Armistice Day 2019
From poems written in the trenches to elegies for the dead, these poems commemorate the Great War.
Roughly ten million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, along with seven million civilians. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in many ways. Just months before his death in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, '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, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War'.
To mark 100 years since 'Remembrance Day' became a national holiday, we've put together a sampling of poems written by soldiers and civilians. While many of these poems do not address a particular event, we've listed them by year, along with a selection of historical markers, to contextualise the poems historically. You may notice that poems in 1914-15 extoll the old virtues of honour, duty, heroism, and glory, while many poems after 1915 approach these lofty abstractions with greater scepticism and moral subtlety.
Archduke Ferdinand assassinated, Outbreak of war in July/August, Germany invades Belgium, First Battle of the Marne, First Battle of Ypres, Trench warfare begins, The Siege of Antwerp, the Christmas Truce.
Charles Hamilton Sorley
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
Germany sinks RMS Lusitania, The Dardenelles Campaign, Battle of Gallipoli, Second Battle of Ypres, First use of poison gas.
The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time's but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
Battle of Verdun, Battle of the Somme, President Woodrow Wilson reelected with campaign slogan 'He kept us out of the war', Rasputin assassinated.
The Troop Ship
Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to a doze,
Wind’s fumble or men’s feet
Is on your face.
Zimmerman Telegram, US declares war on Germany, US troops land in France, Third Battle of Ypres, Bolshevik uprising in Russia.
And have we done with War at last?
Well, we've been lucky devils both,
And there's no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.
By wire and wood and stake we're bound,
By Fricourt and by Festubert,
By whipping rain, by the sun's glare,
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,
By Picard clay.
Show me the two so closely bound
As we, by the wet bond of blood,
By friendship blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found
Beauty in Death,
In dead men, breath.
US President Woodrow Wilson issues Fourteen Points to peace, Germany launches Spring Offensive, US launches attacks at Belleau Wood and Argonne Forest, Bolsheviks murder Romanov family, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, Germany signs armistice on November 11th.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?