Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Alice in Chains – "Them Bones" (1992)

Gonna end up 
A big ol’ pile
Of them bones

In 2003, author Richard Rubin began interviewing all of the living American veterans of World War I that he could find.

Last of the Doughboys, Rubin’s book of interviews with these veterans – each of whom was over 100 years old – was published in 2013.

Frank Buckles in 1917 and in 2008
All of the men Rubin interviewed are now dead.  Frank Buckles, the last surviving veteran of World War I, died in 2011.  He was 110 years old.

*     *     *     *     *

After publishing Last of the Doughboys, Rubin travelled to France to visit World War I battlefields and cemeteries.  He explored trenches, tunnels, and bunkers, and viewed hundreds of artifacts.

I read Rubin’s 2017 book about his experiences, Back Over There, before heading to France and Belgium this past July.  It was excellent preparation for my exploration of various World War I sites in the company of the small group of Americans I was traveling with.

*     *     *     *     *

One of the sites Rubin visited was the Douaumont Ossuary, the final resting place of more than half of the 230,000 French and German soldiers who died in the battle of Verdun, which began on February 21, 1916, and lasted until December 19 of that year.

The Douaumont Ossuary
An ossuary can be anything from a small box to a large building that contains human bones.  The Douaumont Ossuary is a large structure with a 150-foot-high tower that offers a panoramic view of the largest French World War I cemetery.  (About 16,000 French soldiers who died at Verdun are buried in that cemetery, including almost 600 Muslim soldiers from French colonies in northern Africa.  Their graves face Mecca.)

The interior of the Douaumont ossuary
The interior of the Douaumont Ossuary was designed to put visitors in a reverent and meditative frame of mind.  Stained-glass windows admit a subdued orange-red light.  The walls and vaulted ceilings are engraved with the names of unknown soldiers who died at Verdun.

*     *     *     *     *

If I had not read Rubin’s book, I would not have known to bend down and look into the small ground-level windows on the north-facing wall of the ossuary.

Those windows reveal thousands and thousands of bones belonging to unidentified French and German soldiers who lost their lives at Verdun:

My group visited a number of World War I cemeteries, memorials, and museums.  But nothing brought home the reality of that war like the view through those windows at the Douaumont Ossuary.

*     *     *     *     *

Every year, farmers or tourists or others discover the bones of soldiers killed at Verdun.

For example, in 2013, German tourists found a single human bone while exploring the site of the destroyed village of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. 

That village, which had a population of 422 before the Great War broke out, was captured and recaptured by the French and Germans sixteen times during the battle of Verdun.  

A postcard showing Fleury-devant-Douaumont
before the Great War
By the time that battle ended, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was not only uninhabited, it was uninhabitable due to the presence of unexploded artillery shells and poison-gas residues.  It is one of the six villages in the area that is officially designated as “a village that died for France.”  Each of those villages have a mayor but no residents.

Archaeologists who excavated the area where the tourists had discovered the bone discovered the remains of 26 French soldiers, all of whom were killed in action at Verdun.  Only a few of their bodies could be identified.  

Descendants of two of the soldiers whose bodies could be identified chose to repatriate their remains to  the towns where they were born.  The remainder were interred at Douaumont Cemetery

*     *     *     *     *

“Them Bones” is the opening track from Dirt, the second Alice in Chains album.  The day they went into the studio to start recording it was the first day of the riots that broke out in Los Angeles after a jury acquitted the LAPD officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King.  To get out of harm’s way, the band left the city and hung out in the desert until the riots ended. 

Dirt is a great album, but it’s not exactly feel-good music.   One article characterized Dirt’s songs as being “focused on depression, pain, anger, anti-social behavior, relationships, drug addiction (primarily heroin), war [and] death.”

That pretty much sums it up.

Click here to listen to “Them Bones.”

Click on the link below to order the song from Amazon.  

