Friday, June 6, 2014

A Day to Remember

On June 6, 1944, Clinton Gardner, Class of 1944, found himself digging a foxhole on Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day invasion of German occupied Europe. The landing area was already strewn with bodies and the Germans were raking the incoming allied forces with artillery and machine gun fire. Gardner, a Lieutenant in the artillery, was not about to move any further inland until the infantry made a hole in the German defenses, and that did not seem to be about to happen.

An incoming round suddenly exploded in front of him. His head snapped back and then a curtain of blood blinded him. In his memoir, D-Day and Beyond, Gardner recounts how he stood up and staggered toward two of his fellow officers wiping blood from his eyes. The two officers stared at him in horror. Then he reached up and felt his helmet. There was a gaping hole, large enough that he could get two hands into it. Gingerly he felt around and found that he could feel a soft, mushy surface that he assumed must be his brain. Sick and disoriented though he was, he managed to get his first aid kit out and pour sulfa powder into the hole and then stuff it full of gauze.

Unable to walk or speak properly, Gardner watched as his unit packed up and began to move inland, following the infantry who had suddenly begun to advance. The other officers told him that they would send medics back for him. He was soon alone on the beach with a handful of wounded and dying soldiers, all of whom would have been killed by German mortar fire had not a group of British troops happened along. The British moved the wounded Americans up the beach to a sheltered area among some rocks.

After 23 hours wounded on the beach, a group of medics finally arrived and moved Gardner and the others to a field hospital in Vierville. There Gardner made the happy discovery that what he had felt through the gash in his helmet was not his brain, but badly lacerated scalp tissue. Though his skull was scarred, it was not broken. Getting the helmet off was another matter: it took three doctors and a fair amount of pulling and twisting as the edges had curled in and were imbedded in his scalp. Eventually Gardner was sent back to England to recover, but that was not the end of the war for him. Later he would find himself being bombed by friendly fire during Battle of the Bulge and still later he would serve as the American Commandant at Buchenwald following its liberation.

Gardner’s helmet remains, to this day, the most damaged helmet whose wearer survived his wounds.

To see Clint Gardner’s helmet or to read his letter home ask for MS-1109. A guide to the collection is available. To read his book, D-Day and Beyond, ask for Alumni G1728.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

"An Amusing Experience"

Rupert Brooke was born in 1887 in the English Midlands town of Rugby, where his father was a master at Rugby School. He is chiefly remembered today for his poetry, but among his contemporaries he was an icon of youth and the promise of literary talent. Brooke, at various times referred to as a "young Apollo," the "handsomest man in England," and a "lithe and radiant figure," played the muse for the literary and artistic circles that he frequented.

When World War I began in the fall of 1914, Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. He participated in the failed defense of Antwerp a few months later, where he witnessed first-hand the true brutality of the war. In a February 1915 letter to poet and critic Edmund Gosse, Brooke reflects on the loss of friends as a result of the ongoing conflict:
We’re going abroad very soon, it appears. It’ll be an amusing experience. But I wish we could beat them, & have done with it, this summer. So many of my friends have been killed lately. It forestalls Time too much in stripping the world away from me.
Several months later, Rupert Brooke would himself die aboard a French hospital ship near the Greek island of Skyros on April 22, 1915. The cause was not a war wound but blood poisoning caused by a severely infected mosquito bite. Brooke’s poetry had begun to garner widespread attention after two of his war sonnets, "The Dead" and "The Soldier," were published in The Times Literary Supplement. A month after he died, 1914 & Other Poems was published and became wildly popular, requiring eleven subsequent impressions in that year alone. This explosion of Brooke's popularity was fueled by the tragic circumstances of his death, an event that Brooke anticipated in his poetry. The numerous versions of Brooke's works that appeared after his demise speak to the immediate impact they had, but also to their continuing significance decades later: a Braille version of 1914 had a handwritten dedication to a son who died in the Battle of the Somme and a 1940 Armed Services Edition of Brooke's poems, specially published for American troops serving in World War II, testified to the continuing popularity of his work as a symbol of patriotic fervor.


Brooke's death and the subsequent publication of 1914 inspired an outpouring of eulogistic prose and poetry lamenting the loss of such an inspiring young man. Despite this postmortem adulation of Brooke as a tragic and stirring example of British patriotism, not every voice praised the young writer. After Brooke’s death, his close friends and fellow poets took great pains, both privately and publicly, to separate public sentiment for Brooke the person from Brooke's actual literary talent. One of these comrades, the Welsh poet Edward Thomas, wrote a frank assessment of Brooke in a letter to Robert Frost:
It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert…. I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful and yet intelligible and interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed. And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after and what he achieved.
Despite these attempts to regulate the strength of feeling about Brooke's poetry, the popular appeal of his passionate lines came to define a jingoistic philosophy towards the war – one that would be challenged by later poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

To learn more about Brooke, stop by to view our latest exhibit: "A Richer Dust": Rupert Brooke and the Culture of Mourning, curated by Laura Braunstein and Morgan Swan. It will be on exhibit in the Class of 1965 Galleries until July 31, 2014.