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AFTER THE BATTLE: Street scene from 1915 shows dead horses in a city in France.
Berliner Verlag/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP
AFTER THE BATTLE: Street scene from 1915 shows dead horses in a city in France.

The poetry of death

Lifestyle | War’s agony and grief poured out in rhyme and meter

Issue: "Border gridlock," Aug. 9, 2014

We interrupt our biweekly examination of lifestyles to bring a brief reminder of death. In August one century ago, millions began marching toward disaster: Germany invaded Belgium on Aug. 4, Austria invaded Serbia on Aug. 13, and on Aug. 22, on just one day, 27,000 Frenchmen died in one battle. 

The next day the British Expeditionary Force fought its first battle at Mons, and Rudyard Kipling was cheering them on: “For all we have and are, / For all our children’s fate, / Stand up and take the war, / The Hun is at the gate! / Our world has passed away, / In wantonness o’erthrown. / There is none left today / But steel and fire and stone!

Soon, Kipling backed up his words by pulling strings to get his 18-year-old son into battle: John Kipling was three times rejected because of poor eyesight, but British Army Commander-in-Chief Frederick Roberts, a lifelong friend of Rudyard, let him in. In 1915, at the battle of Loos, John Kipling was last seen stumbling and screaming in agony after an exploding shell ripped him apart. 

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That death was one of about 23 million combatants suffered, a nightmare that prompted poet Mary Borden to exclaim, “The sky long since has fallen from its dome. / Terror let loose like a gigantic wind has torn it from the ceiling of the world / And it is flapping down in frantic shreds. / The earth, ages ago, leaped screaming up; out of the fastness of its ancient laws, / There is no centre now to hold it down.”

After another bloody battle along the Somme River in France, Borden’s poem “Where Is Jehovah?” asked, “Where is Jehovah, the God of Israel, with his Ark and his Tabernacle and his Pillars of Fire?” She juxtaposed ancient thunder and the modern variety of “the armies of France and of England—The thunder is the thunder of their guns, / and the lightning that runs along the horizon is the flare and the flash of the battle that’s raging; / Moses is dead—and Joshua, who led His people into the promised land, is dead, / and there are no more prophets / to cry through the wilderness to comfort these people— /They must look after themselves.”

And look the poets did, as cynicism grew. Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “Once I sought the Grail, / Riding in armour bright, serene and strong; … / But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad, / And am no more the knight of dreams and show. / For lust and senseless hatred make me glad, / And my killed friends are with me where I go.”

Maybe there were no atheists in foxholes, but once poet-soldiers left the front, they often criticized church hierarchs who had blessed the troops. Sassoon, born to a Jewish father and named Siegfried because his Anglo-Catholic mom loved Wagner’s operas, wrote, “The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back / They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought / In a just cause: they lead the last attack / On Anti-Christ.’” Sassoon then has soldiers list ways they are not the same: “George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind; / Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die.” All the bishop says in response is, “The ways of God are strange!” 

Another poet, Wilfred Owen, compared his situation with that of Isaac: “Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, … And stretchéd forth the knife to slay his son. / When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven, / Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, / Neither do anything to him, thy son. / Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns, / A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. / But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Owen died in action on Nov. 4, 1918, one week before the signing of the Armistice. On Nov. 11 church bells rang out to celebrate the end of the war, and as they rang Owen’s mother received the telegram saying her son was dead. 

British-Canadian poet Robert Service wondered why he and others were fighting. He wrote about a wounded German “shot in the head, and worse than dead. … The dying Boche on the stretcher there has a queer resemblance to me. … It’s just as if I were lying there, with a turban of blood for a hat, … With one of my eyes all shot away, and my brain half tumbling through; … / And confound him, too! He wears like me on his finger a wedding ring, / And around his neck, as around my own, by a greasy bit of string, / A locket hangs with a woman’s face, and I turn it about to see: / And I push the locket beneath his shirt, feeling a little blue. / Oh it isn’t cheerful to see a man, the marvelous work of God, / Crushed in the mutilation mill, crushed to a smeary clod.”

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