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Shelter – "Civilized Man" (1995)

There’s a war in the day
No peace at night
There’s blood on the hands of man

Ieper, Belgium, is referred to as Ypres in most English-language publications.  That’s the French spelling, while Ieper is the Dutch spelling.

Since the city is located in the Flemish half of Belgium – where Dutch is the predominant language – it would seem to make more sense to use the Ieper spelling.

But because the French spelling is more familiar to we English speakers, I will bow to convention and use Ypres.

*     *     *     *     *

There were four major World War I battles fought in the Ypres area.  Those battles resulted in roughly a million soldiers being killed or wounded.  (A previous 2 or 3 lines discussed the three-month-long Third Battle of Ypres – also known as the Battle of Passchendaele – which was by far the bloodiest of the Ypres clashes.)

Ypres was almost completely destroyed in World War I.  Here’s what the city’s most important building – the Cloth Hall, which was completed in 1304 – looked like just before the war broke out:

By the end of World War I, the Cloth Hall had been almost completely destroyed:

Between 1933 and 1967, the Cloth Hall was carefully reconstructed.  Here’s what it looks like today:

Today, the second floor of the Cloth Hall is the site of the In Flanders Fields Museum.

*     *     *     *     *

St. George’s Memorial Church was built in Ypres to commemorate the hundreds of thousands of British Commonwealth soldiers who died near there in World War I.  

As this photo shows, the church contains numerous memorial stained glass windows, banners, brass wall plaques, and kneelers (i.e., cushions on which members of a congregation kneel during prayers):

Here’s a photo of one of the church’s memorial plaques that commemorate the members of a particular regiment who fell at Ypres:

A number of those plaques commemorate the dead graduates of different British schools.  This one commemorates the 144 former students at the Barnard Castle School –“Old Barnardians” – who died in World War I.  (Barnard Castle School, which was founded as an boys-only school in 1883, is located in a small market town in northeastern England.)

Here are photos of some of the more than 150 St. George’s kneelers, most of which are embroidered with the insignia of some of the many different British Commonwealth military units that fought in the Ypres area in World War I:

Here’s the kneeler that honors the Suffolk Regiment, an infantry regiment with a history dating back to 1685 that suffered hundreds of casualties at the Second Battle of Ypres:

*     *     *     *     *

Almost 80 punk bands performed at the three-day Ypres Hardcore Fest last week.  

Shelter, which was the featured band on the festival’s first day, has been referred to as a “Krishnacore” group because of the Hare Krishna-inspired messages in its songs.

Today’s featured song asserts that wars will never end unless “civilized” man stops slaughtering animals for meat:

The meateater kills the cows 
They depersonalize to justify
Their own lust as the helpless die
It’s ironic how we cry for world peace
But the violence won’t decrease
Unless our murders cease

Click here to listen to “Civilized Man.”

Click the link below to order the song from Amazon:

Friday, August 17, 2018

Eric Bogle – "No Man's Land" (1980)

The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now

In the previous 2 or 3 lines, I talked about one of the World War I cemeteries in Belgium that I visited last month.

The Thiepval Memorial to 
the Missing of the Somme
My tour group and I also visited the the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme – a war memorial in northern France that commemorates the more than  72,000 British soldiers who died in the Somme River sector and who have no known grave.  

It is the largest British Commonwealth memorial to the missing in the world.

*     *     *     *     *

One British historian has estimated that only about half of the bodies of the British Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Battle of the Somme and in other Western Front battles were identified before they were buried.

The headstones for about a quarter of those soldiers identify them only as “unknown.”  

The bodies of the remaining men were never found.

A few of the 72,000-plus names carved
on the walls of the Thiepval Memorial
I don’t have similar statistics for the French and German soldiers who died in combat on the Western Front during World War I, but it’s probably safe to assume that the ratios of the identified dead, the unidentified dead, and the missing were roughly the same.  

