The Great War: A Poetic Rememberance

100 years ago the Great War began, the War to End All Wars. It began because the Great Powers of Europe assumed at some point they would go to war, and when the lights started going out, they all went out. The first balance of power failed miserable, and brought a four year conflict without a purpose other than crushing enemies. Everyone suffered.

Three great poets in English had reflections worth remembering. The first is by a Canadian doctor, Major John McCrae from May 1915:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It captures the sadness of the conflict with a sentiment that continued it: do not let our lives be wasted.
The horror of the front lines is captured more poignantly in this Wilfred Owen poem from between October 8, 1917 and March 1918:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, 
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, 
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs 
And towards our distant rest began to trudge. 
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots 
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; 
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling, 
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; 
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling, 
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . 
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, 
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. 
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, 
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace 
Behind the wagon that we flung him in, 
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, 
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; 
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

The grimly, horrible death by mustard gas described in this poem belies the gentle title, which translates, “It is Sweet and Right.” The full Latin quote at the end comes from Horace and translates, “It is Sweet and Right to die for your country.”

The last is a couplet from Rudyard Kipling, who pulled strings to get his only son into a combat unit only to see his son die 6 weeks after his 18th birthday:

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

The Great War still affects our daily lives: our cultural expectations, our political attitudes, and especially the Middle East borders drawn at its end. If we’re going to remember the brave people who gave their lives on all sides in those 4 years 1914-18, we should always ask ourselves if any conflict is necessary or inevitable, given the high cost to all touched by it and the ultimate price paid by so many who had no direct part in its creation. A voice from our own Civil War once said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we would grow too fond of it.”

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