Flotsam and Jetsam

            I’m kind of a literature/grammar geek. Seriously, the worst fight my best friend and I have ever gotten in was over how often the semi-colon should be used in creative writing. It’s that bad. I especially like words with minutely specific definitions like apricity (‘the warmth of the sun in winter’), defenestrate (‘to throw out a window’), and callipygian (‘having well-shaped buttocks’). Driving around through land that’s dotted with little cemeteries and full of piles or rusted shell casings keeps reminding me of two of my favorite ultra-specific words: flotsam and jetsam. Flotsam, according to Dictonary.com, is “the part of the wreckage of a ship and its cargo found floating on the water.” Jetsam is “goods cast overboard deliberately, as to lighten a vessel or improve its stability in an emergency.” I’ve always found it fascinating that we, as an English-speaking collective, have drawn distinctions between the wreckage of what we lose because of disaster and what we chose to let go because of disaster. As minute as that distinction is, the line between flotsam and jetsam seems to become remarkably indistinct when it comes to the First World War and how society has continued to deal with the aftermath.

             Every year around the area that used to be the Western Front, farmers plow up what they call ‘iron harvest’: lead shrapnel balls, scraps of shells, bits of barbed wire, etc. It gets piled alongside fields, in peoples’ back yards, and in armature and professional museums. For the locals, finding an undetonated ninety-six year-old hand grenade in a field is a mundane part of life. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the supplies produced during the war have become jetsam: abandoned by the world in the heat of war and the bustle of life afterwards. In Thiepval Wood, the tour guide told us about a soldier’s intact pack that was unearthed recently and explained that it was probably abandoned when the owner was severely wounded during the fighting. The kit had a toothbrush, hairbrush, and mustache brush (along with some other articles). In the turmoil of battle, the incredibly personal objects became just another speck in a sea of jetsam. And then there’s the North Staffordshire clip and pin that I’ve found in souvenir stores. They’d both sat in the shop for goodness knows how long because not many museums and even fewer tourists want badges from a little regiment that didn’t specifically win any major battles. But when I saw them, I was absolutely thrilled because they actually mean something to me. It’s the same with the shrapnel our group has found in the fields we’ve walked through; we’ve all been carefully storing the little lead balls we’ve been finding as souvenirs, even though they’re practically worthless. Mostly by chance, these little bits of jetsam suddenly seem a lot more like flotsam: they aren’t being cast away as worthless, they’ve just been lost wreckage for a long, long time.

          The same pattern of flotsam and jetsam pops up in the structures and laws that made up the civilizations that took part in the war (my group is looking at the overall theme of Destruction of Civilization, so I’ve got to mention it). We’re staying outside of Ypres (or Wipers, as the British called it), a city that was reduced to rubble, along with its medieval cloth hall, during the war. Over the course of the fighting on the Ypers Salient, an entire city, with all its rich history, was reduced to flotsam. But then that flotsam was carted off and is still used today to patch roads and farm tracks. I guess its jetsam instead, now. We also visited the memorial at St. Julien, where the first gas attack took place. In the frenzy to gain ground, morality got shoved aside to allow for the hideously effective weapon to be used. Similarly, at the start of the war, the higher-ups still tried to use cavalry as an offensive weapon. Horses faired about as well against barbed wire and machine guns as one would imagine: the animals were butchered in the most horrific ways possible. In both the case of the gas and the horses, ethics became flotsam. And then both sides embraced gas as a weapon and started an arms race to produce increasingly deadly and efficient chemical weapons. Horses were retained as a major part of the army’s transport system and regularly faced conditions that violated literally every aspect of the existing animal welfare legislation. Society’s morals became jetsam.

           Then there’s the thing that really got me thinking about the contrast between what we lose and what we throw away: Langmarck Cemetery. It’s the first German cemetery we’ve visited and it’s a chilling contrast to the Commonwealth cemeteries we’ve been seeing for most of the trip. Commonwealth cemeteries usually have no more than two soldiers listed on a single headstone and always are bright and open. Langmarck has just over 44,000 men buried on a plot that can’t be more than eight acres. The flat, black granite stones each have at least four names or unknowns listed (most have six to ten listed) and stretch away in seemingly endless rows under the brooding shadows of massive, spreading oaks. It’s the first cemetery I’ve been to where I was unnerved by the fact that we were walking over the dead. After both world wars, the French and Belgians didn’t like the idea of little German cemeteries dotting their country, so more and more bodies were moved into a few main cemeteries until the plots were latterly crammed with the bodies of men who, by chance, belonged to the losing army. It wasn’t the trees or the gothic design or even the masses of dead men that I found so chilling. It was the idea that humans could become jetsam. All of the cemeteries we’ve visited have made it clear that humans can easily become flotsam in war: lives are lost in the chaos of battle, bodies are lost in the pounding shell storms, and names are lost on the rows and rows of near-identical headstones. But Langmarck was different, the dead had been deliberately cast aside into a patch of ground that is clearly too small for the multitudes it is forced to hold. However, the care and planning that went into Langmarck keep it from being utterly disturbing. It is impossible to enter the cemetery except through the tomb-like gate, it is impossible to get a clear view of the sky through the spreading oak branches, it is impossible—thanks to the flat gravestones—not to look at the various names without bowing one’s head in an attitude of mourning, and—because of this minute attention to detail—it is impossible to think of the dead as merely cast-aside jetsam. True, they have been lost, true they have been piled into a tiny plot of ground, but the obvious effort that went into the design of the cemetery imbues Langmarck with a dignity that a mass grave of ‘enemy’ soldiers would not usually posses. Through the devotion of those left behind, ‘cast-off’ has become ‘lost’: jetsam has become flotsam.

               Like most topics related to the First World War, Wilfred Owen summed up the contrast between being lost and being abandoned perfectly. His ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (Lit Nerd Fact: this is an utterly flawless Petrarchan sonnet) demonstrates how lives can become flotsam in war and how the devotion of those left behind prevents the dead from becoming jetsam.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 

      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.


What candles may be held to speed them all?

      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

   -Wilfred Owen

 I know it’s a bit early to be drawing overall conclusions about the trip, but this has been a major and recurring theme for me over the past five days. Everything can and eventually will be lost. Shells, barbed wire, trench lines, cars, cell phones, homes, cities, moral codes, names, bodies, and lives will all be lost. All that remains is a choice for those left behind: remember with “patient minds” what has been lost or throw it away as something that is no longer wanted or needed or useful. Flotsam or jetsam.


 Langmarck Cemetery. A crew of German soldiers was doing maintenance work on the graves. They were incredibly careful not to let the yellow power line go over any of the gravestones.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s