If so, that means that for every four soldiers who were killed on the Western Front, there are two buried with their names on their headstones, one buried with an “unknown” headstone, and one whose body is still missing.

*     *     *     *     *

It’s not pleasant to think about how mutilated the bodies of the hundreds of thousands of unidentified World War I dead must have been.

It’s even more horrifying to contemplate what happened to all those soldiers who are classified as “missing.”  

British 8-inch howitzers
An estimated 70% of Western Front combat deaths were the result of artillery fire.  (Most of the remainder were caused by machine-gun and rifle fire, while a relatively small percentage were the result of poison gas or bayonets.)

Most of the “missing” who were killed by artillery fire simply ceased to exist as physical entities.  Or at least they ceased to exist in a form that could be interred in a cemetery.

*     *     *     *     *

The number of artillery shells that were fired in World War I is mind-boggling.

NPR has estimated that as many as 1.5 billion artillery shells may have been fired on the Western Front during the course of World War I.  Since about 30 million combatants saw action in that theater, that means that about 50 shells were fired per soldier – which is 50 too many, if you ask me.

Casings from artillery shells fired by British
artillery at the Battle of the Somme
Luckily for those soldiers, many of those shells were duds.  In fact, French and Belgian farmers are still uncovering thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance in their fields every year.

 *     *     *     *     *

In the next 2 or 3 lines, we’ll visit the Douaumont ossuary, a memorial to the quarter of a million French and German soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun in 1916 – most as the result of artillery fire.  (During the 300 days of that battle, the French and German armies fired an estimated 65 million artillery shells at one another.)

*     *     *     *     *

Singer-songwriter Eric Bogle wrote “No Man’s Land” (also known as “The Green Fields of France”) after what he called a “very sobering tour” of one of the British World War I military cemeteries in northern France.

The song is about a fallen soldier named William McBride – a young private who “joined the glorious fallen” in 1916.  According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, there were at least two British soldiers named William McBride who died in 1916.  One of them is one of the thousands of unidentified or missing men commemorated at Thiepval.

Click here to listen to Bogle’s 1980 recording of “No Man’s Land,” which has been covered by dozens of others.

Click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

God Dethroned – "No Man's Land" (2009)

Men slipped and slithered
Through bloody soil on the battleground

“Memorial Tablet,” a poem by the English poet Siegfried Sassoon – who was decorated for what has been described as “suicidal feats of bravery” in World War I – includes these lines:

I died in hell— 
(They called it Passchendaele).  
My wound was slight, 
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell 
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell 
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light. 

*     *     *     *     *

All of the major World War I battles were horrific affairs.

But the Battle of Passchendaele – also known as the Third Battle of Ypres – may have been the most horrific of them all.

That battle began on July 31, 1917.  Twice the average amount of rain fell that August, and the area around Passchendaele – which was already treeless and heavily cratered as the result of previous fighting – became a sea of mud.   

One Canadian soldier who fought at Passchendaele wrote in a letter home that the battle “was without doubt one of the Muddy-est, Bloody-est, of the whole war.”  

According to another Canadian, “The enemy and ourselves were in the selfsame muck, degradation and horror to such a point nobody cared any more about anything, only getting out of this, and the only way out was by death or wounding and we all of us welcomed either.”

*     *     *     *     *

The British Commonwealth forces advanced only about five miles during the three-months-long battle, at a cost of 70,000 dead and 200,000 wounded.  (German losses were roughly the same.)  

A party of stretcher bearers struggles
through the mud of Passchendaele
Six months later, the British command decided that a strategic retreat was in order, and gave up all the ground that had been gained in the battle.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George later wrote that “Passchendaele was indeed one of the great disasters of the war.  No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign.”

*     *     *     *     *

Many of the British Commonwealth troops who died at Passchendaele are buried at the nearby Tyne Cot cemetery, which I visited last month.

Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world:

Over two-thirds of the almost 12,000 soldiers buried there are identified only as “unknown”:

The names of 35,000 other soldiers whose remains were never recovered are inscribed on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.

The Cross of Sacrifice at Tyne Cot was placed on top of a German pillbox that survived the fighting:

This headstone, which is next to that pillbox, marks the final resting place of two unidentified German soldiers:

*     *     *     *     *

 The term “no man’s land” was first used to describe the area between the trenches dug by the opposing armies in Ernest Swinton’s short story, “The Point of View,” which was published in 1909 – five years before the outbreak of World War I:

As soon as the light faded altogether from the sky . . . the great white eyes of the searchlights shone forth, their wandering beams lighting up now this, now that, horror.  Here and there in that wilderness of dead bodies – the dreadful “No-Man's-Land” between the opposing lines – deserted guns showed up singly or in groups, glistening in the full glare of the beam . . . .

No Man’s Land” is the third track on Passiondale, a concept album inspired by the Battle of Passchendaele that was released in 2009 by the Dutch death metal band God Dethroned.

The next 2 or 3 lines will feature another World War I-inspired song titled “No Man’s Land.”

Click here to listen to “No Man’s Land” by God Dethroned.

Click the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, August 12, 2018

God Dethroned – "Fallen Empires" (2009)

The war is over
The cause is lost
Nine million dead

Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, Fabian Ware – a British businessman who was not allowed to serve in the British Army because of his age – went to France as a British Red Cross volunteer.

Sir Fabian Ware
At that time, there was no official agency responsible for recording the location of the graves of the British soldiers who had been killed in action.  Ware began to document British graves under the auspices of the Red Cross, and the organization he created to carry out that task eventually became the British government’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  

*     *     *     *     *

During the war, British soldiers used broken rifles, sticks, or handmade markers – some were quite elaborate – to note where their dead comrades were buried.

The grave of an unknown British soldier
who died near Thiepval, France in 1916
Other graves were marked with simple wooden crosses provided by the army.

After the war was over, many of the regulation wooden crosses and other temporary markers were burned or simply left behind.  But some found their way back to British churches, museums, or other sites.

This cross ended up in the chapel of Epsom College, a secondary school located in Surry:

Here’s a closeup of the stamped metal tag on that cross, which identifies the dead soldier whose grave it marked as Lt. T. F. Jeffery of the Royal Field Artillery – who was 19 years old when he died on April 16, 1918:

Today, volunteers working for the “Returned from the Front” organization are attempting to track down all these grave markers and create an online database with photographs and location information.

*     *     *     *     *

When I was in France and Belgium last month, I visited a number of World War I cemeteries and glimpsed dozens more through the windows of my tour bus.

Most of the markers in the cemeteries I saw were crosses.  That’s not surprising given that the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the World War I combatants were Christians.

Here’s an example of the white marble Latin crosses used in American World War I cemeteries in France and Belgium:  

Carved on each cross is the full name of the soldier buried there, his rank, his military unit, his home state, and the date of his death.  (It’s hard to tell, but the American soldier whose grave is marked with the cross in the above photo died on November 11, 1918 – the day the war ended.)

The inscription on the crosses of unidentified soldiers reads “HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.”

Here’s an example of the crosses found in French military cemeteries:

Here’s a photo of a German military cemetery in France:

(It may surprise you to know that there are German military cemeteries in France and Belgium.  The remains of many dead German soldiers were repatriated to Germany by their families, but about 900,000 are buried on enemy soil.)

*     *     *     *     *

Of course, not all of the World War I soldiers who were killed on the Western Front were Christians.

Here’s an example of the markers used in American cemeteries for the graves of Jewish soldiers:

And here’s a photo of several of the headstones used to mark the graves of Muslims soldiers from France’s North African colonies:

*     *     *     *     *

The British government’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission (“CWGC”) created almost a thousand World War I cemeteries in France and Belgium.  

