Tyranny – a poem
‘Life without liberty is like a life without spirit’ -Kahlil Gibran
My work walks through the world of despots.
Books, plays and songs have a different weaponry.
They can uplift us all, even in darkness.
The Prophet is a last century best seller,
taking off after Gibran’s death at forty-eight.
Now it’s seen as another religious sect!
Be wary of heavily drilled marching people.
The higher the stomp, the lower the tyrant.
Armoury is fear in the life and death bills.
Playing Moliere has a play within a play,
called The Imaginary Invalid in WW 2.
Which would you prefer as an invalid?
On the bleak stage of a funeral monument.
Life goes on the arrival of tyranny.
History’s tyrants fill libraries around earth.
Kind figures are stored out the back.
Ghosts dance to music they compose.
They are the key to the core of our soul.
Persecuted artists light soft candles.
Each knows beauty can rise in the ugly.
To shine and burn through days of doubt.
The Rats of Somme – a reflection
World War 1 is history’s standout war for rats, partly due to being the only mass war built around trenches that grew once the armies failed to run over each other, almost like one copied the other in length and depth. These were deep holes, above an average soldier’s height, so weapons were developed to use on the edges to lessen heads being blown off, notably by machine guns from over the heads in enemy trenches.
Individual soldiers were not only valued for their ability to shoot and survive, but dig and survive.
An ancestor in my family was credited with being a great digger (the word had a different meaning then, and contributed to what it later became), reflecting his farming background so that by his twenties his muscles were drum tight, even if he thought gym was a male first name, a factor in why some of my family considered him dim-witted due to what he did in the war, while I concluded the opposite.
The greater the trenches, the greater the rats, and a fact in how my ancestor became famous, or notorious at the time, as I would quickly discover in my research.
Think of the rats around you – and I don’t mean humans! Multiply them by hundreds for an idea of what soldiers on the Somme dealt with. They might charge over the ground to be shot down by machine guns and bombs, or stay in the trenches to fight the army of rats as my great-great uncle believed, and did.
Perhaps a few soldiers on both sides charged to their deaths to escape the rats?
Whilst trenches had been used before, and would be again, none would match the First World War for the sheer volume of trenches and rats.
Scientific breakthroughs often come with war. In this the mosquito planes of WW 1 were replaced by the larger planes of WW 2, able to drop bombs more abstractly on the citizens of countries, such as the bombing of London and the fire bombing of Dresden in 1945, written up by one of the few survivors, Kurt Vonnegut, after migrating to America where he wrote his most successful novel that was based on this, Slaughterhouse Five, written through the experience of Billy Pilgrim, to be one of the great anti-war books and also a film.
Mostly, though, for the general population the world wars changed public transport. WW 1 was built around a train. WW 2 was built around a plane that sped up to take over from trains and ships.
Initially, then, my ancestor was a digger, to become a rat expert on how to best control what he called the Rat Army in the trenches, rarely asked by authorities to fight the Germans, given the influence rats had on the military mind, what would now be called a rat psychosis, in its own comedy as one of the reasons for my colonial ancestor volunteering to support the British Army was to get away from farm rats that were bad enough in 1913 on the family farm that he witnessed waves of them more than rabbits.
This was in two of his early letters.
Like many soldiers he suffered battle fatigue along with the horror of his every day battle to control the rats. In his role as the rat watcher, and controller, he measured rats per hole in a day x 100 yards (no metres then) x miles (no kilometres then) of estimated trench life x 2 for the total of the rats of the Somme on both sides. He rightfully concluded no other soldier would spend all trench time on such a large slightly abstract project that he wrote up in his letters every fortnight and were largely uncensored due to his topic, unlike most war letters.
Writing on rats, his graphics grew the longer he stayed in the trenches, to become the most prolific letter writer of the Somme, along with surviving until what was caused by the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
These letters almost reached two years in their own life-span, trench to trench, in his battle with the rats while other soldiers usually lasted a few months before they were shot or blown up by long military guns, including all those that survived in various forms in hospitals for the wounded.
The lack of censoring was a rat logic that got to the English censors, deciding to call this colonial humour. Examples in his letters grew.
1/ Never trust a rat.
2/ Avoid sleep as rats await you.
3/ The rats of war are worse than the rats of peace (this still went through censors so they might have stopped reading his letters due to his military position as a rats expert, along with the sheer volume of his letters).
4/ Rats eat each other, even with movement (I think this was his idea of comedy).
Methods of rat control were usage of poison, showing his rural background, and setting rats on each other through blood attacks (mentioned in one letter) rather than conventional knives and bullets. Too much costing, he added, also showing a heritage of a poor farm.
Graphics replaced language in the harshness of his first winter on the Somme. He had never been an artist before, but pens in the ice on hands were easier to use in drawing pictures than trying to write language. Put your hands in the freezer for half an hour and you’ll know what I mean to then try loading a rifle or machine gun.
My grandmother, born in the depression, never read the shoe boxes of letters from the Somme, handing these on to her youngest son – my father – when she passed away in her eighties. I read them; about to do a history doctorate at the university my parents went to in the sixties, meeting each other in the chemical laboratory. All Dad said when he showed me these in the garage on my return from flats in the inner city was, these may interest you.
