The Last Full Measure: How soldiers die in battle by Michael Stephenson

In the light of the global focus on chemical weapons, policymakers would do well to take note of a conversation that Stephenson records between two First World War soldiers about the folly of ever imagining that there are such things as “clean, decent wea

The Last Full Measure: How Soldiers Die in Battle
Michael Stephenson
Duckworth, 480pp, £20
 
Notwithstanding comprehensive scholarship and the best efforts of Michael Stephenson’s clear and respectful writing, there is something unpalatable about The Last Full Measure. Then again, perhaps that is precisely the point. Stephenson knows that there is a line that those who have not experienced combat simply cannot cross: both the writer and most readers are “at best honest observers and at worst voyeurs”. The line between observer and voyeur is a fine one.
 
The title is taken from Lincoln’s tribute to the dead of Gettysburg who “gave the last full measure of devotion”. Stephenson’s stated aim is to pay dead soldiers due respect, while neither promoting militarism nor pretending that every one of them was a hero.
 
The scope of his work is ambitious and his attention to detail is impressive. Even so, we move at a cantering pace: from Homo sapiens using primitive wooden missile launchers against the stronger Homo neanderthalensis to the battlefields of the ancient Middle East and the still-contested deserts and streets of Iraq and Afghanistan. Conflict is seen at close quarters, through the prisms of contemporary weaponry and the reality of death on the battlefield. Unsurprisingly, the most powerful passages in the book are eyewitness accounts and they do not make for easy reading. In a powerful passage, an officer in the trenches in the First World War recalls a comrade being hit by a shell, the resulting “crumpled heap of flesh” and the heartbreaking moment when “I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of recognition and terror”.
 
The terrible physical injuries described prefigure those caused by more recent improvised explosive devices but the description of death is Homeric. If The Last Full Measure makes one point forcefully above all others, it is that the weapons may change but there is a haunting constancy in violent death that can be understood only by those immediately proximate to it.
 
Invariably, it is not the injuries of the dying man that stay with the storyteller (and the reader) but whatever connection is made, in a final glance or the squeeze of a hand, the last vestige of ebbing humanity. A soldier in the American civil war is haunted by a comrade “gasping in that peculiar, almost indescribable way that a mortally wounded man has. I shall never forget the pleading expression, speechless yet imploring.”
 
While the statistics about loss of life are appalling, it is these painfully explicit, firsthand descriptions that linger the longest. The balance is not always perfectly maintained. Nonetheless, this is a powerfully relevant book. The devastating situation in Syria has once again brought to the fore debates about different types of military force. In the light of the global focus on chemical weapons, policymakers would do well to take note of a conversation that Stephenson records between two First World War soldiers about the folly of ever imagining that there are such things as “clean, decent weapons of war”.
 
Those advocating military intervention in Syria should be required to read this book and confront the reality to which they would send their nations’ young men and women; those who equivocate should be required to read it to know what is happening to the young Syrian men and women while they do; the remainder should read it and be glad that, in Sassoon’s words, they’ll “never know/The hell where youth and laughter go”.
 
Patrick Hennessey is a former soldier and the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” (Penguin, £9.99) 
Can there be any decent weapons of war? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle