My latest read for the WWI challenge is Letters from the Front: J. Gresham Machen’s Correspondence from World War 1. I chose this book because the author of the letters was an American involved in the war work of the YMCA, though the introduction to the collection focuses more on the fact that Machen later became a well-known theologian. I had read a little about the YMCA’s role in World War One, but mostly about women canteen workers, and it’s been a while since I’ve looked at American perspectives. This collection gave me a different view.
As usual, I was hoping for quotidian minutiae, and I was rewarded. At times Machen’s personal experiences feel so personal that they are almost out of time, for instance in the early letters, as he searches for native speakers in Paris to help him with his French. For a few moments here and there, at least at the very beginning of the collection, you can forget the actual reason he’s in France because you’re submerged in the difficulties of daily living. For example, he talks about the various bureaucratic hurdles to be overcome just to travel in France at the time, difficulties that I think are often forgotten in generalized books on the war. But then, bam! There’s the war! Which must have been a bit what it was really like, to be in Paris at that time. Here’s a particularly dramatic example.
I was just returning from the theatre on Wednesday evening. When I got out of the métro I noticed a good deal of confusion on the avenue, but paid little attention to the matter till a little later, when I discovered that the confusion was due to the running of fire apparatus through the principal streets with their sirens that act as a danger signal. For an hour or so I stayed out in the streets and “rubbered.” There were the moving lights of French airplanes here and there, also little flashes which I suppose indicated aerial battles with German airplanes. One brilliantly lighted plane passed directly over our heads, and very near. This was about all that we saw. As to what we heard, that might have seemed to untrained ears to be anything. I thought it probably came for the most part from anti-aircraft guns. Finally there were two explosions louder than the others, after which most of the people near me, including myself, went indoors.
…After a time I went to bed, before the signal was given announcing the conclusion of the raid. Somehow, I did not feel enormously excited most of the time. But really I had no idea of the seriousness of it. When I heard after wards that nearly fifty people had been killed and many others wounded I was quite astonished. The whole thing, though it lasted with intervals perhaps nearly two hours, passed off so very quietly. The next day I observed the damage here and there in the city.
As soon as Machen leaves Paris for his assignment, however, the ravages of war become visible all around him. At one point he is taken to within two miles of the German lines, and the first village he mentions is at most seven miles from the Front. He describes visiting abandoned trenches and, over and over again, mentions houses that have no roofs. Mixed in with all that are, again, more quotidian details, such as trying to work out who is responsible for what duties with his French YMCA colleague.
Reading collections of letters, I’ve learned, is a bit like putting together a puzzle. It helps a lot if you have a picture for reference, in this case a general knowledge of the YMCA’s wartime activities, and of the American involvement in the later stages of World War One. However, if you don’t have the background information, in this case the editor of the collection provided quite a number of footnotes that can help out. And once Machen is closer to the front, I think most readers would find his letters interesting.