A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate). It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.
My main presentation at the AAG in Chicago was part of a session organised by Noam Leshem and Alasdair Pinkerton on Remnants of No Man’s Land: history, theory and excess (more on their larger project here). Here is an extended summary of what I had to say, together with some of my slides, but bear in mind that this all had to be done in 20 minutes so there wasn’t much room for nuance. Neither was there time to discuss civilian entanglements, both volunteers and victims, nor the sick: the presentation focuses on the wounded, even though the problems of trench foot, ‘trench flu’, and a host of other diseases were also extremely important. They do all receive attention in the larger project from which this is extracted. One last, geographical qualification: my discussion is limited to the evacuation of British and imperial troops from the Western Front.
My starting-point was the strange disappearance of the wounded from the field of battle. As John Keegan wrote in The Face of Battle, in most histories the ‘wounded apparently dematerialize as soon as they are struck down’; he was writing specifically about General Sir William Napier’s account of the battle of Albuera in 1811, but the point is a sharp one that can be enlisted as part of a more general critique of military history.
In the case of the First World War, the emphasis on those who lost their lives – on the dead not the wounded – derives not only from the sheer scale of the slaughter but also from the enduring landscape of memorialisation and commemoration. When John McCrae‘s elegaic poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ is recited every Remembrance Day – ‘In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row’ – it is all too easy to forget that he wrote those lines not only to commemorate the death of a close friend but that he did so at Essex Farm Advanced Dressing Station:
What lies behind those haunting lines – and that medical outpost – is a vast canvas of wounded men, which Christopher Nevinson captured as ‘The Harvest of Battle’ (below). The dead occupy the foreground, but behind them is the endless, moving panorama of the wounded whose precarious journeys took most of them far beyond ‘No Man’s Land’.
In fact, as Emily Mayhew reminds us, ‘being wounded was one of the most common experiences of the Great War’: on the Western Front, she writes, ‘almost every other British soldier could expect to become a casualty’.
But, perhaps not surprisingly, for the first six months of the war the British Expeditionary Force was unprepared for the scale of casualties, and even with the help of civilian volunteers and aid societies – Nevinson briefly served as a medical orderly with the Friends Ambulance Unit, for example – the remarkably long time it took to evacuate the wounded combined with the perilous nature of their improvised journeys to increase the mortality rate.
And so what Mark Harrison called the military-medical machine had to be speeded up – and moved closer to the field of battle.
Before every major offensive elaborate plans for medical support were prepared: casualties were ‘cleared’ down the line as far and as fast as possible to make room for the newly injured, casualty clearing hospitals moved closer to the line, ambulances and stretcher-bearers made ready, and ‘down’ trenches designated for the efficient removal of the wounded (below).
Soldiers wounded in ‘No Man’s Land’ – a term never recognised by the British General Staff, who insisted that they controlled the field of battle right up to the enemy front lines – were often immobilised and disoriented; some crawled into shell holes, seeking refuge below the field of fire, but it could take hours, even days before they were discovered and rescued (I’ll devote a later post to a detailed discussion of some of those cases).
Sometimes their mates came to their rescue, sometimes the regimental stretcher bearers. But they too had to find their way through a dangerous and devastated terrain, often with no landmarks to guide them and on occasion made virtually impassable by the thick, cloying mud that was always – disconcertingly – much more than mud.
By now, they were in the care of the Royal Army Medical Corps’s Field Ambulance, and their first objective was an Advanced Dressing Station.
Those that needed anything beyond simple treatment or emergency surgery were sent on by horse or motor ambulance to a Casualty Clearing Station (a field hospital).
It was usually here that their first surgeries took place. The journalist Philip Gibb was shown around a CCS at Corbie and the experience haunted him for years:
After a visit there I had to wipe cold sweat from my forehead, and found myself trembling in a queer way. It was the medical officer—a colonel—who called it that name. “This is our Butcher’s Shop,” he said, cheerily. “Come and have a look at my cases. They’re the worst possible; stomach wounds, compound fractures, and all that. We lop off limbs here all day long, and all night. You’ve no idea!”
I had no idea, but I did not wish to see its reality. The M.O. could not understand my reluctance to see his show. He put it down to my desire to save his time—and explained that he was going the rounds and would take it as a favor if I would walk with him. I yielded weakly, and cursed myself for not taking to flight. Yet, I argued, what men are brave enough to suffer I ought to have the courage to see… I saw and sickened. These were the victims of “Victory” and the red fruit of war’s harvest-fields. A new batch of “cases” had just arrived. More were being brought in on stretchers. They were laid down in rows on the floor-boards. The colonel bent down to some of them and drew their blankets back, and now and then felt a man’s pulse. Most of them were unconscious, breathing with the hard snuffle of dying men. Their skin was already darkening to the death-tint, which is not white. They were all plastered with a gray clay and this mud on their faces was, in some cases, mixed with thick clots of blood, making a hard incrustation from scalp to chin. “That fellow won’t last long,” said the M. O., rising from a stretcher. “Hardly a heart-beat left in him. Sure to die on the operating-table if he gets as far as that… Step back against the wall a minute, will you?” We flattened ourselves against the passage wall while ambulance-men brought in a line of stretchers. No sound came from most of those bundles under the blankets, but from one came a long, agonizing wail, the cry of an animal in torture. “Come through the wards,” said the colonel. “They’re pretty bright, though we could do with more space and light.” In one long, narrow room there were about thirty beds, and in each bed lay a young British soldier, or part of a young British soldier. There was not much left of one of them. Both his legs had been amputated to the thigh, and both his arms to the shoulder-blades. “Remarkable man, that,” said the colonel. “Simply refuses to die. His vitality is so tremendous that it is putting up a terrific fight against mortality… There’s another case of the same kind; one leg gone and the other going, and one arm. Deliberate refusal to give in. ‘You’re not going to kill me, doctor,’ he said. ‘I’m going to stick it through.’ What spirit, eh?”…
“Bound to come off,” said the doctor as we passed to another bed. “Gas gangrene. That’s the thing that does us down.” In bed after bed I saw men of ours, very young men, who had been lopped of limbs a few hours ago or a few minutes, some of them unconscious, some of them strangely and terribly conscious, with a look in their eyes as though staring at the death which sat near to them, and edged nearer. “Yes,” said the M. O., “they look bad, some of ’em, but youth is on their side. I dare say seventy-five per cent. will get through. If it wasn’t for gas gangrene—“
He jerked his head to a boy sitting up in bed, smiling at the nurse who felt his pulse. “Looks fairly fit after the knife, doesn’t he? But we shall have to cut higher up. The gas again. I’m afraid he’ll be dead before to-morrow. Come into the operating-theater. It’s very well equipped.”
By now the bureaucratic machine had been activated: labels had been attached to the wounded and field medical cards (‘tickets’) completed; telegrams had been sent to advise families, and nurses had often written letters home on their patients’ behalf.
The next stage for the most seriously wounded was evacuation by ambulance train to a base hospital on the French coast. There was a considerable bureaucracy involved in planning these movements, but for all the neatness and symmetry of the organisational diagrams – part of Clausewitz‘s ‘paper war’ – there were all sorts of delays.
Priority was given to trains rushing reinforcements, supplies and ammunition to the front, and ambulance trains were frequently marooned in sidings waiting for them to pass so that journeys that might have taken hours could take days. It was not uncommon for an ambulance train to arrive at a base hospital to find that there was little or no room for new patients and all but the most grievous cases had to travel on to the next.
Many patients were treated at the base hospitals, but those with more serious wounds were evacuated by hospital ship to Britain. This stage of the journey was no less dangerous than the previous one: as the war continued, there was an increasing danger of mines and submarines in the Channel.
A distinctive geography of the wounded emerged. If they arrived at Southampton, the most critical cases were taken by train straight to the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, which treated as many as 50,000 patients during the war. According to Lyn McDonald,
‘Those who could not be accommodated, and those who were seriously wounded but likely to survive a longer journey, were sent on by train to Birmingham, Bristol, Exeter, Leicester, Norwich and Plymouth. But seven out of every ten hospital trains were directed to London, and during the first days of the Somme they rolled in almost every hour to Charing Cross and Paddington stations.’
This is, of course, a highly abbreviated account of the casualty evacuation chain, and in the larger project from which this is derived I provide many more details. But I think I’ve said enough to show that the chain was, in effect, a production line with an elaborate division of labour (again, in the larger study I show how class – or more accurately, rank – gender and race segmented the chain in various ways). Indeed, in The Politics of Wounds Ana Carden-Coyne argues that what she calls ‘the Taylorist approach in modern war’ – and remember that this was industrial war on the grand (guignol) scale – ‘was particularly evident in the assembly-line style of evacuation and triage.’
This prompts two concluding observations.
First, what was the instrumental logic that animated the evacuation chain? After all, it was an expensive undertaking, as Arthur Empey (himself wounded on the Western Front) realised in this re-calculation of the chain:
It may sound heartless and inhuman, but it is a fact, nevertheless, that from a military stand-point it is better for a man to be killed than wounded.
If a man is killed he is buried, and the responsibility of the government ceases, excepting for the fact that his people receive a pension. But if a man is wounded it takes three men from the firing line, the wounded man and two men to carry him to the rear to the advanced first-aid post. Here he is attended by a doctor, perhaps assisted by two R.A.M.C. men. Then he is put into a motor ambulance, manned by a crew of two or three. At the field hospital, where he generally goes under an anaesthetic, either to have his wounds cleaned or to be operated on, he requires the services of about three to five persons. From this point another ambulance ride impresses more men in his service, and then at the ambulance train, another corps of doctors, R.A.M.C. men, Red Cross nurses, and the train’s crew. From the train he enters the base hospital or Casualty Clearing Station, where a good-sized corps of doctors, nurses, etc., are kept busy. Another ambulance journey is next in order — this time to the hospital ship. He crosses the Channel, arrives in Blighty — more ambulances and perhaps a ride for five hours on an English Red Cross train with its crew of Red Cross workers, and at last he reaches the hospital. Generally he stays from two to six months, or longer, in this hospital. From here he is sent to a convalescent home for six weeks.
