The Survivors: “Dead as the Men I Loved”
Them that dies, they’re the lucky ones!
The old saying might have been coined by the veterans of the Great War. No one who lived in the hell of the Western Front ever really left it. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome had not yet been identified in 1918, but the war left us its own term for the same condition: shell-shock. To one degree or another, all the returning combat veterans suffered from it.
The poets who returned preserved and honored the memory of those who did not. Edmund Blunden was an accomplished poet who survived the war, and it fell to him to edit for publication the verse of his late comrade, Wilfred Owen.
But he left his own record. The following poem, with its haunting and melancholy imagery, was written at a point when he was far enough away from the war to be able to look back:
|1916 seen from 1921|
|Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;
In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there — and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
|Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own;
But now what once was mine is mine no more,
I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
With such strong gentleness and tireless will
Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.
|I rise up at the singing of a bird
And scarcely knowing slink along the lane,
I dare not give a soul a look or word
Where all have homes and none’s at home in vain:
Deep red the rose burned in the grim redoubt,
The self-sown wheat around was like a flood,
In the hot path the lizard lolled time out,
The saints in broken shrines were bright as blood.
|Sweet Mary’s shrine between the sycamores!
There we would go, my friend of friends and I,
And snatch long moments from the grudging wars,
Whose dark made light intense to see them by.
Shrewd bit the morning fog, the whining shots
Spun from the wrangling wire: then in warm swoon
The sun hushed all but the cool orchard plots,
We crept in the tall grass and slept till noon.
Remembrance of the war — the collective process of coming to terms with its horrendous carnage — was a preoccupation in the years after the Great War. With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, plans for an appropriate monument in London were drawn up, and the Cenotaph was unveiled the following year. It became the focus of the annual Remembrance Day on 11 November, and the symbol of British sacrifice in the war.
Siegfried Sassoon, another prominent war poet who survived the conflict (and lived until 1967), had a more sardonic view of the monument:
|At the Cenotaph|
|I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
| Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.
|The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.
The ink on the Treaty of Versailles was scarcely dry when it became evident that another global conflict was on the way. “The War to End All Wars” did not do so; the West was facing two decades of strikes, revolutions, depression, dictatorship, and genocide, followed by another unimaginably brutal war.
But nothing comparable to the Great War has happened since. The stupid and senseless slaughter of the trenches has not been repeated. The hundreds of millions of innocent victims of Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Saddam were not victims of war, but of something more banal, and therefore more horrifying: the brutal and cynical calculation of absolute dictators.
We should thank God that in our time, when wars must come, they at least have meaning.