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Criticism 49.1 (2008) 85-104

Witnessing and Trophy Hunting:
Writing Violence from the Great War Trenches
Marian Eide
Texas A&M University

One startlingly effective mode of memorializing war in the twentieth century has been the preservation of battle sites and locations of calamity from bombed-out buildings propped up as reminders of World War II to the cross constructed of wrecked building materials left behind in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Focusing on the preserved trenches of World War I, Stephen O'Shea in Back to the Front describes a surprisingly common drive to visit such sites of disaster or tragedy; adopting the term "tsk-tsk tourism," he indicts visitors to battlefields and other locations of tragedy for prurience and voyeurism.1 Terry Castle also comments on a "war-tourism industry," which thrives on the "morbid hankering of visitors to stroll freely about those very places where walking—of any sort—was once foul and frightening."2 In Belgium, as both O'Shea and Castle observe on their own grief excursions, the battlefields of the Great War have been preserved for visitors. In Ypres you can visit Sanctuary Wood, walk through the trenches that have been preserved by a local pub owner, and tour a war museum behind the bar. In the wetter months of Belgium's damp winters, the trenches still fill with mud and a horrible stench pervades the scarred fields with the smell of rot, as if the aromas of the war have been preserved. Periodically, trench walls expand into larger holes dug into the soil by exploded shells. You wonder if those shell holes mark the place where some soldier lost his life inches away from his friends, or if that same shell fortuitously saved him from yards and yards of exhausted digging under a rain of artillery. Inside the pub, the museum holds a collection of unexploded shells, fragments of uniforms, hoardings of shrapnel, and a lone shoe; all of these artifacts were collected from the surrounding fields by local residents in the eighty-odd years since armistice. Faded sepia photographs display dead horses, bodies thrown into trees and portraits of "men with ghastly facial injuries: jaws [End Page 85] and mouths gone, rubbery slots for noses, an eye or an ear the only human thing left."3 At the center of the room are viewing tables with stereo-optic plates that give you an optical illusion of three dimensions and contain the most gruesome of the museum's images: "A corpse with flies. A headless body upside down in the sand. Two skulls on a battlefield midden."4 The Sanctuary Wood Museum is haphazard and amateurish, and in those very qualities it is somehow the proper testimony to the most haphazard and destructive of modern wars.5 Why do so many people, like O'Shea and Castle, pursue the Great War as a kind of obsession: wanting to visit those fields, photograph the trenches, read the poetry that testifies to horror, witness that which cannot be expressed? The experience of extreme violence is often registered in this obsessive combination of the inability to speak and the drive to repeat. That combination is visible in World War I poetry, which, I will argue, bears an ethical drive to witness the traumatic experience of another and far darker practice I will describe as trophy hunting: the collection and display of violent experiences as war trophies presented in lyric verse.

I.

While recording battle experience in journals or diaries was expressly forbidden along the Western Front and letters home were carefully censored,6 the drive to record accurately the unspeakable experience of battle is reflected in the volume and particularly in the urgency of poems written by soldiers of World War I.7 Censored in their letters, writers of this war tested the limits of represented violence in poetry. Giuseppe Ungaretti's "Veglia" ("Watch"), for example, transforms the platitudes written home in censored letters from the front into a barren testimonial to trench experience.

Un'intera nottata...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 85-104
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-17
Open Access
No
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