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Common Grave

Century of poetry and wa

PART 1: The First World War

Introduction

 

 

Most people consciously adjust their choice and use of words in the face of great events. This may be in order to express strong feelings: the day after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, the novelist Henry James wrote to a friend of 'the plunge of civilisation into this abyss of blood and darkness'.

But in 1914 'high' language had another purpose: to encourage people to believe that war was a noble enterprise. 'The stern hand of Fate has scourged us to an elevated place where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation - the great peaks of honour we had forgotten: Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of Sacrifice, pointing like a rugged finger to heaven.' That was a politician (soon to become Britain's prime minister) in September 1914, addressing a large audience of potential recruits. Many such volunteers would go to certain death, and not in glittering white.

In January 1916 Britain's Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, published an anthology of poetry and prose intended to console and encourage its readers. It was called 'The Spirit of Man' and was hugely successful. Bridges was a 19th century man, 70 years old in 1914, who had never fought in a war. In his introduction, he referred to the importance of religious faith; to 'joy' that 'our country is called of God to stand for the truth of man's hope'; and to what that hope is: 'the desire for brotherhood and universal peace to men of good-will'. He ended: 'Britons have ever fought well for their country, and their country's Cause is the high Cause of Freedom and Honour. ...We can therefore be happy in our sorrows, happy even in the death of our beloved who fall in the fight; for they die nobly, as heroes and saints die, with hearts and hands unstained by hatred or wrong.'

Stirring stuff; or so it was back then. But nothing to do with reality, or even truth. It was the men who fought the war who knew the facts. A captain in 1914: 'It's absolutely a war of attrition. We've got to stick it longer than the other side and go on producing men, money and material until they cry quits; and that's all about it as far as I can see.' A soldier at the Somme in July 1916: 'By the end of the day both sides had seen, in a sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answer to the question. No road. No thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The War had won, and would go on winning.'

There was yet another kind of language: the button-pushing clichés of heroism-to-order. Ordered in words like these of General Haig: 'Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one must fight on to the end.' As it happened, many men failed to hear the order: ' we were too scattered, too busy trying to survive, to be called into formation to hear the orders of the day'..

And what about the men they were fighting?

German generals too had high-sounding words: 'Keep the German army's bright shield of honour clean to the last, and then you will be able to look back in pride, to the end of your days, on your heroic deeds.'

But again, it was the footsoldiers who had the clearer view. A young German soldier watched a wretched crowd of Russian prisoners: 'A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies, a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by people we don't know; and then our highest aim becomes the very crime which the world had formerly condemned and punished.'

Another, whose health was broken by his experiences, saw that war itself kills thought and language. 'I was at the front for 13 months, and by the end the sharpest perceptions were dulled, the greatest words had become mean. War had become an everyday affair, life in the line was now routine. There were no heroes, only victims. And conscripts now, instead of volunteers. There was no rhyme or reason in all this slaughtering and devastation.'

Not much poetry, either. But poets learned the hard way that poems can, after all, deal truthfully with this kind of pain.

The first two poems in this section, 'In Flanders Fields' and 'For the Fallen', are still caught up in 19th century high-flown rhetoric; and we can see now how it masks meaning. 'Dulce et Decorum Est' and 'On Passing the New Menin Gate' don't entirely reject the vocabulary of rhetoric - the grand words 'ecstasy', 'ardent', 'glory', 'absolve', 'fate', 'doomed', 'pride', 'immolation', and 'sepulchre' are here - but they make it participate in forcefully telling truths about war.

Ernest Hemingway wrote that 'abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, are obscene beside the concrete names of villages and rivers, the numbers of regiments, and the dates' on which their men killed and were killed. Though some of its vocabulary has changed, political and military rhetoric is still with us. Do we recognise it when we hear it? Does it work? Are there enough people prepared to cut through it to find its real meaning - and do that publicly? Are writers and poets among them? And do they get noticed?

 

POETRY INDEX
CONTENTS

The first world war
- Introduction GO
- In Flanders Fields   GO
- For the Fallen  GO
- Dulce et decorum est  GO
- On Passing the New Menin Gate  GO
  
the 1930s
  
 the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voice
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