The First World War
The first edition of the celebrated WWI poet Wilfred Owen’s war poems was edited and published by Sigfried Sassoon and Edith Sitwell in 1920. Dominic Hibberd’s 1973 republication includes Owen’s poems together with extracts from his letters to his mother, written from the trenches of the Western Front, and other materials including Owen’s own preface to a collection he was clearly planning to publish before his untimely death in 1918.
Owen writes in his preface:
This book is not about heroes, English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, dominion, or power, except war.
Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.
If I thought the letter of this book would last, I might have used proper names; but if the spirit of it survives – survives Prussia – my ambition and those names will have achieved themselves fresher fields than Flanders.
Wilfred Owen was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He freely chose to be part of the worst brutalities of a war in which a young subaltern’s life expectancy in the trenches was a matter of weeks. Having made it through some truly horrendous experiences, Owen was killed seven days before the cessation of hostilities. With tragic poignancy, the telegram informing his mother of his death reached her about an hour after the Armistice was signed.
The record of his war poetry makes Owen’s death noteworthy. Yet, I believe he would be among the first to protest that his was but one death amidst the annihilation of a whole generation – the flower of European youth.
It has been estimated that between 15 – 21 million men died among all combatants in the First World War, with another 21 million seriously wounded. The death totals are staggering: Russia 1,700,000; France 1,357,000; The British Empire, 908,000; The United States, 116,000; Germany, 1,800,000; Austria-Hungary, 1,200,000; Turkey, 325,000.
In my family, we lost two of three brothers. At the time, New Zealand with a population of 1 million, fielded a Division of 100,000 men, of whom 16,000 were killed and a further 41,000 injured; a 58% casualty rate, the highest death toll per head of population for any single combatant army.
Of a grand total of 65 Million men mobilized in the First World War, an estimated 9 million men died, with a further 21 million men wounded.
The most monstrous war in human history was followed by a punitive peace treaty – the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which succeeded only in sowing the seeds of bitterness and ensuring the national humiliation of Germany and the rise of Hitler. You can draw a straight line from the Treaty of Versailles to the outbreak of the Second World War, 21 years later.
On the 19th January 1917 Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother:
They want to call No Man’s land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there. It is like the eternal place of gnashing teeth; the Sough of Despond could be contained in one of its crater holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it – to find the way to Babylon the Fallen….The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague (a fever of shivering) for 50 hours!
February 4th, 1917, after describing his experience of leading his platoon into the frozen wastes of no man’s land where without even the cover of dug-outs, under the constant gaze of German periscopes and machine gun positions his platoon lay frozen for several days, plagued by thirst because their Tommycookers (Tommy being the nickname for a British infantryman) could not even melt the snow to fill their canteens, Owen writes to his mother:
I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth, everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night, …and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ …
16th May 1917:
Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think the pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skillfully and successfully indeed. … Christ is literally in no man’s land. There, men often hear his voice – Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English, only in French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.
On the 11th day of November in 2018, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that finally brought the carnage to an end. Throughout the English speaking world and in France and Belgium each year on November 11th a day of remembrance is observed in memory of this global tragedy that shaped the world as we now know it.
Over the war-ravaged landscape Owen describes in his poetry and in his letters home; across the churned up, shell-cratered moonscape of Flander’s fields, a carpet vista of red poppies blossomed. The Canadian poet, John McCrae memorialized this in his poem In Flanders Fields. The red poppy quickly became the universal symbol of what Owen in his preface called the pity of war.
Following World War II and the subsequent wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, November 11th is no longer exclusively focused on the 1918 Armistice. What is now called Remembrance Day elsewhere, is in the US known as Veterans Day, with an emphasis on the honoring of those who have and who currently serve in the armed services.
Nevertheless, the wearing of the red poppy remains the enduring symbol that reminds us of the pity of war. Throughout the nations of the British Commonwealth, the near-universal wearing of the poppy for several weeks preceding Remembrance Day is one of the most moving experiences of what is now sadly an increasingly rare experience of national unity and demonstration of a civic common mind. The wearing of the poppy was once also a common sight in the US, and the American Legion still does its best to make poppies available and to promote a revival of its wearing.
Speaking of the generation killed in the trenches of the First World War, Lawrence Binyon composed a rather jingoistic poem For the Fallen. Only one of the stanzas bears repeating. In the fourth stanza, Binyon penned this memorial verse – now recited at all Remembrance commemorations:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
Remembrance is a somewhat anomalous word in a society that increasingly has no collective memory extending further back than the last 24-hour news cycle. In a time, such as the one we are living through, Sigmund Freud’s axiom: that which we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat – signals the danger we are in.
All a poet can do today is warn.
I believe the international order is fragmenting under the assault of reckless leadership that echoes the world of 1914. This may seem an unduly alarmist observation, but if we can only remember the lessons of history, we will quickly see that at no time since 1945 have international relations most mimicked the situation in 1914 that led to the outbreak of the First World War. I highlight five observations.
- After the collapse of communism, the relative stability of a bipolar world of two major powers has now fragmented into an international complexity of multiple and competing power centers that signals a frightening return to the 1914 picture of the world.
- The stable alliance groups of the post-World War II decades are now being actively undermined in preference for alliances of convenience that come and go at the whim of perceived national interests; interests that are often driven directly by leaders who promote a culture of grievance.
- The rise of nationalistic, totalitarian, saber rattling leadership styles in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, the Middle East, and now in the US should ring history’s warning bells for us. Such styles of leadership pose inherent dangers to world peace.
- A new tripartite arms race between the three preeminent military powers of Russia, China, and the US seems to echoes a prescient return to a 1914 world. As then, so now, governments seem to favor only one international relations philosophy; that in the zero-sum game, we will always win.
- Totalitarian, nationalistic, and jingoistic regimes often view war as the primary tool for distracting their populations from more pressing domestic tensions.
An uncomfortable Christian truth
I return to Wilfred Owen’s most challenging words: pure Christianity will not fit with pure patriotism.
At the 11th hour of the 11th day in the 11th month, 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent. Yet, although his life was cut short by a matter of days from celebrating this event, in his poem The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Wilfred Owen, drawing on the Biblical story of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac offered a deeper and unfortunately more enduring truth about the nature of human political leadership.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
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