Under bombardment

The Israeli army keeps mercilessly shelling and bombing Gaza City and the entire Gaza Strip. What does it mean to live under it all the time? Look at the above picture of a Palestinian woman and her child who have taken refuge in a UN school. Do we really know what bombardment means?

[15th May 2021] It’s been a nine-day combined Bayram and Spring Break. By sheer coincidence, over the last few days I have been preparing my post-vacation World War I lectures in two first-year courses (SPS 102 and HUM 102). Whenever I have to teach about WWI, it is de rigeur for me to sit and re-read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.

I don’t know how many times I’ve done this. I may not be alone. Around 30-40 million copies of this short yet stunning novel exposing the horrors of war are estimated to have been sold since it was first published on 31st January 1929 (after having been serialised in 1928 in the German newspaper Vossische Zeitung). It was also made into a great movie. But its first showing in Berlin, on 5th December 1930, was violently disrupted by 150 Nazi paramilitaries (SAs, Brown Shirts) directly led by Joseph Goebbels. Judenfilm, they yelled. Then virtually as soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, it also became the subject of the Nazis’ new medieval witch-hunt rituals of book-burnings. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) all the militaristic hatred and all the Social Darwinistic rubbish about how war is supposedly the supreme test of a nation’s manhood, to this day it remains part and parcel of world culture. Among other things, it is an enduring part of the curriculum in American and British secondary education.

But this time there was something different. Yesterday and this morning it left me sadder than usual. As I went through all the familiar passages about the young Paul, Tjaden, Kropp, Haie, and of course their mentor the older, much more experienced Kat (the Polish-German Stanislaus Katczinsky) under artillery fire, I kept thinking to myself: This is how even highly trained, combat-hardened soldiers, inured as they were to killing and being killed, felt about constant bombardment back in 1914-1918. What terrified them. Numbed them. Made them go hysterical. What after a point they couldn’t take.

So what about today’s Palestinian civilians; how can we expect them to endure and to suffer through all this? Do the past and present readers of Erich Maria Remarque give any thought to, for example, what something similar to the following passages [the headings in square brackets are my own addition] might mean for the 2 million living in Gaza, including 600,000 just in Gaza City, all trapped in a very small space, and now made to go through the kind of hell that was too much for Paul Baumer?

*          *          *

[1. Flares and night bombardment]An uncertain red glow spreads along the skyline from one end to the other. It is in perpetual movement, punctuated with the bursts of flame from the nozzles of the batteries. Balls of light rise up high above it, silver and red spheres which explode and rain down in showers of red, white, and green stars. French rockets go up, which unfold a silk parachute to the air and drift slowly down. They light up everything as bright as day, their light shines on us and we see our shadows sharply outlined on the ground. They hover for the space of a minute before they burn out. Immediately fresh ones shoot up in the sky, and again green, red, and blue stars.

“Bombardment,” says Kat.

The thunder of the guns swells to a single heavy roar and then breaks up again into separate explosions. The dry bursts of the machine-guns rattle. Above us the air teems with invisible swift movement, with howls, pipings, and hisses. They are smaller shells — and amongst them, booming through the night like an organ, go the great coal-boxes and the heavies. They have a hoarse, distant bellow like a rutting stag and make their way high above the howl and whistle of the smaller shells. It reminds me of flocks of wild geese when I hear them. Last autumn the wild geese flew day after day across the path of the shells.  

[2. The bombardment continues]One lands behind us. Some recruits jump up terrified. A couple of minutes later another comes over, nearer this time. Kat knocks out his pipe. “We’re in for it.” 

Then it begins in earnest. We crawl away as well as we can in our haste. The next lands fair amongst us. Two fellows cry out. Green rockets shoot up on the sky-line. Barrage. The mud flies high, fragments whizz past. The crack of the guns is heard long after the roar of the explosions.

Beside us lies a fair-headed recruit in utter terror. He has buried his face in his hands, his helmet has fallen off. I fish hold of it and try to put it back on his head. He looks up, pushes the helmet off and like a child creeps under my arm, his head close to my breast. The little shoulders heave. Shoulders just like Kemmerich’s. I let him be. So that the helmet should be of some use I stick it on his behind — not for a jest, but out of consideration, since that is his highest part. And though there is plenty of meat there, a shot in it can be damned painful. Besides, a man has to lie for months on his belly in the hospital, and afterwards he would be almost sure to have a limp.

