVACed Sergeant First Class H, and the projected threat of enemy anti-aircraft capabilities, Command made the decision not to MEDEVAC Private S, as he was still able to walk. So Doc (the nickname for every combat medic in the Army) pumped him full of pain killers and we continued the mission with one rather-high rifleman in tow. The mission continued as planned from this point on, we raided several suspected safe-houses, detained several insurgents, and managed not to have to fire any more shots. We heard over the squadron radio network the next day that an angry Iraqi farmer had approached the commander of our Alpha Company, wanting to know why his cow had been shot by the Americans. He explained the situation, and compensated the farmer with a couple hundred US Dollars (all officers were issued a sizable amount of cash prior to missions to cover minor collateral damage), much more than the cow was actually worth, and more than enough to cover the trouble of having to buy a new one.

Chris Kimmet and I about three years later in Afghanistan.
Despinte our hijnks, we both managed promotion to Captain.

We all had a good laugh over it and at ourselves in the days that followed, even adding ‘one enemy cow’ to the EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action) column of Havoc Troop’s Battle Damage Assessment report that I submitted to the squadron headquarters following the mission. In the after-action debriefing the troop commander jokingly briefed that 'the cow had displayed hostile intent towards Private First Class S, and was therefore declared enemy and fired upon in accordance with the Rules of Engagement.’  It would be a couple more months before I would find myself under actual fire, and as things heated up in both a figurative and literal sense that following summer, I too became one of those guys who instinctively ducks when he hears a car backfire. But, what I had learned during my initial ignorance of this event was that I was able to do my job during the immediate moments after shots were fired, and was not afraid to move towards the sound of the guns. Too many times I’d have to use that skill over again in the next year.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The British Character

The British take great pride in the stoic perception of their national character. This has recently been given attention in BBC's latest documentary series 'Ian Hislop's Stiff Upper Lip - An Emotional History of Britain'. (For US readers, this may be available on BBC America.) The series wittily traces the emotional history of the British, and how they came to develop their characteristic sangfroid. Personally, I have always found it well and hilariously presented in the Zulu War scene from 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life', in which British officers go about their daily business while savage hand-to-hand combat rages around them. In my current research on the life of FW Harvey, I have come across a great, but little known example of the British national character. In this story that national character works well for British soldiers, and mis-perception of it worked against their enemy.

Lieutenant Harvey spent the end of the Great War in a POW camp, having been captured while conducting a reconnaissance of German trenches (self-admittedly underestimating the risk) alone on 16 August 1916. The following anecdote is from his post-war book Comrades in Captivity:

Lieutenant Harvey, DCM

On arriving at G├╝tersloh I was told [by a German officer] that from this camp only one officer, a Russian, had ever succeeded in getting 'away and over.' The prisoners, and especially the Russians, said the interpreter, frequently tried, but were always caught and punished for their foolishness, in addition to getting restrictions put upon the freedom of the camp generally. The Russians were particularly foolish. The French also occasionally so... 'And the English? I inquired. 'Ah, they are good - so - like sheep.'
It would probably have surprised the insolent Hun to learn how at that time certain of the sheep were patiently engaged night after night in driving a tunnel from under their fold, a tunnel which would, when completed, be sufficient to liberate half of the camp. (Harvey, pp. 52-53)

Indeed, the book goes on to describe how the British prisoners were constructing a tunnel of nearly the same calibre of that used during 'the Great Escape' at Stalag Luft III during the next war, all under the guise of being 'sheep' and playing by the German's rules. This included using bed-boards to build tunnel supports, a garden-hose ventilation system for the tunnel, distributing sand with special cloth tubes hidden in one's trousers and casually spilled out on the earth above, stockpiling of civilian clothing, and many other ingenious techniques which would awe the general public when depicted in 'The Great Escape' over half a century later. Unfortunately, the British prisoners were moved to another camp before the tunnel could be completed. Liberation of half of the camp may have been overstatement, but the tunnel certainly would have allowed a large number of prisoners to get away.

This is a lovely example of this British stoicism. While their foreign friends make attempts to escape based upon spur of the moment opportunities, but with little planning, the British 'get on with it' and patiently and methodically work together for the greater good. When the British prisoners were informed that they were to be moved, it was decided after much debate to hand the tunnel over to the Russians who would remain. Many officers argued that after having been perceived as 'sheep' for so long that it would be a blow to national pride not to attempt to use the tunnel in desperate bid for escape, even though its terminating point was only now just outside of the wire and directly in view of the sentries. But again, British stoicism prevailed and after a vote the decision was made to 'lay aside all personal and national ambition for the sake of "the Cause".' (Harvey, p. 135) Upon arriving at their next camp however, the British wasted no time in beginning tunneling operations anew.

This example fits well with the idea that in times of adversity, the British are likely to carry on unperturbed by their hardships, with little outward show of bravado, masking a deeper capability to overcome their troubles with hard work, discipline, and not a little bit of a 'stiff upper lip'.

Source: FW Harvey, Comrades in Captivity: A Record of Life in Seven German Prison Camps, New Edition (Coleford: Douglas McLean Publishing, 2010) [Originally published in 1920 by Sidgwick and Jackson]

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What is this blog about?

The internet is full to the brim with blogs these days, and the birth of yet another is of little note. With so many blogs to follow, it is important that readers know up front what blogs are worth their time and which ones to ignore. Therefore, I think it best for my first post to explain what my blog will be about, my reasons for creating it, and a bit about myself.

Most simply stated, by blog will be about history. It will concentrate mainly on American and British military history, and in particular that of World War I. I am interested in many areas of military history, however my current PhD research project is centred around that war. Other areas of interest that I may explore here include the 18th century (joint army-navy landings is my particular specialty in that century), the American Civil War, World War II, and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The purpose of this blog will be to share information that I glean from my research to a larger audience, hopefully both those with an academic interest and those of the public with a general interest. I hope that people will find my posts and the stories they tell interesting and relevant, if not, then what is the point?

Leading my scout platoon on patrol, summer 2007, Iraq.

My background will surely influence my posts, as it does for all authors. I was raised in the state of Kansas in the USA, attending the University of Kansas where I received a bachelor's degree in History (Military and Diplomatic). Having also completed the Army ROTC course during this time, I was commissioned as a officer in the Army the day after my university graduation. I went on to serve as a cavalry officer and a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, serving in the front-lines in Iraq, as well as on division staff in Afghanistan. Following my time in the Army, I completed a MA in History at the University of Exeter (UK), and am now beginning a PhD in English at the University of Exeter via a collaborative project in which I am responsible for cataloguing the recently acquired papers of FW Harvey (British war-poet, decorated soldier, prisoner of war, philathropist, lawyer, and often dubbed 'The Poet Laureate of Gloucestershire') at the Gloucestershire Archives while concurrently completing a traditional PhD dissertation regarding those papers.

I am always open to others' constructive comments and criticism, and hope that my posts may be of some use.

Finally, I ask forgiveness in advance for my occasional blend of American and British spellings and grammar. Please don't take my usages as a partiality for one or the other. (But to set the record straight, I do prefer coffee to tea, though I'll never complain about being offered either!)