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    Corners of a foreign field

    Today I’m talking about the ordinary soldiers, the kids who signed up for the king’s shilling out of patriotism, were fooled by unscrupulous recruiters, or because they had so few options. And they were kids–for the most part under twenty. Here’s a typical story of how a Waterloo veteran came to join the army a few years after his father was deported to Australia for sheep-stealing, when he found himself the head of the family at age fifteen.

    One in four soldiers died that June day in 1815. Waterloo was an unusual battle because it was the bloodiest so far in British history; it was also unusual in that all survivors, of whatever rank, were awarded a medal.

    There were no war memorials with the names of the fallen, however humble, erected in villages or town squares, although this memorial, composed of the battlefield dirt itself, was raised at the site in Belgium. Locals claim it’s haunted and full of bones, and they may be right. Ordinary soldiers didn’t count; as far as war reports went, they were anonymous, only numbers. Their corpses were raided by war profiteers for teeth–for years after, false teeth were known as “Wellington teeth.”

    It’s heartbreaking to think of the families waiting and as time passed, realizing that their son, brother, or father had been killed. They might not even be lucky enough to receive a letter, such as this one from Private Charles Stanley to a friend in Nottinghamshire, describing the everyday life of a soldier. Almost certainly, they’d never know the circumstances of their loved one’s death.

    We have one gud thing Cheap that is Tobaco and Everrything a-Cordnley Tobaco is 4d Per 1b Gin is 1s 8d Per Galland that is 2 1/2 Per Quart and Everrything In Perposion hour alounse Per Day is One Pound of Beef a Pound and half of Bred half a Pint o Gin But the worst of all we dont get it Regeler and If we dont get it the Day it is due we Luse it wish It is ofton the Case…I hope you never will think Of Being a Soldier I Asure you it is a Verry Ruf Consarn…



    You can read more of his letter at militaryheritage.com. Private Stanley was one of the many who didn’t come home.

    Here’s an excerpt from the brilliant movie History Boys, where a poem about a young soldier who dies far from home, Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy, is discussed.

    And here’s the poem:

    They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
    Uncoffined–just as found:
    His landmark is a kopje-crest
    That breaks the veldt around;
    And foreign constellations west
    Each night above his mound.

    Young Hodge the Drummer never knew–
    Fresh from his Wessex home–
    The meaning of the broad Karoo,
    The Bush, the dusty loam,
    And why uprose to nightly view
    Strange stars amid the gloam.

    Yet portion of that unknown plain
    Will Hodge forever be;
    His homely Northern breast and brain
    Grow to some Southern tree,
    And strange-eyed constellation reign
    His stars eternally.

  • Reading

    Near misses with the classics

    Last week I blogged about favorite books when I was a kid including at least one writer loathed by teachers. That got me thinking about books forced upon me at school that nearlyput me off the authors for life. And in fact I recently re-read one of them, Cranford, and loved it (thanks, Pam Rosenthal, for suggesting it). I was wondering what other books, or authors, others encountered at the wrong time and place, school or elsewhere, and how you’ve come to terms–or not–with them.

    Cranford by Mrs. Gaskell was chosen by educators for its length, I think. It’s a very short novel, mainly a series of vignettes about life among the spinsters of a small provincial English town in the 1840s. I can’t really find any other reason to inflict it on a bunch of teenage girls who were fantasizing about marrying John, Paul, George, or Ringo. We were totally clueless about what the novel was even about or when it was set. I had the vague impression it was set in America, as there was a reference early on to “the railroad” and not railway–apparently an early Victorian term. I think we’d have responded much better to Wives and Daughters (yes, I’m always going on about Wives and Daughters), which is so romantic (but long), and with a decidely modern outlook on mother-daughter relationships. And then there’s always the hero and his famous knobstick in North and South (which I tried to re-read recently but found heavy going).

    Continuing the catalogue of literary disasters, we were also inflicted with Silas Marner by George Eliot. Guess what: it’s short. It’s a very difficult book. It’s particularly tedious if you’re trying to guess the inseam measurement of Mick and the boys. Now I think we would have loved the teenage angst of Mill on the Floss (not my favorite), or Dorothea and her toyboy Ladislaw in Middlemarch. Or even the uberhot Daniel Deronda (though he is fairly boring) and naughty Gwendolyn Harleth.


    Sadly, Thomas Hardy was represented by Under the Greenwood Tree. I still have no idea what it was about. I remember a lot of smock-clad yokels pontificating away about life, the universe, and everything, and a scene the teacher (bless her heart) described as being extremely risque, when the heroine appears at an open window with her hair down (the hopeless tart). It’s so sad. To think we could have had the rampant romanticism of Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Far from the Madding Crowd (both made into terrific movies).

    Tell us about your near misses!

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