Toward the Flame: A Memoir of World War I Paperback – Apr 11 2008
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Allen, a novelist and poet, was a keen observer; he gives the reader a vivid picture of what it was like to be an AEF soldier in France. Particularly compelling are his descriptions of the shattered homes, farms, and buildings that his unit occupies as it moves forward, and what they tell him about the original French owners, and the Germans who, in some cases, have left the premises just minutes before.
EB Sledge wrote With The Old Breed about the Marine Infantryman in WWII and I think this is one of a few books which does the same for WWI.
I tend to gravitate towards more over arching military books (though not TOO in depth, because sometimes they can be unreadable) where I can get a sense of objectives and where things fit in. But as far as a story of the guys on the ground, this is really well done.
Allen allows a "you are there" window into the daily life of WWI combat (Second Battle of the Marne) during six summer weeks in 1918. Missing is the familiar focus on stalemated trench warfare that characterized other battles. For most of the memoir, Allen is actually on the move through once-picturesque hilly regions of France, but usually in the more peaceful wake of front-line units. The end of the memoir finds him in the intense "Flame" of Fismette fighting.
Allen's matter-of-fact tone owes something to the blunting effects of memory (the book was published in 1926) but perhaps also to a healthy skepticism about fighting a war largely within European nations and their colonies. Christendom was attacking itself, with the YMCA standing-in for the ineptness of the church itself, "selling gum drops and cakes when civilization hung in the balance." Allen contemptuously notes that "As a matter of fact, there was little else it could do, and that in itself was a great comment." It is to Allen's credit that he doesn't allow later research and speculation about the larger picture to infiltrate his direct experience account.
There is no mention, for example, of WWI's other (and some would argue more significant) battlefield: the fight against militaristic Islam represented by the Ottoman Turks. After all, the war started in the Balkans. The lasting triumph of WWI was, for some, not the defeat of Germany and its allies, but the Crusader-like retaking of the Holy Lands. Who will forget the photograph of General Allenby victoriously entering Jerusalem?
Then, too, Hervey Allen's biographical fascination elsewhere with Edgar Allan Poe is partly owing to Poe's having enlisted in the US Army as a private, rising to Sergeant Major of Artillery, and later attending West Point. Poe's preoccupation with phantasmagoria resonated well with the horrific images of Allen's combat experiences late in WWI. Throughout "Toward the Flame," the reader can feel the pull-and-tug between the accustomed innocence of comfortable America back home and the lurking wartime realities all but purged from peripheral consciousness.
Poe's successful formula continues to work in media today. We see folks, youth particularly, flirting with the scary and violent--but indirectly, through no-risk admitted "fiction" such as horror movies, violent computer games, and monster-type toys. It seems healthy to see children fighting to keep from being smothered by too many well-meaning but sugar-coated animations and holiday fantasies, as well as Disney-style escapes into a peaceful-kingdom falseness, none of which correspond with "the way God made the world." As Allen might have worried, will such sheltered youth wilt prematurely in the flame of future combat?
Passing many German graves in his march toward the front allows Allen to reflect on larger issues otherwise denied in the overweening literalness of combat itself. He notes an epitaph on one such grave (markers in WWI and WWII were crosses, not just tablets as we find today in national cemeteries): "He was a good Christian and fell in France fighting for the Fatherland, `Heir ruht in Gott.'"
Looking further, Allen cannot help but speculate on what seems to be the waning mission of European culture: "Verily, these seemed to be the same Goths and Vandals who left their graves even in Egypt; unchanged since the days of Rome, and still fighting her civilization, the woods-people against the Latins. Only the illuminating literary curiosity of a Tacitus was lacking to make the inward state of man visible by the delineation of the images of outer things."
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