They did, changing my study from the ANZAC’s of WW 1 to colonial soldiers on the Somme, especially when I found the graphics and cartoons of rats.
Along with the rats of the Somme they were dead for more than a century of silence when I decided to resurrect them in a study of their part in trench warfare from the analysis of rats and war.
My supervisor supported me, saying, this has never been done before.
How do you know? I asked.
He nodded. Military politics, medicine, madness, those shot in the back of the head when they refused to leave the trenches to go to their deaths – yes, I studied that one – but never rats. He chuckled. You already know more about rats than I do. Those letters will be the foundation of your thesis.
He was right. The more research I did – library, the Internet – the more I used the letters. My great-great uncle counted rats; I counted his letters, almost half a century, language 18,611 words, graphics 34 and cartoons 21.
His cartoons grew the more he lasted in the trenches, almost like he needed them, teaching me comedy helps bear horror in all forms of history or experience.
I got on even more with my supervisor as he enjoyed telling a postgrad committee how the editor of the student newspaper – me – was from a family that included a soldier of the Somme in World War 1, who became an expert on rats, along with their surprising influence on the war, a factor few historians have mentioned, even in the oddest film that was taken in the trenches at the time.
I never told him I was editor of the newspaper for two years due to nobody else wanting to be, publishing a few of my ancestor’s letters, knowing rats are disliked so therefore more people read the newspaper, both on-line and in-hand.
Mostly I used his visual work. Uni students are not always great readers outside set texts in their subjects and even in English some read critical texts, not the work they are meant to read at the time.
By making my great-great uncle well known, especially through his cartoons, I became well known, as much an editorial writer as a historian.
One headline was, lessen your trenches and lessen your rats, accompanying this with the figures of those killed in WW 2, more than double the previous war.
An adjunct of my thesis was the Spanish Flu and the hypothesis rats in the trenches helped breed the terrible virus that killed more than both World Wars put together and how some of the survivors of the First World War returned to their countries bearing the virus, and help it spread to other people around the world.
The Spanish Flu was a total pandemic war with victims between 50 million and 100 million before it vanished as if wearied in a world population of one and a half billion.
Another adjunct of my thesis paper was comparing these figures with the Black Plague of Europe that began not long after 1340, the year Chaucer is reputed to have been born, growing up as the pandemic took at least half the entire population of England as he later decided to write The Canterbury Tales in his pilgrimage from London to St Thomas Beckett’s graveyard, Canterbury Cathedral, that included the tragedy of the disease and the comedy that he believed went with it as he got older, lasting until 1400 which, then, was a very old age in a lifespan.
My suggestion was he survived the pandemic and the after effects by writing The Canterbury Tales.
I linked this with my great-great uncle on the Somme and how his writing and artwork helped him survive longer than the average time other soldiers lasted in the trenches, how this included the launching of the Battle of the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916) to resolve the trench deadlock, only to be the bloodiest that began after a week of long artillery bombardment of German lines.
Nearly 20,000 Allied soldiers died on the first day the soldiers were ordered out of the trenches. And that was after the bombardment! The Allies (British Empire and French Third Republic) leader, General Haig, was nicknamed the Butcher by the soldiers, or what my great-great uncle called Lord Rat, even if the battle did not end the war, merely changing the trenches and territory, and where the Rat Army would go until the actual end of the war, as much from exhaustion as a strategic resolution, including the Battle of the Somme being one of the smallest in area and the largest in deaths.
The Somme was a river in France. More than 3 million soldiers were in the battle with more than 1 million killed or wounded to be one of the deadliest in history.
I finished my work by describing my great-great uncle’s death in the fresh trenches, almost as if he wasn’t up to the new Rat Army that began to grow around him. Even his graphics looked tired in his last letter, written at the start of the following year, as winter grew colder.
It may have been a disease as much as a bullet.
He was buried in France.
My thesis title, The Rats of Somme, played off The Rats of Tobruk, which you may have heard of as a film in the Second World War in a largely desert landscape of North Africa. What surprised me was the University Press publishing my doctorate as a selected history publication in the year following its completion, both as an e-book and a traditional one in bookshops. Publishers can be comedians in themselves. The editor of my one enjoyed telling me one buyer wished for a refund on the grounds it was about rats in the trenches, not larrikin soldiers.
I never minded, knowing to write a doctoral history paper that didn’t disappear in the back rooms of a library, let alone be commercially published, was unusual and an achievement in itself, along with my supervisor becoming head of the history department and hiring me as an academic on the grounds if I could make rats in a war interesting I had to be a teacher who attracted students and made history interesting!
Thanks. my great-great uncle and the rats of Somme. I’ll try not to let you down.
Gary Langford is a painter/writer who is the author of 42 books, half of which use his paintings wherever the publisher is in the world. When his best stage play, ‘Playing Moliere’, comes out in Dublin this year he will give his proceeds to a charity fund of artists to help Ukraine. Philosophically he feels Joy should be the cousin of us all.