In recent weeks, revisiting some of the news and poetry of the day, it struck me hard how, what seemed to be an air of anxiety and concern for peace amongst the population, turned so quickly into a hunger for war and apparent adventure.
Clearly the state was well prepared, and with the general connivance of local authorities and media, ensured that once alight the zeal for war was stoked. Of course, this is exactly what the state must do if under threat; to motivate and muster an army. What surprised me is the apparent sophistication of the steps taken in 1914, and looking back how readily working people walked willingly to certain death. All thoughts of jobs, pay, housing and democracy gone.
This was not a war for the nation, it was a conflict manufactured to halt the rise of the working man across Britain, Germany and Russia in particular, where unity was being found and demands for change being laid at the door of the political establishments across all of Europe. Of course once war is begun then all are wrapped in flags. When your brother is fired upon, your home is threatened, of course it becomes a fight for your nation. In the heat of the battle there is no pause for reflection, no analysis of international politics, you fight to live…and to kill.
Once packed into your new kit, with cheers and whistles still ringing in your ears, no thought for the printer, miner, clerk or schoolboy you are about to shoot or they might murder you. If only the chance was there to think for one moment how their journey to the trench opposite was exactly as your’s, surely that would have changed the world?
We must honour and remember the sacrifices made by the millions around the world; the dead, the injured and the bereaved. The bravery of individuals must be marked, their stories shared for future generations, and our children must learn the lessons and truth of all wars. This poem I first read when I was 14 and it has always stayed with me. In my mind I see this group of young soldiers drowning amongst the yellow mist; some fighting for breath and others thinking of their home in their final dying minutes (exactly as depicted in Sargent’s painting at the foot). A generation lost.
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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.