Battle Stations

July 1, 1863 and July 1, 1926: On this day two of the most famous battles in military history began — the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), and the Battle of the Somme (1916). Among those killed on the first day of action at the Somme was Alan Seeger (uncle of Pete Seeger), a twenty-eight-year-old poet who had gone to live in Left Bank Paris and then joined the French Foreign Legion in order to fight in the war. From Seeger’s “Rendezvous with Death”:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air —
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

Seeger’s poems, published in 1917, were reviewed by T. S. Eliot, a former classmate of his at Harvard. 1917 was the year of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and Eliot thought Seeger’s poetry “so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality”: “It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping.” Seeger’s diary and letters, also published posthumously, seem to bear evidence: “We go up to the attack tomorrow…. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave. I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems. I am glad to be going in the first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.”

The excerpt below is from Attack — An Infantry Subaltern’s Impressions of July 1, 1916, written by Edward G. D. Liveing (and dedicated to the fellow soldier who died on this day in 1916 while trying to save Living’s life):

I had an excessive desire for the time to come when I could go “over the top”, when I should be free at last from the noise of the bombardment, free from the prison of my trench, free to walk across that patch of No Man’s Land and opposing trenches till I got to my objective, or, if I did not go that far, to have my fate decided for better or for worse. I experienced, too, moments of intense fear during close bombardment. I felt that if I was blown up it would be the end of all things so far as I was concerned. The idea of after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence of such frightful destructive force. . . . At one time, not very long before the moment of attack, I felt to its intensest depth the truth of the proverb, “Carpe diem”. What was time? I had another twenty minutes in which to live in comparative safety. What was the difference between twenty minutes and twenty years? Really and truly what was the difference? I was living at present, and that was enough. I am afraid that this working of mind will appear unintelligible. I cannot explain it further….