If by wounds he is unfitted for further service, he is discharged, given a pension, or committed to a Soldiers’ Home for the rest of his life, — and still the expense piles up. When you realize that all the ambulances, trains, and ships, not to mention the man-power, used in transporting a wounded man, could be used for supplies, ammunition, and reinforcements for the troops at the front, it will not appear strange that from a strictly military standpoint, a dead man is sometimes better than a live one (if wounded).
Hence, for example, the orders recorded by A.M. Burrage:
The instructions given to stretcher-bearers are rather harsh. “ If you find two men wounded, and can take only one away, take away the one more likely to make a fit soldier again.” Therefore the one more urgently in need of attention must be left to die, because he would walk with a limp and would never again be able to carry a pack. Sound business, of course, but just a little hard.
Kate Luard captured another dimension of this when she wrote in January 1915:
‘The ambulance trains do so much bringing the British Army from the field that I hope some other trains are busy bringing the British Army to the field, or there can’t be many left in the field…’
And Emily Mayhew provides this bleak vignette from a medical orderly that captures the seemingly insatiable drive of industrial war:
An ordinary train, similar to the one that had brought him to the front, was at one end unloading reinforcements, while at the other end it was filling up with wounded men.
The logic, then, was one of ‘salvage’; four out of every five men wounded on the Western Front were returned to the fighting, which was the over-riding objective of the military-medical machine.
Second, the division of labour was also a division of life: the dead from the wounded, the dying from the ‘salvageable’, and the wounded from the unwounded or yet-to-be-wounded. The last was not the least. For breaching that separation could have the most unsettling consequences of all:
What started me on this journey was Emily Mayhew‘s brilliantly conceived Wounded and an excellent series of articles by Martin Bricknell in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps: see in particular here.
You can also find more on the casualty evacuation chain from the Western Front at Beyond the Trenches here and here, the Long, Long Trail here, the Medical Front here, and the Royal Army Medical Corps site here.
My larger project examines the evacuation of casualties, combatant and civilian, from four combat zones 1914-2014: the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.
In ‘The Natures of War’ I include a brief discussion of the ways in which chemical gas attacks on the Western Front militarised the atmosphere:
Gas warfare turned the very air the soldier breathed into a potential enemy and, to Peter Sloterdijk, inaugurated a ‘new “ecologized” war’, a battle ‘conducted in the atmospheric environment [that] was about conquering the respiratory “potentials” of hostile parties’. Here the French and the Germans led the way. The French were the first to use toxic gas shells on a large scale but these discharged tear gas which in most cases was not lethal, and when the Germans used similar shells against the British in October 1914 at Neuve Chapelle they too proved largely ineffective. These were ‘Lilliputian efforts’, according to Peter Bull, and experiments by both sides with other systems were aimed at a greater harvest.
They yielded their first (poisoned) fruit on 22 April when the Germans launched the first lethal gas attack at Ypres. Unlike those earlier attempts this did not involve artillery – which is how the High Command persuaded themselves they were not violating the 1899 Hague agreement that prohibited the ‘use of projectiles the sole use of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or noxious gases’ – and instead released chlorine gas from specially adapted industrial storage containers hidden in the German trenches and then relied on the wind to disperse the gas cloud. On that first, fateful evening more than 5,000 cylinders discharged 150 tons of chlorine gas. It billowed into a yellow-green cloud nearly six kilometres wide and 600-900 meters deep, which was then carried on a north-easterly wind towards two French divisions at 2-3 meters a second. The gas attacked the bronchial tubes and victims suffocated by drowning in their own fluids. German infantry advanced behind the gas cloud which had breached the French lines, and while they did not press home their advantage all sides concluded that gas was the way ‘to break the “riddle of the trenches”’ by flushing troops from cover and ending ‘the stalemate that had confounded all.’ But the reliance on wind as a dispersal vector was risky, not least because the prevailing wind on the Front was from the west – the initial attack had been postponed time and time again until conditions were favourable – and on 25 September the British launched their own gas cloud attack at Loos. This too went awry as a result of changing wind direction, and soon both sides had reverted to artillery delivery systems. They also developed deadlier agents (all derived from chlorine), and from 1916 gas of more than 60 types was in every engagement by artillery on all sides for both offensive and defensive purposes.
These gases affected more than the surface environment because they were all heavier than air. Chlorine and the far more deadly phosgene seeped into craters and shell holes, ‘corrupting the very areas of relative safety where men took refuge’. Mustard gas lingered even longer. It was designed to disable not kill – a blistering agent, it burned the skin and caused (usually temporary) blindness [see John Singer Sargent‘s famous Gassed, below] – and repeated intermittent exposure deadened the sense of smell so a man could no longer detect it. Since mustard gas remained dormant for days, it ‘consigned the soldier to a state of permanent unease’ in which ‘every puddle [became] an imagined trap’; in the winter of 1917-1918 there were reports of soldiers tracking frozen mud contaminated with mustard gas into their dugouts where it melted and gassed their companions. Here too, the psychological effects of this militarised nature were as significant as their physiological ones. Gas turned out not to be the decisive weapon of the war; it accounted for around 1 per cent of British deaths but caused disproportionately more casualties. One of its main purposes, Tim Cook concludes, became disruption: spreading surprise, uncertainty, and fear on the battlefield. By 1918 gas made up 20-40 per cent of all shells within the artillery dumps on both sides and ‘all soldiers on the Western Front lived in an environment where gas was a daily fact of life…’
The bibliographic references are in the draft text under the DOWNLOADS tab, but I rehearse all this because Sarah Everts has a richly illustrated and informative new essay on ‘When chemicals became weapons of war’ here – it’s an excellent survey.
