War. It is on our screens and in our faces, from many corners of the globe. It weighs heavy on the heart, as the seemingly endless tragedies of innocent victims play out time and again. Hard to watch. Hard to see. Hard to know how to pray. The horror of it all almost unimaginable. The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote over 2500 years ago, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ and certainly as far as human conflict is concerned, he was right. The First World War commemorations have reminded us of the scale and cost, paid in lives a hundred years ago.
In my early teens I discovered the poetry of Wilfred Owen, whose vivid word pictures captured the stuff of nightmares. The physical, moral and emotional maelstroms facing those fighting in the trenches. I am not sure any other poet has been able to express the pathos and pointlessness of war so eloquently.
Anthem for doomed youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
This poem could have been written for the youth of Syria, of Gaza, Iraq. . Its timeless truth as apt. He saw his poetry as a warning for humanity as he looked into a future he would never see. He was killed on the 4th November, 1918 just days before the end of the war. His parents had news of his death as the bells were ringing out for Armistice on the 11th of November. He was just 25 years old. Compiling a book of his poetry, he wrote in his introduction 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. His warnings unheeded, his truths live on. As part of the commemorations, a place where I work held a re-enactment of the first men of the town marching off blithely for ‘King and country’, cheered on by those left behind. It was a sober moment, realising that a high majority of those marching would never return. A whole generation of young men wiped out, leaving a crater of grief and hardship in the towns and villages from which they came. I have just finished the book The Quick and The Dead: Fallen Soldiers and their families in the Great War by Richard Van Emden. If every poppy in the photo above of Paul Cummins/Tom Piper’s artwork on display in the Tower of London, represents a life, graphically capturing the magnitude of loss, this book’s collection of letters and personal insights paints the petals of a few. Setting them in the context of their homes and families, it examines the impact of the war on those left behind, parents, wives and children and the reverberations down the generations since. In the summer of 2010, Lilly Baron a frail 97 year old made her way to France to lay a wreath of lilies at the place of her father’s death, and say a prayer She had been born in 1912 and her father had died in November 1917. Her note with the lilies said simply.
“Daddy, Thank you for five years of real happiness- I have missed you all my life.”
She was to die herself, a few months following that journey.
The following fragment from a poem by Wilfred Owen called Strange Meeting, envisions a meeting between fellow soldiers on opposite sides, just after death.
How much do we find ourselves again in need of those ‘sweet wells’ and ‘truths that lie too deep for taint’. Wilfred Owen was able somehow to find the words for the unspeakable. Lacking his eloquence, I can only weep, and pray Kýrie eléison,
‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy’
longing for that day when
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 4:2