THE AGONY OF WAR (Satis Shroff)



THE AGONY OF WAR (Satis Shroff)

ONCE upon a time there was a seventeen year old boy

Who lived in the Polish city of Danzig.

He was ordered to join the Waffen-SS,

Hitler’s elite division.

Oh, what an honour for a seventeen year old,

Almost a privilege to join the Waffen-SS.

The boy said, “Wir wurden von früh bis spät

Geschliffen und sollten

Zur Sau gemacht werden.”


A Russian grenade shrapnel brought his role

In the war to an abrupt end.

That was on April 20, 1945.

In the same evening,

He was brought to Meissen,

Where he came to know about his Vaterland’s defeat.

The war was lost long ago.

He realised how an ordinary soldier

Became helpless after being used as a tool in the war,

Following orders that didn’t demand heroism

In the brutal reality of war.


It was a streak of luck,

And his inability to ride a bicycle,

That saved his skin

At the Russian-held village of Niederlausitz.

His comrades rode the bicycle,

And he was obliged to give them fire-support

With a maschine-gun.

His seven comrades and the officer

Were slain by the Russians.

The only survivor was a boy

Of seventeen named Grass.

Günter Grass.

He abandoned his light maschine-gun,

And left the house of the bicycle-seller,

Through the backyard garden

With its creaky gate.


What were the chances in the days of the Third Reich

For a 17 year old boy to understand the world?

The BBC was a feindliche radio,

And Goebbels’ propaganda maschinery

Was in full swing.

There was no time to reflect in those days.

Fürcht und Elend im Dritten Reich,

Wrote Bertold Brecht later.

Why did he wait till he was almost eighty?

Why did he torment his soul all these years?

Why didn’t he tell the bitter truth,

About his tragi-comical role in the war

With the Waffen-SS?

He was a Hitlerjunge,

A young Nazi.

Faithful till the end.

A boy who was seduced by the Waffen-SS.

His excuse:

„Ich habe mich verführen lassen.“


The reality of the war brought

Endless death and suffering.

He felt the fear in his bones,

His eyes were opened at last.


Grass is a figure,

You think you know well.

Yet he’s aloof

And you hardly know him,

This literary titan.

He breathes literature

And political engagement.

In his new book:

Beim Häuten der Zwiebeln

He confides he has lived from page to page,

And from book to book.


Is he a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Dr. Freud and Mephistopheles,

In the same breast?

Grass belongs to us,

For he has spent the time with us.

It was his personal weakness

Not to tell earlier.

He’s a playwright, director and actor

Of his own creativeness.

His characters Oskar and Mahlke weren’t holy Joes.

It was his way of indirectly showing

What went inside him.

Ach, his true confession took time.

It was like peeling an onion with tears,

One layer after the other.

Better late than never.



Works by Günter Grass: Surrealist poems Die Vorzüge der Windhühner 1956, grotesque plays Hochwasser 1956, Onkel-Onkel, Noch zehn Minuten bis Buffalo, Die bösen Köche 1957, original novel Die Blechtrommel 1959 (The Tin Drum), poems and drawings Gleisdreieck 1960, Hundejahre 1963, Die Plebjer proben den Aufstand 1966, Büchner Prize 1965, illustrated poems Ausgefragt 1967, third novel örtlich betäubt, play Davor, 1969  gesammelte Gedichte1971, Maria zuehren 1973, Liebe geprüft 1974, wie ich mich sehe 1980, ,fourth novel Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke 1972,a study of melancholy Melancholia I, lengthy novel Der Butt1977, Das Treffen in Telgte 1979, Kopfgeburten oder Die Deutschen sterben aus 1980, Widerstand lernen, Politische Gegenreden 1980-1983, Aufsätze zur Literatur 1957-79 in 1980.Beim Häuten der Zwiebeln 2006.

                      * * *




A lifeless body is cremated,

His sins and folly,

Bravery and loyalty,

Licked and devoured by the flames

Of Agni.


Only the thoughts remain,

Of a man who did his duty,

Never questioning why.

He did it for the Queen of England,

The small, sturdy Gurkha.


But when he became ill and old,

The NHS refused to pay the bill

For his medical treatment.

His children weren’t sent

To English schools.

The Brits would rather let

The Gurkha and his kind,

Go to Nepal,

To lick his wounds.


His English friends never rallied

Around him.