I have – at last – uploaded what I hope is the final version of ‘The Natures of War’ (DOWNLOADS tab). It’s the long-form version of the first Neil Smith Lecture I gave at St Andrew’s (Neil’s alma mater) almost exactly a year ago (you can access the online video here). The basic argument remains the same, but the written version is substantively different (and much longer). If you do have any comments or suggestions, or you spot any egregious errors, please let me know. Here’s the introduction:
In his too short life, Neil Smith had much to say about both nature and war: from his seminal discussion of ‘the production of nature’ in his first book, Uneven development, to his dissections of war in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in American Empire – where he identified the end of the First World World and the end of the Second as crucial punctuations in the modern genealogy of globalisation – and its coda, The endgame of globalization, a critique of America’s wars conducted in the shadows of 9/11. And yet, surprisingly, he never linked the two. He was of course aware of their connections. He always insisted that the capitalist production of nature, like that of space, was never – could not be – a purely domestic matter, and he emphasised that the modern projects of colonialism and imperialism depended upon often spectacular displays of military violence. But he did not explore those relations in any systematic or substantive fashion.
He was not alone. The great Marxist critic Raymond Williams once famously identified ‘nature’ as ‘perhaps the most complex word in the [English] language.’ Since he wrote, countless commentators have elaborated on its complexities, but few of them have paused to note that ‘war’ was not one of Williams’s keywords (though ‘violence’ – ‘often now a difficult word’ – was). Williams was radicalised by the rise of European fascism; he joined the British Army in 1941 and served as a tank commander during the Second World War. Yet at its end he found the world had turned, and it was for that very reason that he sought to find the terms for a post-war world in which, seemingly, ‘war’ had no place.
‘In 1945, after the ending of the wars with Germany and Japan, I was released from the Army to return to Cambridge. University term had already begun, and many relationships and groups had been formed. It was in any case strange to travel from an artillery regiment on the Kiel Canal to a Cambridge college. I had been away only four and a half years, but in the movements of war had lost touch with all my university friends. Then, after many strange days, I met a man I had worked with in the first year of the war, when the formations of the 1930s, though under pressure, were still active. He too had just come out of the Army. We talked eagerly, but not about the past. We were too much preoccupied with this new and strange world around us. Then we both said, in effect simultaneously: ‘the fact is, they just don’t speak the same language’.’
I want to track backwards and forwards from Williams’s war-time experience to trace three different co-productions of nature and military violence: the soiled earth of the Western Front during the First World War, the deserts of North Africa during the Second World War (an armoured campaign very different from the European theatre in which Williams served), and the rainforests of Vietnam. My accounts can only be sketches, but they share a way of thinking of ‘nature’ (in all its complexity) as a modality that is intrinsic to the execution of military and paramilitary violence. In much the same way that ‘space’ is not only a terrain over which wars are waged – the fixation on territory that remains at the heart of modern geopolitics – but also a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted, so ‘nature’ is more than a resource bank whose riches can trigger armed conflict and finance its depredations: the problematic of resource wars and conflict commodities. The spoils of war include the short-term bludgeoning of landscapes and the long-term toxicity of contamination (what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’), but it is also important to trace the bio-physical formations – the conditions, provided the term is understood in the most active of senses – that are centrally involved in the militarisation of ‘nature’. For nature too is a medium through which military and paramilitary violence is conducted.
I speak of ‘co-productions’ and ‘formations’ in order to signal in advance three issues that will reappear across all three studies. First, each of these wars was in large measure what Paul Saint-Amour calls, in relation to the first of them, an optical war: they depended on geo-spatial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance which in its various forms provided the essential basis for the maps, plans and orders that activated the war machine. And yet the remote orderings of military violence were never autonomous projections onto a pure plane; they also depended on the bodies of soldiers whose apprehension of the battle space was always more than visual. In part, this was a matter of affect, but it was also a matter of knowledge – of a corpography rather than a cartography – whose materialities also inflected imaginative geographies of militarised nature. Second, those diverse stocks of knowledge about the battle space were invested in the co-production of a ‘trickster nature’. It was commonplace to describe the Western Front as a surreally empty landscape in which the capacity for military violence was hidden from view once men withdrew into the troglodyte world of the trenches. But I have in mind a more pervasive sense of uncertainty instilled by a militarised nature: one where the earth and air could kill through an infected wound, a buried mine or a cloud of gas, and whose camouflaged landscapes could wreak havoc with the military gaze to dissemble and distract, lure and entrap. Third, this was a hideously hybrid ‘cyborg nature’ whose terrain and life-forms were saturated with the debris of violent conflict: burned-out vehicles and bombed-out buildings, barbed wire and exploded munitions, discarded weapons and abandoned supplies, toxic residues and body parts. So far so familiar, except that none of these entanglements was inert; they shaped the military operations that took place through them. In all three ways each of these battle spaces was composed of ‘vibrant matter’ that was often also deadly matter.
