Sunday, 26 February 2012

In The Presence Of Mine Enemies: Face-To-Face Killing In Twentieth Century Warfare

Joanna Bourke - Birkbeck College, UK

7 July 1916. On this day, Arthur Hubbard painfully set pen to paper in an attempt to explain to his mother why he was no longer in France. He had been taken from the battlefields and deposited in the East Suffolk and Ipswich Hospital suffering from "shell shock". In his words, his breakdown was related to witnessing "a terrible sight that I shall never forget as long as I live". He told his mother that
we had strict orders not to take prisoners, no matter if wounded my first job was when I had finished cutting some of their wire away, to empty my magazine on 3 Germans that came out of one of their deep dugouts. bleeding badly, and put them out of misery. They cried for mercy, but I had my orders, they had no feeling whatever for us poor chaps.... it makes my head jump to think about it.
In this halting, graphic account, there was little to differentiate Arthur Hubbard's letters to his family from those written by hundreds of other privates around the time of the Battle of the Somme. His active military career had lasted just three months, between May and July 1916. In his early letters, he was cheery and reassuring: "I am with the best of fellows", he chirped, and "we shall all return back safely together and before this year is through". However, as he moved closer to the front, and to battle, the tone of his letters began changing. Rain, mud, lice, rats, and "very tedious work" frustrated him. A friend he had been with since the beginning of the war (Isaacs) started to look like "an old man.... it is a pity he gets so nervous." Arthur began speaking of life at the front as "a proper hell... one cannot imagine unless one was here to witness things" and a new and bitter edge crept into his letters as he imagined his family
"sitting around the table about 8.30 enjoying a good breakfast and me miles away in this miserable place which is being and has been blown to hell by the Huns."
He was not the only man trembling under the strain: a few days before the Battle, he described going to the aid of a man who had shot himself in the foot in order to avoid the anticipated slaughter. He admitted to feeling "miserable" but confessed to his sisters that
"I don't feel inclined to tell you a pack of lies, if the truth was told a bit more often, I don't suppose the war would be on now, when you land over here, they have got you tight and treat you as they think."
Two days later, Hubbard went over the top. While he managed to fight as far as the fourth line of trenches, by 3.30 that afternoon practically his whole battalion had been wiped out by German artillery. He was buried, dug himself out, and during the subsequent retreat was almost killed by machine gun fire. Within this landscape of horror, he started screaming and was taken away.
Read the complete paper here
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