All of them have common design elements that reflect a compromise between those who believed the cemeteries should have a strongly Christian character and those who favored a more secular design.

For example, the graves of of the British Commonwealth dead are not marked with crosses, but with rectangular headstones made from Portland stone (which is a type of limestone).  

The CWGC believed it was important that the headstones in its cemeteries be uniform in appearance, and turned down requests from family members to place more overtly religious headstones on the graves of their sons, fathers, brothers, or husbands.

The headstones of Christian soldiers are incised with crosses:

The headstones of non-Christians are incised with an appropriate symbol (e.g., a star of David):

Each CWGC cemetery features a large “Cross of Sacrifice” – an elongated stone cross with a bronze sword affixed to its front:

Each larger cemetery also features a “Stone of Remembrance” – a 12-foot-long stone that rests on three steps and is inscribed with the words “THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE.”  (That phrase was suggested by Rudyard Kipling, whose only son John died in the Battle of Loos in 1915.  John was only 18 years old.)

In contrast to the Cross of Sacrifice, the Stone of Remembrance was intended to commemorate those “of all faiths and [those of] none.”

*     *     *     *     *

John Wolffe, a religious historian, characterized the CWGC’s cemetery template in the following words in a 2015 article:

[T]he outcome was uniformity and a kind of consensus, but also an enduring ambiguity.  The incised crosses on the regular rectangular headstones expressed a lowest common denominator Christianity, that could be owned by the great majority of relatives in 1920, but clearly fell short of what was wanted by the more fully committed.  The message of common sacrifice was expressed primarily in nationalistic and military terms rather than Christian ones, but still with sufficient Christian associations to retain resonances of martyrdom.

Click here to read Wolffe’s article in its entirety.

*     *     *     *     *

Passiondale, which was released in 2009 by the Dutch death metal band God Dethroned, is a concept album that was inspired by the World War I Battle of Passchendaele (which is also known as the Third Battle of Ypres).

We’ll learn more about that battle and the cemetery where many of the British Commonwealth soldiers who died in it are buried in the next 2 or 3 lines.

Click here to listen to “Fallen Empires.”

Click the link below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, August 10, 2018

Johnny Hallyday – "Hey Joe" (1966)

Je pensais avoir une fille
Mais il paraît, Joe
Qu'elle dort maintenant entre tes draps

What is wrong with this photo of the elevator control panel in a European hotel?

Everybody knows there’s no such thing as a “0” (zero) floor in a building.  The first floor is the first floor – not the zero floor!  That should be as plain as the nose on your face.

But to get to the ground floor of this hotel, you had to press the zero button – not the “1” button.  (Push the “1” button and you ended up on the second floor.)

New York City has a Third Avenue and a Second Avenue and a First Avenue.  But the last time I checked, it didn’t have a Zero Avenue.  The same should apply to hotel floors.

Calling the first floor the “0” floor is bad enough.  What’s even worse is calling the basement level the “-1” (minus-one) floor.  

*     *     *     *     *

This is the kind of thing that makes a right-thinking American like me tend to eschew European travel.

About a decade ago, I spent a few days in Paris.  Other than that, I managed to avoid Europe for the first three score and six years of my life.  (I’ve been to the UK three times, but I’m not counting that.  The UK is a lot more like the United States than it is like France, Germany, or the other countries of continental Europe.)

That all changed last month when I spent two weeks in France and Belgium with a small group of other Americans.

My fellow pilgrims and I spent most of our time marveling at medieval cathedrals and visiting World War One battlefields and cemeteries.  Truth be told, we also spent a fair amount of time bending our elbows at the bars in our hotels.

*     *     *     *     *

I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore – or any of the other fifty states – as soon as my airplane landed in Europe.  

For one thing, H2O is never free at restaurants – you have to buy a big-ass bottle of water if you want to wet your whistle with something other than beer or wine.  