This version is so long I’ve cut all the illustrations, but I have uploaded the original lecture slides too (DOWNLOADS tab); I’ve already posted early versions of some of the sections – and those were illustrated – here and here.
I’ve agreed to join a panel organised by Noam Leshem on Remnants of No Man’s Land: history, theory and excess at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Chicago next April (I imagine this is a follow-up to the session at the RGS/IBG in September).
The no-man’s lands of the First World War were never limited to the killing fields between the trenches. Their impact was never fully confined by the time and space of the battles: it lingered on the bodies of soldiers, in contaminated ecologies and in the radically altered post-war intellectual landscape. The violence that is unleashed in the no-man’s land and the destruction it wrought does not result in emptiness, in a terra nullius, but in excess that can never be fully contained.
This session invites additional reflections on the excessive quality of no-man’s land: its materialities, ecologies, cultural expressions and political-ideological articulations. It aims to deepen the theoretical import and conceptual power of ‘no-man’s land’, and move beyond its use as merely a convenient colloquialism. Similarly, we seek to engagements with other histories of no-man’s lands that are not solely confined to the Western Front during WWI.
Despite that last sentence, this is what I’ve come up with; these abstracts are always promissory notes, of course, written so far in advance that they can provide little real indication of what eventually transpires. Fortunately we are now no longer lumbered with the Yellow Pages-style book of abstracts so I doubt anybody will actually read this on the day. But here goes:
Journeys From No Man’s Land, 1914-1918
During the First World War on the Western Front a central logistical preoccupation of military planners was the deployment of troops to the front line and the evacuation of casualties from the battlefield. These priorities were closely connected – the aim was to provide medical treatment as close to the site of the wound as possible so that troops could be returned expeditiously to the line – but they also often confounded one another as hospital trains headed for the coast were shunted into sidings to allow troop trains to move up. In this presentation I address three questions. First, what it was possible to know about the ‘lie of the land’, particularly in the deadly spaces between the front-line trenches? Here I focus on the connections between aerial reconnaissance, night patrols and trench maps. A second question concerns the arrangements made in advance of major offensives – the disposition of stretcher bearers and aid posts, field ambulances and casualty clearing stations – and the ways in which these visible geometries of the medical-military machine affected the sensibilities of soldiers waiting to go ‘over the top’. Finally, how did the wounded apprehend and navigate No Man’s Land, and how did they make what Emily Mayhew calls their precarious journeys away from the fighting?
There’ll be more posts on this as I circle in towards the presentation. It’s part of my new research project which explores military-medical machines and the casualties of war 1914-2014, but which is now widening to include other aspects of medical care in contemporary conflict zones like Gaza and Iraq/Syria and the militarisation of medical intervention in West Africa.
The BBC reports that Siegfried Sassoon‘s diaries from the First World War have been digitised by Cambridge University Library and are now available online (more illustrated reports here and here). The journals and two notebooks of poetry include not only Sassoon’s jottings but also sketches like the interior of a military hospital (above).
Unlike edited printed transcriptions, the digitisations allow the viewer to form a thorough sense of the nature of the physical documents. Sassoon wrote in a small but neat and legible hand, frequently using the notebooks from both ends. His war journals were used for a wide variety of purposes: in addition to making diary entries Sassoon drafted poetry, made pencil or ink sketches, listed of members of his battalion and their fates, made notes on military briefings and diagrams of trenches, listed locations and dates of times spent at or near the Front, noted quotations, and transcribed letters. The wartime notebooks were small enough to have been carried by Sassoon in the pocket of his Army tunic, and many had enclosures such as letters tucked into the outer cover or inner pouches; some bear tangible evidence of use in the trenches, from the mud on notebook MS Add.9852/1/7 to the candlewax spilled on MS Add.9852/1/9, presumably as Sassoon sat writing in his dug-out by candlelight.
The journals give a fascinating insight into daily life in the trenches. Sassoon records for example the first day of the Somme (‘a sunlit picture of Hell’; MS Add.9852/1/7, folios 10r-12v) and the moment when he was shot by a sniper at the Battle of Arras (MS Add.9852/1/10, folios 6v-9r), along with manuscript drafts and fair copies of his ‘Soldier’s Declaration’ (MS Add.9852/1/10, folio 45v-46r; MS Add.9852/1/11, folio 21-23). His drawings from France range from studies of towns and churches (MS Add.9852/1/5, folio 36v; MS Add.9852/1/9, folio 8v) to a psychological profile of ‘the soul of an officer’ (MS Add.9852/1/7, folio 3r). The poems include previously unpublished material along with early drafts of some of his best known works, including an early version of ‘The Dug-Out’ with an additional, excised verse: MS Add.9852/6/2, folio 76r).
