And I can remember those who died in service to this country with some thoughts beyond the weekend barbecue.
We say the horror of war. The daily killing machine that is Iraq is a fact completely beyond those feeble words. So I turn to the World War I English poets--those who fought in the trenches and lived to tell the world of horrors it had not yet heard detailed so clearly—-for a grounded picture of reality.
A surprising theme unites these poets: that the pomp and ceremony used to honor the dead is a mockery of sorts, because it obscures the truth of their violent, painful death. These WWI soldiers were coming out of the Edwardian England inflated with the Empire and the idea of “dulce et decorum est, pro patri mori”—what a glory it is to die for your country.
We are on the other side of the dividing line of modernism, so we don’t have the full extent of that naivete over the glory of war. But it is always important that we don’t let the tributes from the living overshadow what exactly happened to those who have died, and why.
Robert Graves served in the Royal Welch Fusilliers. He was so seriously wounded at the Somme that his family was informed that he was dead. He did recover, saw some more fighting in France, and then returned to England. Here he imagines a Bugler thinking that if he dies, “dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,” he doesn’t want someone playing over him.
The Last Post
THE BUGLER sent a call of high romance—
“Lights out! Lights out!” to the deserted square.
On the thin brazen notes he threw a prayer,
“God, if it’s this for me next time in France…
O spare the phantom bugle as I lie
Dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,
Dead in a row with the other broken ones
Lying so stiff and still under the sky,
Jolly young Fusiliers too good to die.”
Wilfred Owen served in the Manchester Regiment. He wrote this poem while recovering from shell-shock at a hospital in England. He returned to active service, and was killed at the Sambre-Oise Canal, at age 25, one week before the Armistice was signed.
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 good-byes.
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.
G.K. Chesterton was 40 when World War 1 began. He was recruited by Charles Masterman for the British War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House. But he had his own ideas of the inequities of war. Here he echoes the height of classic English poetry to tell off those in charge.
Elegy in a Country Churchyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.