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December 01, 2005

Review of 'Thirty-Odd Feet Below Belgium'

Click for larger image of book cover

Arthur Stockwin's Thirty-Odd Feet Below Belgium is a melancholy book, written about a melancholy war. Anyone who has studied the causes and consequences of WWI (for a time naively known as the "Great War" or the "War to End All Wars"), knows that it was a tragic waste. The leading nations of the world blundering clumsily into a massive, devastating war for what exactly? As Stockwin reminds us at the end of his book, "A cynic -- I forget who -- once described the Great War as 'a war to decide who controlled Strasbourg.'" Well, I've been to Strasbourg, and it wasn't worth the price.

An entire generation of Western Europe's best and brightest young men died in the war. England lost 703,000 men, France 1,385,000, Germany 1,718,000. The horrors of Stalinism, Nazism, the Holocaust and most of the other monumental human screw-ups of the 20th century directly trace their roots back to this conflict.

We know all that, but it's easy to forget, and hard to fully comprehend the human scale of this disaster. Even now, in the middle of another ugly war, where thousands of young men and women are being lost, it is hard to appreciate the finality, the suddenness of passing from life to death.

Stockwin's curious little book provides a window onto the human tragedy of war. Most of the book consists of love letters sent between his 17-year old mother, Edith Ainscow and 2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Boothby, who was stationed with the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium, near Ypres. The young lovers had only spent a total of four days in each others company before being forever parted by the war. Boothby died underground shortly after his 21st birthday, 30' below the surface in one of the tunnels beneath the battlefield, killed by a German mine. His body was never recovered, and he remains buried where he died beneath the "blue clay" of Flanders.

The letters themselves were unremarkable. Silly, adolescent jottings full of peculiar period slang and Victorian correctness. The war itself is only discussed in passing, and both appear to be trying not to dwell upon the morbid possibilities. But the youthful spirit of a developing romance is painful to see, in light of what we know will happen.

Stockwin discovered the letters seven years after his mother's death at age 85. His mother had never mentioned Geoff Boothby, and he had no idea that his mother had ever had a lover who died in the war. Stockwin realized that he owed his very existence to Boothby's death in Belgium and he also realized that he had never glimpsed the tragic loss that shaped his mother's life.

The tragic construct of reading letters between two unrequited lovers written nearly a century ago seems an entirely appropriate way to understand this most senseless of wars. Edith's final letter, written the day after Geoff's death, was giddy in anticipation of finally seeing him again on leave in England the following week. That joyful reunion, like so many other good, human occasions, never happened. It is a useful reminder, in this age of walking bombs, of the frail and transient nature of our existence.

Update

The UK Telegraph published an interesting story about a recent archaeological exploration of some of the WWI tunnels beneath Ypres. It is amazing stuff.

December 1, 2005 at 09:33 PM | Permalink

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