I read Sassoon’s (fictionalised) Memoirs of an infantry officer several times, for ‘Gabriel’s Map’ and ‘The natures of war’, and again more recently for my new project on the casualties of war, and didn’t find it a patch on, say, Edmund Blunden‘s Undertones of war. But I’m looking forward to working my way through the notebooks because it’s already clear to me that there’s an immediacy and rawness to the writing that Memoirs often, understandably, seemed to lack:
‘July 1st 1916… Since 6.30 there has been hell let loose. The air vibrates with the incessant din. The whole earth shakes and rocks and throbs. It is one continuous roar. Machine guns tap and rattle, bullets whistling over head – small fry quite outdone by the gangs of hooligan-shells that dash over to [illegible] the German lines with their demolition parties…. One can’t look out as the m[achine] g[un] bullets are skimming. Inferno – inferno – bang – smash!!’
I’ve been scribbling some notes for a short essay Léopold Lambert has invited me to write for his Funambulist Papers. The brief is to write ‘something about the body – nothing too complicated’, so I’ve decided to say something more about the idea of corpography I sketched in ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (DOWNLOADS tab), which will in turn – so I hope – prepare the ground for the long-form version of ‘The nature(s) of war’ for a special issue of Antipode devoted to the work of Neil Smith [next on my to-do list].
In ‘Gabriel’s Map’ (and in a preliminary sketch here) I contrasted the cartographic imaginary within which so much of the First World War was planned with a corpography improvised by soldiers caught up in the maelstrom of military violence on the ground; unlike the ‘optical war’ that relied, above all, on aerial reconnaissance, projected onto the geometric order of the map and the mechanical cadence of the military timetable – a remarkably abstract space, though its production was of course profoundly embodied – this was a way of apprehending the battle space through the body as an acutely physical field in which the senses of sound, smell and touch were increasingly privileged in the construction of a profoundly haptic or somatic geography.
This is hardly original; you can find intimations of all this in classics like Eric Leed‘s No Man’s Land, and once you start digging in to the accounts left by soldiers you find supporting evidence on page after page. What I’ve tried to do is show that this constituted more than a different way of experiencing war: it was also a different way of knowing and ordering (or, as Allan Pred would surely have said, of re-cognising) the space of military violence. These knowledges were situated and embodied – ‘local’, even – but they were also transmissable and mobile.
On the Western front, corpographies were at once an instinctive, jarring, visceral response to military violence –
‘When sound is translated into a blow on the nape of the neck, and light into a flash so bright that it actually scorches the skin, when feeling is lost in one disintegrating jar of every nerve and fibre … the mind, at such moments, is like a compass when the needle has been jolted from its pivot’ [‘A Corporal’, Field Ambulance Sketches (1919)]
– and an improvisational, learned accommodation to it:
‘We know by the singing of a shell when it is going to drop near us, when it is politic to duck and when one may treat the sound with contempt. We are becoming soldiers. We know the calibres of the shells which are sent over in search of us. The brute that explodes with a crash like that of much crockery being broken, and afterwards makes a “cheering” noise like the distant echoes of a football match, is a five-point-nine.The very sudden brute that you don’t hear until it has passed you, and rushes with the hiss of escaping steam, is a whizz-bang… The funny little chap who goes tonk-phew-bong is a little high-velocity shell which doesn’t do much harm… The thing which, without warning, suddenly utters a hissing sneeze behind us is one of our own trench-mortars. The dull bump which follows, and comes from the middle distance out in front, tells us that the ammunition is “dud.” The German shell which arrives with the sound of a woman with a hare-lip trying to whistle, and makes very little sound when it bursts, almost certainly contains gas.
‘We know when to ignore machine-gun and rifle bullets and when to take an interest in them. A steady phew-phew-phew means that they are not dangerously near. When on the other hand we get a sensation of whips being slashed in our ears we know that it is time to seek the embrace of Mother Earth’ [A.M. Burrage, War is war]
This was not so much a re-setting of the compass, as the anonymous stretcher-bearer had it, as the formation of a different bodily instrument altogether. As Burrage’s last sentence shows, corpographies were at once re-cognitions of a butchered landscape – one that seemed to deny all sense – and reaffirmations of an intimate, intensely sensible bond with the earth:
‘To no man does the earth mean so much as to the soldier. When he presses himself down upon her, long and powerfully, when he buries his face and his limbs deep in her from the fear of death by shell-fire, then she is his only friend, his brother, his mother; he stifles his terror and his cries in her silence and her security…. ’ [Erich Remarque, All quiet on the Western Front]
And corpographies were not only a means through which militarised subjects accommodated themselves to the warscape – providing a repertoire of survival of sorts – but also a way of resisting at least some its impositions and affirming, in the midst of what so many of them insisted was ‘murder not war’, what Santanu Das calls a ‘tactile tenderness’ between men. This, he argues,
‘must be seen as a celebration of life, of young men huddled against long winter nights, rotting corpses, and falling shells. Physical contact was a transmission of the wonderful assurance of being alive, and more sex-specific eroticism, though concomitant, was subsidiary. In a world of visual squalor, little gestures – closing a dead comrade’s eyes, wiping his brow, or holding him in one’s arms – were felt as acts of supreme beauty that made life worth living.’