They kept to themselves,

And let the stoic, brave Gurkha,

Die in the foothills

Of the Himalayas.


His was not the praiseworthy laughter,

Friendships, gentlemanliness

Of the English world.

The dying Gurkha never saw your tears,

The praise that you bestowed upon him

Became a curse.

Many a Gurkha fought

For your English honour,

Pride and greed;

Died with his blood-soaked khukri

For evermore.

Did you care, the MoD,

The oh-so-proud officers?

Nevermore. Nevermore.


* * *

Victory Memorial (ein Siegesdenkmal in Freiburg): Schlacht bei Belfort 15. 16. 17. January 1871





Man versus monstrous machines,

Scared humans with panic stricken eyes,

Against the angry growls of guns,

The wailing shells that rained death,

In the trenches of Verdun, Gallipoli,

Flander’s Boesinghe.

The West and East Front.


Puny soldiers pitted against beastly machines,

Infernal to the core,

Manufactured to slaughter

Enemies with two legs,

On both sides.


After forty years of peaceful coexistence,

Hatred, greed, envy, political cuningness

Began to spread in Europe,

Like the plague,

Or aids and MRSA today.


The Germans, French, Russians,

Austrians, Hungarians, British

Began slaughtering each other.

Was it a war of colonial powers,

Of whites against whites in their own homes?

Far from it.

Logistics, armaments and cannon-fodder

From even the former colonies,

Were not spared.


In the bloodiest of battles

That began in the summer of 1914,

The soldiers lost everything,

Even their precious minds,

In a krieg of man against technology.


Humans were herded like cattle to the slaughterhouse.

The larks hid themselves and ceased to sing,

In the thunderous din of the shells

That shook the heavens.

The charge of the light brigade

Was abruptly stopped by well-placed barbed-wire.

People in uniform perished

In a hail of bullets from machine guns.

White bones only prevailed.

‘Schnellfeuer!‘ was the order of the day.

Load, aim, fire!


The systematic killing of heroes began

In a hell of shells.

A yellowish-green mist arose,

Made in the lab by chemist Fritz Haber,

Mingled with the air.

Soldiers started coughing, bodies shook,

Big horses neighed and trembled,

The riders and their steeds faltered.

Chemical war waged on April 22, 1915,

Near Ypern – the Belgian Front.

150 tons of chlorine emptied in the trenches,

Panic broke among the French troops.

1200 soldiers of Franch died,

Another 3000 were injured,

Without firing a single shot.


The gas war had begun,

And mustard gas was deployed

The British Tommies died in pain.

80,000 soldiers were killed in the gas war.

More than a million were injured.


Tears of happiness flowed

Over Fritz Haber’s cheeks,

And he received soon a promotion

For his deed.

Im Frieden der Menschheit,

im Krieg dem Vaterland

Was his motto.

Haber and Bosch discovered

The ammoniac synthesis,

Useful as fertilizers.

The Allies wanted to bring him to court,

But the Swedes awarded Fritz the Nobel Prize.


After the Great War was over,

Fritz Haber created Zyklon B,

The dreaded gas of concentrations camps.

The Nazis forced him

To give up his job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

He went to England,

Died eight months later,

For he’d been declared a Jew.


* * *




Remember the dead

And place a scarlet poppy

Between the hundreds of white crosses

In Flanders,

Or elsewhere.

The sun has set for the men

Who fought,

Died on duty

For their fatherlands,

Or for the wily politicians,

In the home front.


The dead were obliged to take up quarrels

Instigated by politicians and powers that be,

Who used fiery speeches,

To mobilise the masses.

To fight the enemy

With aeroplanes, tanks and infernal gas.


The tempo of combat became fast,

Put pressure on the mind and body.

Enlisted, mobilised soldiers were caught

Unprepared and surprised.


Isn’t history full of goodwill and good intentions?

Even tyrants and dictators believe,

And still do,

They’re improving the world.


Galvanizing and mesmerising people

With their charisma,

The way Hitler, Stalin, Lenin have done,

The fury of World War I went on

For four years and three months.

It left 2,7 million dead Germans,

More than 1,8 million Russians.

1,9 million French dead,

1,8 million Austrians and Hungarians,

And 1 million from the British Isles.


What had ended for the dead?

This wonderful world,

With its friendships, smiles given, favours done,

The culinary flavours, mirth, glorious sunsets,

The twitters and chirps of birds at dawn,

Music and dewdrops,

An unforgettable lover’s kiss.

The seasonal changes, children laughing at play,

The whims of women,

The pride of men,

The useful technology of man,

Philosophy and literature.


All these came to an end,

For the 15 million humans died.

2 million Germans died near Villiers.

August Stramm (1874-1915) wrote in his ‘Tropfblut:’


Aus allen Winkeln gellen

Fürchte wollen



Das Leben

Vor sich


Den Keuchen Tod

Die Himmel fetzen

Blinde schlächter wildum das Entsetzen.


Erich Maria Remarque scribed:

Ruhr, Grippe, Typhus –

Würgen, Verbrennen, Tod.

Graben, Lazarett, Massengrab

–  mehr Möglichkeiten gibt es nicht.


In the autumn of 1917 a fourth of the British

Drowned, wounded and helpless in swamps.

Half of the twelve million soldiers

Of the Zar of Russia were wounded or died.

There was a dearth of medication.

The only solace was the Orthodox priest,

Who blessed them all.


* * *




Gurkha soldiers on leave in the hills of Nepal

Were summoned to their batallions.

Colonial British based in India

Pledged to do their bit.

The Gurkhas left India on the SS Barpeta,

In November 1914.

British ladies gave them tea, dried fruits,

Chillies and cigarettes.
The officers were given books.

The 1/4th Gurkhas chugged in the SS Baroda,

Destination: Suez Canal on August 24,1914.


To the Hindu Gurkhas the sea was ‘kala pani,’

Black Water.

It was a sacrilege to cross the sea.

A Hindu Gurkha would risk his caste,

Unless a Vedic ritual was performed ,

A ceremony with the name pani patiya.

If a Hindu returned from overseas,

A Brahmin priest was summoned

And this special dispensation performed.


The Nepalese Maharaja

Sir Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana

Appealed to the Raj Guru (high priest)

To give his approval to cross the Black Water.


The Gurkhas became seasick.

‘Where did the water come from?

Where did it go?’ asked the hillmen.

The ship left a trail behind,

Where were the tracks up front?

Steam ship? Never heard of such a thing.


The Gurkhas were simple, sturdy, loyal sons,

Knew no geography, leave alone history.

School was out of question.

They were outdoor men and loved a good fight.

What was the cause of the war?

They couldn’t read English newspapers,

Couldn’t talk with people other than Gurkhas.

They lived in splendid isolation.

The king was the absolute monarch of Nepal,

Even though he’d usurped the throne.

Democracy was a foreign word.


Gurkhas fought for the honour of their army units,

After the motto:

‘It is better to die than to be a coward.’

They fought for their comrade-in-arms,

For pay and pension.

And the excitement of combat,

Whipped up by their officers.


Nepal not only gave its best men to the world,

But also a million rupees to the colonial British.

The Maharaja presented thirty-one machine guns

On King George’s birthday in 1915.


On October 29,1914 the first Gurkhas entered

The trenches near Festubert.

The war was grim,

The terrain was wet, cold, damp,

And hunger prevailed in the trenches.

The 2/8th Gurkhas were greeted

By heavy German shelling.

After a splendid dash the Gurkhas beat them back,

But thirty seven were killed,

Sixty were wounded.

A hundred were missing,

Blown to bits and pieces by shells.

Nepal’s hillmen had to brave the German artillery,

Bitter stormy wind in northern France and Belgium.


The straw-filled sandbags over the boots,

Whale oil for feet massage,

Were of no help against frost bite.

Gurkhas and officers were shot dead,

While cutting barbwire in the Front.

4000 Indian Corps soldiers were wounded

In ten days.

Heavy rains flooded the trenches and ground

Around Neuve Chapelle.

Among the 529 Gurkhas,

147 fell.


Where was the glory?

Angst, bloodshed, frozen toes,

Biting pain subdued the thoughts

Of the ones he’s loved and left in the Himalayas.

Duty and war demanded sacrifice.

Breathing poisonous air,

Emitted by the enemy,

A whiff and your eyes burn,

Yellow blisters develop on your skin.

Mustard gas was fifty times worse

Than chlorine.

Not even the gas mask could save you.

It went through and through.


Richard Aldington (1892-1962) wrote aptly:

‘The battle was as a rule so impersonal

That it was like a nature catastrophe,

A clash of the elements.

It was a war of shells,

Murderous explosives that made a lose

Your senses,

And not a fight man against man.’


* * *