Michaela and I have just sat and listened to the Remembrance day ceremony from the Cenotaph in London. This ceremony is held every year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, to honour first the dead of the ‘great war to end all wars’ (1914-1918) and then the subsequent second world war, along with all the post-empire skirmishes and border confrontations that our soldiers have died in ever since.
We were silent first through the emotional beauty of laments played by brass bands, then for the official minutes silence
I have had a mixed relationship with the ceremony. At worst, it seems to glorify and exalt the business of war. For a while, I refused to wear a red poppy, finding instead the white ones with an overtly pacifist stance to be more appropriate. It seemed to me the only response that followers of Jesus could take.
I spent some time working as a therapist in GP surgeries, and met several ex-soldiers struggling with post traumatic symptoms years after conflicts in Cypress, the Falklands or the wars in the Gulf. I heard their matter-of-fact stories of broken bodies and a culture of brotherhood, booze and easy violence that was both intensely supportive and ultimately destructive to the rest of their lives. I now wear red poppies with respect and humility.
But still, this balance between remembering those who suffered and died, whilst wanting to de-glamourise war and pursue peace- this is a hard thing to find at times.
This was highlighted too by my reaction to the front page of our local paper- the Dunoon Observer. In a creative response to Remembrance day, they printed a famous poem from the Great war on the front page. It is this one;
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.
Lt Col John McRae
This poem was written in 1915, after a terrible battle, but still in an early part of the war, when glory still beckoned, at least for some. McRae was a staff officer, and the second verse always seemed to me to fit uneasily alongside the first. Some have called it ‘recruiting office rhetoric’- handing on the torch to others to have revenge…
But I applaud the Observer for printing poetry. I just would have preferred them to print another famous war poem- the one below.
I remember reading the first world war poets at school- Seigfreid Sassoon, and most of all, Wilfred Owen,
who was killed by a snipers bullet at just about the very end of the war. It was these men who first showed me that poetry can be something powerful. It can be healing, challenging, therapeutic, revolutionary, beautiful and harrowing- all at the same time.
This poem captures the whole thing of war for me. Here it is (with some notes pinched from here.)
DULCE ET DECORUM EST1
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares2 we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest3 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 hoots4
Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines6 that dropped behind.
Gas!7 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets8 just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime9 . . .
Dim, through the misty panes10 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,11 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 cud12
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest13
To children ardent14 for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.15
8 October 1917 – March, 1918
1 DULCE ET DECORUM EST – the first words of a Latin saying (taken from an ode by Horace). The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and right to die for your country. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country
2 rockets which were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines (See illustration, page 118 of Out in the Dark.)
3 a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days, or longer
4 the noise made by the shells rushing through the air
5 outpaced, the soldiers have struggled beyond the reach of these shells which are now falling behind them as they struggle away from the scene of battle
6 Five-Nines – 5.9 calibre explosive shells
7 poison gas. From the symptoms it would appear to be chlorine or phosgene gas. The filling of the lungs with fluid had the same effects as when a person drowned
8 the early name for gas masks
9 a white chalky substance which can burn live tissue
10 the glass in the eyepieces of the gas masks
11 Owen probably meant flickering out like a candle or gurgling like water draining down a gutter, referring to the sounds in the throat of the choking man, or it might be a sound partly like stuttering and partly like gurgling
12 normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was issuing from the soldier’s mouth
13 high zest – idealistic enthusiasm, keenly believing in the rightness of the idea
15 see note 1