WWI Journal Part 4: The Art of Healing

It’s Memorial Day weekend, so this WWI journal project has more weight than ever. What else is a journal for than to memorialize? If you’re new to this project, click here for previous articles. This week, I’m talking about the big picture.

As an actor, musician, poet, and sketch-artist, David Thomas Percy III, “Tom” to his friends and family, had an eye for the romance within tragedy, and his journal shows his multifaceted perspective. At times, he is enthralled by the glory of service. At times, he imagines his summers in Popham Beach, Maine for comfort. At times he is disillusioned, aware of his role as a player in a game.

While many dates, locations, and specific historical references are lacking, his journal shows him living his life in a time of war, making friends, exploring the landscape, and facing the worst. His flare for drama and poetry communicates the emotional side of war from the artist’s point of view.

The making of art is a way of coping and healing. Because of the portability of a notebook, Percy was not the only musician to embrace the written word while at war. The French composer, Maurice Ravel, wrote while he served and later created “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” which was inspired by his time in the trenches. The most well-known poets associated with WWI, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, were poets before they were soldiers, so comparison can be and has been made between their work before and after trauma. By reading their poems, we can watch them confront the incomprehensible, process guilt, and move forward. While their experiences never fully left them, writing allowed them to render and face them.

So few accounts are available of Percy’s life, especially after the war, that there’s no way of knowing if, and if so how severely, the war affected him, but he clearly felt the need to record his thoughts and bear witness.

“Shell shock” resulted not only from the experience of war, but also from stifling the emotional reactions to those experiences in order to carry on. The efforts to treat shell shock at the time were mostly aimed at sending the soldier back to the front to continue to fight. They assumed that fixing the visible signs cured the disease.

We know now that no one can fully heal from such an ordeal – trauma is trauma, no matter what the soldier’s civilian talents may be – but the poet is especially equipped for the excruciating.

The experience of war has not changed for those who are fighting it daily. While our modern technology makes communication, logistics, and weaponry more sophisticated, the sentiments my great, great uncle expresses in his journal ring in my ears with familiarity.

Reading Brian Turner’s poetry reminds us of exactly that. His collection, Here, Bullet, reads like a modern take on Percy’s journal entries. Like Owen, Gurney, and Sassoon, Turner is a poet who went to war. The fact that Turner served in Iraq doesn’t change a thing. Grounded in setting, and with a precise awareness of the humanity in his company, Turner’s poems echo Percy’s sentiments with an eerie exactness.

Shrapnel still does what it has always done; it leaves the same mark.

The battles, the geography, the politics, and the mortality of World War I are widely available. We’ve documented how many men and women died, but so few of their voices are still available to us. As Turner put it in his poem, “A Soldier’s Arabic,”

“This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.”

There can’t be too many reminders of the consequences of warfare, and the most authentic source we could ask for comes from those who devote themselves to carry out the mission at all cost.

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