It’s got someone pretty badly. Cries are heard between the explosions.

At last it grows quiet. The fire has lifted over us and is now dropping on the reserves. We risk a look. Red rockets shoot up to the sky. Apparently there’s an attack coming.

[3. Caught out in the open, trying to take cover in a graveyard]We come to the communication-trench and then to the open fields. The little wood reappears; we know every foot of ground here. There’s the cemetery with the mounds and the black crosses.

That moment it breaks out behind us, swells, roars, and thunders. We duck down — a cloud of flame shoots up a hundred yards ahead of us.

The next minute under a second explosion part of the wood rises slowly in the air, three or four trees sail up and then crash to pieces. The shells begin to hiss like safety-valves — heavy fire — “Take cover!” yells somebody — “Cover!”

The fields are flat, the wood is too distant and dangerous — the only cover is the graveyard and the mounds. We stumble across in the dark and as though he had been spat there every man lies glued behind a mound.

Not a moment too soon. The dark goes mad. It heaves and raves. Darknesses blacker than the night rush on us with giant strides, over us and away. The flames of the explosions light up the graveyard.

There is no escape anywhere. By the light of the shells I try to get a view of the fields. They are a surging sea, daggers of flame from the explosions leap up like fountains. It is impossible for anyone to break through it.

The wood vanishes, it is pounded, crushed, torn to pieces. We must stay here in the graveyard.

The earth bursts before us. It rains clods. I feel a smack. My sleeve is torn away by a splinter. I shut my fist. No pain. Still that does not reassure me: wounds don’t hurt till afterwards. I feel the arm all over. It is grazed but sound. Now a crack on the skull, I begin to lose consciousness. Like lightning the thought comes to me: Don’t faint! I sink down in the black broth and immediately come up to the top again. A splinter slashes into my helmet, but has already travelled so far that it does not go through. I wipe the mud out of my eyes. A hole is torn up in front of me. Shells hardly ever land in the same hole twice, I’ll get into it. With one lunge, I shoot as flat as a fish over the ground; there it whistles again, quickly I crouch together, claw for cover, feel something on the left, shove in beside it, it gives way, I groan, the earth leaps, the blast thunders in my ears, I creep under the yielding thing, cover myself with it, draw it over me, it is wood, cloth, cover, cover, miserable cover against the whizzing splinters.

I open my eyes — my fingers grasp a sleeve, an arm. A wounded man? I yell to him — no answer — a dead man. My hand gropes farther, splinters of wood — now I remember again that we are lying in the graveyard.

But the shelling is stronger than everything. It wipes out the sensibilities, I merely crawl still farther under the coffin, it shall protect me, though Death himself lies in it.

[4. Taking refuge in the earth]From the earth, from the air, sustaining forces pour into us — mostly from 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; she shelters him and releases him for ten seconds to live, to run, ten seconds of life; receives him again and often for ever. 

Earth!–Earth!–Earth!

Earth with thy folds, and hollows, and holes, into which a man may fling himself and crouch down. In the spasm of terror, under the hailing of annihilation, in the bellowing death of the explosions, O Earth, thou grantest us the great resisting surge of new-won life. Our being, almost utterly carried away by the fury of the storm, streams back through our hands from thee, and we, thy redeemed ones, bury ourselves in thee, and through the long minutes in a mute agony of hope bite into thee with our lips!

[5. Bombardment begins again at night]All day the sky is hung with observation balloons. There is a rumour that the enemy are going to put tanks over and use low-flying planes for the attack. But that interests us less than what we hear of the new flame-throwers.

We wake up in the middle of the night. The earth booms. Heavy fire is falling on us. We crouch into corners. We distinguish shells of every calibre.

Each man lays hold of his things and looks again every minute to reassure himself that they are still there. The dug-out heaves, the night roars and flashes. We look at each other in the momentary flashes of light, and with pale faces and pressed lips shake our heads.

Every man is aware of the heavy shells tearing down the parapet, rooting up the embankment and demolishing the upper layers of concrete. When a shell lands in the trench we note how the hollow, furious blast is like a blow from the paw of a raging beast of prey. Already by morning a few of the recruits are green and vomiting. They are too inexperienced.