A hundred years later, I have no doubt that much the same is true in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and so my interest in corpography is also part of my refusal to acquiesce to the thoroughly disingenuous de-corporealization of today’s ‘virtuous war’.
In fleshing out these ideas I’ve been indebted to a stream of work on the body in human geography. Most of it has been remarkably silent about war, even though Kirsten Simonsen once wrote about ‘the body as battlefield‘, but it’s now difficult for me to read her elegant essay ‘In quest of a new humanism: Embodiment, experience and phenomenology as critical geography’ [Progress in human geography 37 (1) (2013): open access here] – especially Part III where she discusses ‘Thinking the body’ and ‘Orientation and disorientation’ – without peopling it with bodies in khaki, blue or field grey tramping towards the front-line trenches, clambering over the top, or crawling from shell-hole to shell-hole in No Man’s Land.
That is partly down to the suggestiveness of Kirsten’s prose, but it’s also the result of my debt to the work of Santanu Das [Touch and intimacy in First World War literature], Ken MacLeish [especially Chapter 2 of his Making War at Fort Hood; the dissertation version is here] and Kevin McSorley [whose introduction to War and the body is here] which directly addresses military violence. I wish I’d been able to attend the Sensing War conference that Kevin co-organised in London last month; I had to turn down the invitation because I was marooned on my mountaintop in Umbria, but the original Call For Papers captured some of the ways in which the materialities and corporealities of war in the early twentieth century continue to inhabit later modern war:
War is a crucible of sensory experience and its lived affects radically transform ways of being in the world. It is prosecuted, lived and reproduced through a panoply of sensory apprehensions, practices and ‘sensate regimes of war’ (Butler 2012) – from the tightly choreographed rhythms of patrol to the hallucinatory suspicions of night vision; from the ominous mosquito buzz of drones to the invasive scrape of force-feeding tubes; from the remediation of visceral helmetcam footage to the anxious tremors of the IED detector; from the desperate urgencies of triage to the precarious intimacies of care; from the playful grasp of children’s war-toys to the feel of cold sweat on a veteran’s skin.
Thus far, like most of the writers I’ve drawn from here, I’ve been thinking about corpographies in relation to the soldier’s body, but as the (in)distinctions between combatant and civilian multiply I’ve started to think about the knowledges that sustain civilians caught up in military and paramilitary violence too. Some of them are undoubtedly cartographic – formal and informal maps of shelters (the images below are for Edinburgh during the Second World War), camps, checkpoints and roadblocks – and some of them rely on visual markers of territory: barriers and wires, posters and graffiti. Today much of this information is shared by social media (as the battle space has become both digital and physical).
But much of this knowledge is also, as it has always been, corpographic. Pete Adey once wrote – beautifully – about what he called ‘the private life of an air raid’, drawing on the files of Mass Observation during the Second World War to sketch a geography of ‘stillness’ even as the urban landscape was being violently ‘un-made’. ‘Stillness in this sense,’ he explained,
‘denotes apprehending and anticipating spaces and events in ways that sees the body enveloped within the movement of the environment around it; bobbing along intensities that course their way through it; positioned towards pasts and futures that make themselves felt, and becoming capable of intense forms of experience and thought.’
This was a corpo-reality, and one in which – as he emphasised – sound played a vital role: ‘Waves of sound disrupted fragile tempers as they passed through the waiting bodies in the physical language of tensed muscles and gritted teeth.’ But, as he also concedes, this was also a ‘not-so private’ life – there was also a social life under the bombs – and we need to think about how these experiences were shared by and with other bodies. These apprehensions of military violence, then as now, were not only modalities of being but also modes of knowing: as Elizabeth Dauphinée suggests, in a different but closely related context, ‘pain is not an invisible interior geography’ but rather ‘a mode of knowing (in) the world – of knowing and making known’ [‘The politics of the body in pain’, Security dialogue 38 (2) (2007) 139-55]. During an air raid these knowledges could be shared by talking with others – the common currency of comfort and despair, advice and rumour – but they also arose from making cognitive sense of physical sensations: the hissing and roaring of the bombs, the suction and compression from the blast, the stench of ruptured gas mains or sewage pipes.
Steven Connor once suggested that air raids involve a ‘grotesquely widened bifurcation of visuality and hearing’, in which the optical-visual production of a target contrasts with ‘the absolute deprivation of sight for the victims of the air raid on the ground, compelled as they are to rely on hearing to give them information about the incoming bombs.’ Those crouching beneath the bombs have ‘to learn new skills of orientating themselves in this deadly auditory field without clear coordinates or dimensions but in which the tiniest variation in pitch and timbre can mean obliteration.’ What then can you know – and how can you know – when your world contracts to a room, a cellar, the space under the bed? When you can’t go near a window in case it shatters and your body is sliced by the splinters? When all you have to go on, all you can trust, are your ears parsing the noise or your fingers scrabbling at the rubble?
