“… the eleventh hour of the eleventh day ….”   3 comments

A recreation of The Cenotaph, the monument built originally to honor the British and Empire dead of World War I, here in London City.  (Some items on the wall are derendered for the photo.)

This year, November 11 will be extra notable in many countries.  It will have been one hundred years since November 11, 1918, the day that saw an armistice go into effect at 11:00 a.m. between the warring countries, ending fighting in what we now call the First World War.  Most people of the time hoped it would truly be the last major war, the “war to end war,” as it was phrased.  Sadly, as R. F. Delderfield suggested in To Serve Them All My Days, they had merely blown half-time.  It took only twenty years, along with a punitive peace treaty, governments using its terms to exact vengeance on Germany, and the general world economic collapse of the Great Depression (combined with the massive financial mistakes of the German government during and after the war), to open the path for the instigators of the next great war ….

From all I’ve ever read, the attitude at the beginning of the war — which turned into a morale and propaganda message by the end — was, “Go and serve, and do your part for your country.”  Patriotic songs reflected that attitude; and so did much poetry written during that time.  For instance, take the later work of Rupert Brooke.  Brooke had already established a reputation as a poet, and was friends with members of the Bloomsbury Group, which included names such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Lytton Strachey.  Brooke enlisted in the British army at the start of the war, but he never saw the kind of action that later war poets did; he died en route to the action which became the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915.  As a result, his published work from this time is touched with a patriotic fervor that modern tastes might find jingoistic, even cloying and treacly.  His best-known work of his last years is probably “War Sonnet V:  The Soldier”:

=====

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;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
      Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
     Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.


And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
      A pulse in the eternal mind, no less,
          Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
      And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
          In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

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Actually, the hope of the poet is strangely apt in Brooke’s case, as he was buried, and his body still rests, on the Greek island of Skyros.  Perhaps, in truth, a small corner of England can be found in that burial plot, from a time before the cares and concerns that were to follow.

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A similar poem, though perhaps easier to digest, is the work of Canadian John McCrae, a doctor and lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. McCrae was attached as medical officer to an artillery company that saw action at the Second Battle of Ypres.  Taking part in the burial of a friend following action, he noticed the red Flanders poppies growing wild in the fields.  The juxtaposition of flowers and the crude military crosses made to mark the graves inspired him to write one of the most familiar poems of the period; many people to this day know the first few lines by heart:

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In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.


We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.


Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us, who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields.

=====

McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was reprinted around the world, and inspired the adoption of the red poppy as a flower of remembrance.  The less-known third stanza, however, is often criticized for its “recruiting-poster rhetoric” (Paul Fussell, 1975 orig.).

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The people of the time began agreeing with that view as the meat grinder of modern weaponry, from the machine gun to the tank to gas attacks, started taking its toll.  The casualties mounted and the soldiers returned home wounded in body and spirit, and the patriotic fervor of the early days faded, and the change in outlook was reflected in the poetry of men now veterans of the blood and carnage.  The authors were excoriated as unpatriotic, but they didn’t give a damn when it came to the integrity of what they needed to say. 

Siegried Sassoon, for instance, risked court-martial by refusing to return to active service, following a stay in hospital.  (Sassoon was British, despite his first name; his mother was a fan of the operas of Richard Wagner.)  He was a decorated war hero, having been awarded the Military Cross, and even recommended for the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military medal.  His poems from this period pull no punches — biting, frank, unrelenting in their language:

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At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

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Sassoon lucked out following writing his letter of refusal; he was merely declared medically unfit for duty, diagnosed with “shell shock,” and assigned to convalesce in hospital.  There he met another “war poet,” Wilfrid Owen, whom he would influence in Owen’s own pieces.  Sadly, Owen would never live to pen much work; he was killed just a week before the Armistice went into effect ….

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The cost of war is high, and the world’s politicians should never run up the bill for greedy or shallow reasons.  World War I’s bill prior to that Armistice taught us that lesson; men’s and women’s bravery must be respected, but it must not be wasted for the sake of old international jealousies.

3 responses to ““… the eleventh hour of the eleventh day ….”

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  1. Thanks for this, Harper. We shall meet in the Anglican Cathedral at noon SLT for our Remembrance Service.

  2. (Shaking head and laughing) I just discovered that I’d used the same title back in 2011 on another Veterans Day article. I remembered the article, but I didn’t remember the title. I’ll leave things standing as they are, but I’ll need to make a note for future.

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