Slowly the grey light trickles into the post and pales the flashes of the shells. Morning is come. The explosion of mines mingles with the gunfire. That is the most dementing convulsion of all. The whole region where they go up becomes one grave.

[6. It continues and gets worse] The bombardment does not diminish. It is falling in the rear too. As far as one can see spout fountains of mud and iron. A wide belt is being raked. The attack does not come, but the bombardment continues. We are gradually benumbed. Hardly a man speaks. We cannot make ourselves understood.

Our trench is almost gone. At many places it is only eighteen inches high, it is broken by holes, and craters, and mountains of earth. A shell lands square in front of our post. At once it is dark. We are buried and must dig ourselves out. After an hour the entrance is clear again, and we are calmer because we have had something to do.

[7. A young recruit has a nervous breakdown] We wait and wait. By midday what I expected happens. One of the recruits has a fit. I have been watching him for a long time, grinding his teeth and opening and shutting his fists. These hunted, protruding eyes, we know them too well. During the last few hours he has had merely the appearance of calm. He had collapsed like a rotten tree.

Now he stands up, stealthily creeps across the floor hesitates a moment and then glides towards the door. I intercept him and say: “Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back in a minute,” says he, and tries to push past me.

“Wait a bit, the shelling will stop soon.”

He listens for a moment and his eyes become clear. Then again he has the glowering eyes of a mad dog, he is silent, he shoves me aside.

 “One minute, lad,” I say. Kat notices. Just as the recruit shakes me off Kat jumps in and we hold him. Then he begins to rave: “Leave me alone, let me go out, I will go out!”

He won’t listen to anything and hits out, his mouth is wet and pours out words, half choked, meaningless words. It is a case of claustrophobia, he feels as though he is suffocating here and wants to get out at any price. If we let him go he would run about everywhere regardless of cover. He is not the first.

Though he raves and his eyes roll, it can’t be helped, we have to give him a hiding to bring him to his senses. We do it quickly and mercilessly, and at last he sits down quietly. The others have turned pale; let’s hope it deters them. This bombardment is too much for the poor devils, they have been sent straight from a recruiting-depot into a barrage that is enough to turn an old soldier’s hair grey.

[8. What trench mortars do] Instead of going to Russia, we go up the line again. On the way we pass through a devastated wood with the tree trunks shattered and the ground ploughed up.

At several places there are tremendous craters. “Great guns, something’s hit that,” I say to Kat.

“Trench mortars,” he replies, and then points up at one of the trees.

In the branches dead men are hanging. A naked soldier is squatting in the fork of a tree, he still has his helmet on, otherwise he is entirely unclad. There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing.

“What can that mean?” I ask.

“He’s been blown out of his clothes,” mutters Tjaden.

“It’s funny,” says Kat, “we have seen that several times now. If a mortar gets you it blows you clean out of your clothes. It’s the concussion that does it.”

I search around. And so it is. Here hang bits of uniform, and somewhere else is plastered a bloody mess that was once a human limb. Over there lies a body with nothing but a piece of the underpants on one leg and the collar of the tunic around its neck. Otherwise it is naked and the clothes are hanging up in the tree. Both arms are missing as though they had been pulled out. I discover one of them twenty yards off in a shrub.

The dead man lies on his face. There, where the arm wounds are, the earth is black with blood. Underfoot the leaves are scratched up as though the man had been kicking.

[9. Their deep bunker receives a direct hit] Suddenly it howls and flashes terrifically, the dug-out cracks in all its joints under a direct hit, fortunately only a light one that the concrete blocks are able to withstand. It rings metallically, the walls reel, rifles, helmets, earth, mud, and dust fly everywhere. Sulphur fumes pour in.

If we were in one of those light dug-outs that they have been building lately instead of this deeper one, none of us would be alive.

*          *          *

Thank you for bearing with me. Now, after all that, can we perhaps better imagine ourselves in Gaza City? Women, children, and the elderly included? Without any trenches or deep dugouts to hide in; instead, their flimsy apartments just collapsing all around them?

How many days has it been? How much longer is it going to continue?  

For the original, slightly shorter version of this article, click https://hist.ihu.edu.tr/en/halil-berktays-diary/.

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