I was married in November of 1995 and my wife and I went went to England for our honeymoon.
While in London, we came across the remnants—flowers at war memorials, paper poppies left singly and in piles—of Armistice Day celebrations. I was surprised, and impressed, by the number of somber ceremonies honoring the dead. It wasn’t until later that I realized how many British lives were lost in that war, and that the people at ceremonies were often mourning not just some hypothetical soldier “who gave his life for our freedom” but very real brothers, fathers, grandfathers and friends. It sparked an interest in World War I and, while I’m no expert by any means, I find myself drawn to the war and the era, constantly stunned by the casual slaughter of so many.
On April 6, 1917, after much deliberation, the United States joined France and Britain in the war against Germany. One has to look long and hard to find a mention of this momentous decision, let alone any form of ceremony remembering it. PBS’ “The Great War” is on my DVR, awaiting the day I can devote full attention to it.
The generation that fought the war learned that high born or low, you all blow up the same. Inspired — if one can use such a word — by constant exposure to fear and death, the highly educated class turned to poetry to express its feelings. Even today these poems reverberate and are some of the most loved and quoted.
Some are highly patriotic, but I must confess that I hate the jingoism of the most famous of the poems, Rupert Brooks’ “The Soldier,” which begins
“If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed.”
I say, screw you, Rupert. Who are you to say that another country is better because British blood was shed there and that your blood, being British, is inherently better than the blood of, say, the people who lived there and fought to defend their own land?
I also find some of this poetry unintelligible (I’m looking at you, Wilfred Owen), full of references to antiquity that would have had a ready audience at the time, but which are lost on me today.
That’s why I like the work of the decidedly German-sounding English poet Siegfried Sassoon. His work is accessible, unsentimental, sardonic and surprising. He was a tough fighter, known as Mad Jack” and was highly decorated, which made his decision to publicly oppose the war something of a surprise to the British military and the people.
In 1917, he wrote an open letter to The Times of London, denouncing the war. In it, he condemned the government’s motives— “I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest” and explained the letter “as an act of wilful defiance of military authority.” He was, of course, declared crazy and sent for treatment of shell shock.
While in treatment, Sassoon met a young poet named Wilfred Owen and, seeing immense talent in him, helped Owen work on his poems, which became more famous than anything Sassoon would ever write. They both returned to active duty where Owen was killed. Sassoon would live until 1967.
The poem below, from 1918, is typical of his unique perspective of the war. It’s not his best, but what I find remarkable about it is that, even today, you hear the same sentiments. And doubtless, we’ll hear it again and again.
Fight to a Finish
The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying,
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardors War has brought,
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)
Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel,
At last the boys had found a cushy job.
* * *
I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those junkers out of Parliament