Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Figuring the Absent Corpse: Strategies of Representation in World War I

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Figuring the Absent Corpse: Strategies of Representation in World War I

Article excerpt

The extremely restricted space within which trench warfare was fought in the Great War, combined with British policy against return of the dead, simultaneously ensured that soldiers would live with the corpses of their friends and that civilians would never see the fatalities of war. Combatants buried their dead and then encountered them again ("Shells disinter the bodies, then reinter them" |qtd. in Vansittart 95~), but the civilian bereaved were left with nothing to bury. Soldiers inhabited a world of corpses; British civilians experienced the death of their soldiers as pure corpselessness.

In England, then, World War I included two markedly different categories of experience, a discrepancy which complicated the gap that always separates language from experience. While verbal descriptions of war can never wholly convey the physical experience of war, the discontinuous categories of soldier and civilian--of death as corpses and death as corpselessness--meant that civilians were in a position to speak about war and to speak about death without ever seeing the war dead. The experience may have been inaccessible, but the language never was. Civilians were therefore able to maintain a consistent vocabulary for talking about war throughout its duration: never having to confront its grisly details, they were never forced to modify their notions of "honor" or "heroism." And while clearly not responsible for the war's geography or the government's decision against shipping home the bodies of soldiers (there was a public outcry, in fact, against that policy), civilians did display a pronounced preference for verbal formulations of death emphasizing glory rather than gore--that exploited, in other words, the protection they enjoyed.

British modernist writers were, almost without exception, not soldiers. I would like to suggest, however, that they distinguished themselves from many civilians by their concern to recognize the gap between language and experience--a gap which during the Great War signified the profound difference between being conversant in maps and casualty lists, on the one hand, and living in trenches with corpses, on the other. Like soldiers, modernist writers were infuriated by the way in which civilian conversations, newspapers and propaganda exploited the physical distance separating them from the front as an opportunity to fudge the relationship between the words describing war and the actual experience of war. Both writers and combatants rebelled against inherited notions about language which seem naive to us now but which would, as Paul Fussell explains, have been taken for granted in the "static world" of August 1914.

|This was a world~ where the values appeared stable and where the meanings of abstractions seemed permanent and reliable. Everyone knew what Glory was, what Honor meant. It was not until eleven years after the war that Hemingway could declare in A Farewell to Arms that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." In the summer of 1914 no one would have understood what on earth he was talking about. (21)

Of course, Fussell is speaking here about civilians. It did not take soldiers eleven years to apprehend the inadequacy of such abstractions.

In 1916, the British government decided that soldiers would be buried where they died; families would not have the right to demand the return of combatants' bodies for burial. Civilians did demand, however information about where their sons and brothers and fiances were buried. In its "War Graves" issue commemorating the tenth anniversary of the armistice, The Times of London described how the introduction of conscription in 1916 changed the expectations of military families: "British soldiers were men whose parents and wives had not accepted as one of the conditions of a professional soldier's career, the possibility of an unknown grave in a foreign country; |now~ their relatives poignantly and insistently demanded, and it was the desire of a sympathetic Adjutant-General in the Field to supply them with, the fullest information as to the location of the graves of those who fell" ("Imperial" vi). …

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