European flush buttons
For another, the toilets always have dual flush controls.  You push one for number one, and push the other one for number two.  (I was never sure which was which, so I usually pushed both of them simultaneously.)  

Manual-transmission cars have pretty much disappeared in the good old U.S. of A., but automatic transmissions are the exception in Europe.  If you rent a car, expect it to come with a manual transmission – you’ll have to pay extra if you’re like my children and don’t have a clue how to use a clutch.

Also, you have to get used to kilometers and liters and other such metric units of measurements.  This is particularly important when you are ordering beer.  Draft beer is served in either 25-centiliter or 50-centiliter glasses – which are roughly equal to a half-pint and a pint, respectively.  Bottled beer usually comes in 33-centiliter bottles or cans, which are a bit smaller than standard 12-ounce American containers.  

*     *     *    *     *

I had one experience on my European trip that still mystifies me.

My tour group spent two nights at a fancy resort hotel in Chantilly, France – a rather posh town just 25 miles northeast of Paris.

Chantilly is the site of the Château de Chantilly, a sort of mini-Versailles built by a lesser branch of the French royal family (the House of Bourbon).  It is also the home of a prestigious thoroughbred turf racecourse, the Chantilly Polo Club, and the Living Museum of the Horse.  (That museum is housed in the château’s luxurious Great Stables, which have room for up to 240 horses.  The Great Stables were built in 1719 by Louis Henri, duke of Bourbon and prince of Condé, who believed that he would be reincarnated as a horse).

Horse-sized lamp in the
lobby of our Chantilly hotel
Our hotel was within spitting distance of the château and all that fancy horsey stuff, and came equipped with its own golf course.

What it did not come equipped with were any drawers or shelves where I could unpack my clothes.

In the United States, even the humblest Red Roof Inn or Motel 6 provides drawers or shelves where its customers can store their clothes during their stay.  My hotel room in Chantilly had five hangers in a closet, but no chest of drawers or other place to put my clothes.  I thought that I must be overlooking something, and called the front desk for assistance.

When a hotel employee finally answered, he claimed to not be able to hear me.  I tried calling back on the other telephone in my room and was told the same thing when I asked where the drawers or shelves were.

So I walked down to the lobby and put my question to a group of desk clerks.  Their expressions showed their utter lack of comprehension of what I was driving at, so I asked to speak to a manager, who assured me that my room was perfect just the way it was.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to the manager.  “Where am I to put my socks?  If you were me, and you wanted to take your socks out of your suitcase and put them somewhere, where would you put them?”

Fine for coats, but useless for socks
The manager had no answer to what seemed to me to be a most reasonable question.  Apparently, the custom at this hotel was for guests to place their socks on the floor, or perhaps on the desk.

Shortly after I returned to my room, there was a knock on the door.  When I opened it, one of the housekeeping staff handed me some wooden hangers, then turned and left without a word.  

Did this mean I was expected to put my socks on hangers?  Zut alors!

*     *     *     *     *

This is the first in a series of posts about my trip to France and Belgium, several of which will feature a song by a French or Belgian recording artist.

The late Johnny Halladay was the biggest of all French pop stars.  He released an astonishing 79 albums and sold well over 100 million records during his 57-year career.

Hallyday covered a number of American and British hits – including “Let’s Twist Again,” “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “Proud Mary,” and even “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini.”

Some called Hallyday “the French Elvis,” and it’s not a bad comparison.  Both were hugely popular, and both were hugely ridiculous.

Johnny Hallyday (1968)
The lyrics in Hallyday’s cover of “Hey Joe” are very different from the lyrics in the Jimi Hendrix version of the song.  For one thing, the singer didn’t shoot his old lady down.   

Here’s an approximate translation of the French lyrics quoted above:

I thought I had a girl who would be good to me, Joe 
But she’s sleeping between your sheets now

Click here to hear Johnny Hallyday’s cover of “Hey Joe.”

And click on the link below to buy the song from Amazon: