The World War One Tree Stump

by Kit Munro

There is, a short walk from the house, a tree stump. It had been a blue gum, that I had chopped down last year for firewood. It only took about a day to saw up completely, despite the wood having to be chopped quite finely to fit in the coal range.

While I sawed, split, and carted the wood I read All Quiet on the Western Front. The job lasted only an hour or so longer than the book did. It was a privilege to enjoy; it is a quiet, albeit belated, act of rebellion to read a book that folk have gone to the effort to burn. All that effort and 80 years later a farm labourer can casually read something an all-powerful dictator would have liked to destroy;

The wisest were just the poor and simple people. They knew the war to be a misfortune, whereas those who were better off, and should have been able to see more clearly what the consequences would be, were beside themselves with joy. Katczinsky said that was a result of their upbringing. It made them stupid. And what Kat said, he had thought about.

I wonder what the exact reasons were for burning it. Perhaps one reason was the way the enemy was portrayed;

But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?

Or prehaps one reason was that war was not described in the book as glorious. Remarque neither villified the enemy nor glorified war;

In the branches dead men are hanging. A naked soldier is squatting in the fork of a tree, he still has his helmet on, otherwise he is entirely unclad. There is only half of him sitting up there, the top half, the legs are missing. “What can that mean?” I ask. “He’s been blown out of his clothes,” mutters Tjaden. “It’s funny,” says Kat, “we have seen that several times now. If a mortar gets you it blows you clean out of your clothes. It’s the concussion that does it.” I search around. And so it is. Here hang bits of uniform, and somewhere else is plastered a bloody mess that was once a human limb. Over there lies a body with nothing but a piece of the underpants on one leg and the collar of the tunic around its neck. Otherwise it is naked and the clothes are hanging up in the tree. Both arms are missing as though they had been pulled out. I discover one of them twenty yards off in a shrub. The dead man lies on his face. There, where the arm wounds are, the earth is black with blood. Underfoot the leaves are scratched up as though the man had been kicking.

 It is an odd thing but every time I see that tree stump I remember a war that was over 70 years before I was born.

This Book is number #123 on Flynn’s list. I found my copy of All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque here. If anyone knows of another place this audiobook is available please let me know in the comments below.