‘At just 3 months old, my son Omar cries, swaddled in his crib. It’s dark. The electricity and water are out. My wife frantically tries to comfort him, shield him and assure him as tears stream down her face. This night Omar’s lullaby is Israel’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, with F-16s forming the ground-pounding percussion, Hellfire missiles leading the winds and drones representing the string section. All around us crashing bombs from Israeli gunships and ground-based mortars complete the symphony, their sound as distinct as the infamous Wagner tubas…. Above, the ever-present thwup-thwup of hovering Apache helicopters rock Omar’s cradle through vibration. Warning sirens pierce the night—another incoming missile from an Israeli warship.’
In our house we have become military experts, specializing in the sounds of Israeli and Palestinian weapons. We can distinguish with ease the sound of Apaches, F-16 missiles, drones, and the Fajr rockets used by Hamas. When Israeli ships shell the coast, it’s a distinct and repetitive thud, marked by a one-second delay between the launch and the impact. The F-16s swoop in like they are tearing open the sky, lock onto their target and with devastating precision destroy entire apartment blocks. Drones: in Gaza, they are called zananas, meaning a bee’s buzz. They are the incessant, irritating creatures. They are not always the harbingers of destruction; instead they remain omnipresent, like patrolling prison guards. Fajr rockets are absolutely terrifying because they sound like incoming rockets. You hear them rarely in Gaza City and thus we often confuse them for low-flying F-16s. It all creates a terrifying soundscape, and at night we lie in our beds hoping that the bombs do not drop on our houses, that glass does not shatter onto our children’s beds. Sometimes, we move from room to room in an attempt to feel some sense of safety. The reality is that there is no escape, neither inside the house nor from the confines of Gaza.
The last haunting sentences are a stark reminder that knowledge, cartographic or corpographic, is no guarantee of safety. But military and paramilitary violence is always more than a mark on a map or a trace on a screen, and the ability to re-cognise its more-than-optical dimensions can be a vital means of navigating the wastelands of war. As in the past, so today rescue from the rubble often involves a heightened sense of sound and smell, and survival is often immeasurably enhanced by the reassuring touch of another’s body. And these fleshy affordances – which you can find in accounts of air raids from Guernica to Gaza – are also a powerful locus for critique.
So: corpographies. I thought I’d made the word up, but as I completed ‘Gabriel’s Map’ I discovered that Joseph Pugliese uses ‘geocorpographies’ to designate ‘the violent enmeshment of the flesh and blood of the body within the geopolitics of war and empire’ in his State violence and the execution of law (New York: Routledge, 2013; p. 86). This complements my own study, though I’ve used the term to confront the optical privileges of cartography through an appeal to the corporeal (and to the corpses of those who were killed in the names of war and empire).
And I’ve since discovered that the term has a longer history and multiple meanings that intersect, in various ways, with what I’m trying to work out. Perhaps not surprisingly, it also serves as a medical term: cranio-corpography is a procedure devised by Claus-Frenzen Claussen in 1968 to capture in a visual trace the longitudinal and lateral movements of a patient’s body in order to detect and calibrate disorders of the ‘equilibrium function’. More recently, corpography has also been used by dance theorists and practitioners, including Francesca Cataldi and Sebastian Prantl, to describe a critical, creative practice: a ‘dance of things’ in which the body is thoroughly immersed as a’ land.body.scape’, as Prantl puts it. Meanwhile, Allan Parsons has proposed a ‘psycho-corpography’ – explicitly not a psycho-geography – as a way of ‘tracing the experience of living-a-body’. Elsewhere, Alex Chase attends to specific bodies-in-the-world, those of cultural ‘figures’ (Artaud, Bataille, Foucault, Genet, Jarman and Mishima among them), that resist normalization – hence emphatically ‘queer’ bodies – and which figure bodies as events. ‘I hope to develop a methodology of “corpography”,’ he says, ‘which would write between biography and textual analysis, material lived bodies and fictional work, life and representation, in order to work through other queer concepts such as temporality, space, and ethics.’
It would of course be absurd to summon all of these different usages onto a single conceptual terrain. But they do take me back to Kirsten’s essay (and to long-ago memories of an enthralling seminar in Roskilde which she introduced through her dance teacher), to ways of apprehending the danse macabre on the Western Front as both a cartography and a corpography whose junction was to be found, perhaps, in a choreography, and to think about the ways in which the sentient bodies of soldiers were at once habituated to and resisted the forceful normalizations of military violence. They also make me wonder about civilian corpographies – about the multiple ways in which violence is inflicted on the body and yet may be resisted through the body – and in doing so they direct my steps from the past to the present and to the fragile bodies that continue to lie at the heart of today’s conflicts. If that is to speak with Walter Benjamin, I want to insist that the ‘tiny, fragile human body’ does not only lie ‘in a field of force of destructive torrents and explosions’, as he wrote in 1936: for the body is a vector as well as a victim of military and paramilitary violence. And it can also be a means of undoing its effects.
I suspect that these ideas will eventually thread their way into my new project on the evacuation of combatant and civilian casualties (and the sick) from war zones, 1914-2014, where it’s already clear to me that cartography and corpography are tightly locked together. All of this is highly provisional, as you’ll realise, and as always I would welcome comments and suggestions.