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brown and black rough surface

The Caissons Go Rolling Along

John W. Davis

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Kerr Eby volunteered to be a soldier in the Great War, in the hope of recording history through art. When the Army did not commission him to be a military artist, the young illustrator became a horse-ambulance driver. Later he was assigned to be an engineer, with the primary role of camouflaging cannons. With only his spare time available to observe and record what surrounded him, he perhaps saw more intensely: we know virtually nothing of his experiences except those that he depicts in etchings made from sketches he took while in the war zone of northern France. They are executed with a harsh clarity that takes us straight to the center of the brutal business of war.

I own a print by Eby called The Caissons Go Rolling Along. The jaunty title is taken from the refrain of a popular war song scored by John Philip Sousa, an ironic twist on the merry marching band theme. But there is no hearty camaraderie, no lively charge represented in the print. Instead, we encounter a virtually black night scene. In the foreground, a column of bone-tired artillerymen ride listlessly through a town. There are no cannons visible. Instead, the caissons carry indistinct loads, each wrapped, perhaps in canvas. The loads are body-sized.

Along with a few faceless foot soldiers, the riders slog past a bombed-out building, reduced almost to rubble. We infer it to be a church for its looming steeple or bell tower, but there are no distinct windows, bell fissures, or other identifiable apertures to pierce its dark face. What holes exist are more likely the gaps of war – rifle slits or the wreckage of fallen shells. Recognizable, however, are dozens of crude black etchings on that gray stone faced building. They lend the impression of a panoply of crosses, one nearer, others distant, or not quite (yet) a cross at all. Each cut suggests that others have been this way, heralded only by a blank cross mark, a token for a nameless grave.

Not a face is seen among our weary, bedraggled column. Each is bowed low, his tin army helmet limiting his view to the ground upon which his feet or horse plods. A funeral march has more life. All the soldiers slowly dissolve away into the left distance, lit only by a shell exploding far off beyond the ruined tower. No indication exists of time, or purpose, or even meaning. Eby reveals a master observer’s grasp of the lot of ground soldiers trapped in war, a war that can be relentless, but mindless and timeless at the same time.

A few soldiers on foot, backs to the viewer, enter from the near distance. It is as if you are following one of them. Indeed, it is as if Eby asks you, “Where are they going?  Now you have your war. Where are you going?” We detect no indication whether the soldiers are advancing or retreating. Such concepts appear almost too complex for the utter drudgery depicted. Only a blank, darkened cavity represents what might have been a door to the church, or perhaps a portal to nothingness. No one notices, each simply steps silently, relentlessly on.

The Caissons Go Rolling Along was completed in 1929, as the world was heaving toward another war. Eby the ambulance driver had carried and wrestled countless dead men into graves. He’d held wounded, dying, crying, lonely, and terrified men. He beheld what all our industrial genius could devise to burn, explode, gas, puncture, or suffocate bodies.

With this etching Eby detected the satanic irony that not only were caissons the artilleryman’s gun conveyance, but also their hearse. Cannon caissons assured the means of producing the dead, which could then be carried back to graves by the same transportation. If we doubt the veracity of what we’ve seen in his work, we can read it in the opening lines of his 1936 book, simply entitled War: “I write in all humility of spirit, in the desperate hope that somehow it may be of use in the forlorn and seemingly hopeless fight against war.” The book was dedicated “To those who gave their lives for an idea, the men who never came back.”

The Cassions Go Rolling Along by Kerr Eby
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Contributed By John W. Davis

A retired Army counterintelligence officer with thirty-seven years in the military and Army civil service, Davis is the author of Rainy Street Stories and Around the Corner, both of which reflect on wars and conflicts that he participated in, and the moral and ethical choices war forces upon those engaged in it.

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