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Dulce et Decorum Est — of Poppies and Wreaths

November 15, 2010


On 11/11 each year, at 11:00 a.m., we commemorate the signing of the armistice that ended the first World War. Thursday marked the 92nd such anniversary, with Veterans’ Day in our country and Remembrance Day in Britain. It is the custom in British lands to also wear lapel poppies, a poignant crimson reminder of the wildflowers that grew atop the trenches’ carnage in France and Belgium, as memorialized in the poem by John McCrae that closes, If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.

Today was Remembrance Sunday when, with appropriate gravitas and ceremony each year, the Queen lays a memorial wreath at the foot of the memorial cenotaph in Whitehall, London’s government district:

The cenotaph is the work of Edwin Lutyens, who also designed the imposing memorial at Thiepval, in France, to 72,189 missing. As I wrote on Remembrance Day 2009, “These deaths occurred in the Somme alone, just one sector of the European front, and only through March 20, 1918.” The memorial at Thiepval looms high on a hill:

The United Kingdom alone, excluding its colonies and the Commonwealth, lost more than 800,000 soldiers (nearly 700,000 killed plus 140,000 missing) in World War I; another 1.6 million were wounded in combat.

Many in the British elite considered the character of youth corroded in the new century and recommended the bracing experience of war to toughen and “cleanse” the upcoming generation. Responding to Lord Kitchener’s recruitment drive, tens of thousands of young men enlisted daily when war broke out. The military often grouped them geographically, meaning some towns lost almost all their young boys in a single day or battle.

One survivor, Arthur Savage, who enlisted when he was young and unemployed, reflected much later to historians, “Of course, what really died in that war was youth, a generation of young men. In my street where I grew up one family lost six sons, all killed in France. The population was out of balance. All through the twenties and thirties a massive surplus of women because so many men had been killed. There were simply thousands of lonely women who grew old alone and never married because they lost their men in the war and the children grew up fatherless. The effects were far reaching. So many people were broken and lost for the rest of their lives. Mind you, all the war leaders lived to a ripe old age.

Perhaps Wilfred Owen best captured the futility in his poem, Dulce et Decorum Est. Does the title echo a schoolmaster sending his slender students off to war? Or perhaps some fat, fatuous codger ensconced in a leather club chair, waving a well-masticated cigar? Change the setting to a Washington steakhouse and the battle aims from Flanders to WMD, and it all sounds frighteningly fresh.

The Latin translates as: “[How] sweet and right it is, to die for one’s country.”

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Thiepval photo by Amanda Slater on Flickr.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. arthur allen permalink
    November 17, 2010 5:03 pm

    Beautiful poem, Mandy. And apt, too. Is it any accident that as a country we take going to war so lightly, and as a culture are so unaware of its real consequences?

  2. November 17, 2010 9:14 pm

    True, Art. It’s not hard to understand today why warmongers themselves might be blithely ignorant about the costs of war, given the experience gap between our soldiers and most of our leaders. Still, back when “Dulce et Decorum Est” — like “Flanders Fields,” Brook’s memoir, “Goodbye to All That,” and other memorable literature from the Great War — emerged, the sons of dukes and merchant kings tended to serve alongside (or at least in command of) the common sort. Even the callous old geezers who sent them to war “for their own good” had, too, generally served themselves.
    In the geezers’ wars, of course, cavalry was still king, artillery inaccurate, and guns slow to reload. So, how could they have foreseen the carnage the Industrial Revolution would enable? War for them had been an adventure. Or else, like women who’ve gone through childbirth, they forgot the pain of combat.
    Here’s another question: Has any war since produced a similar outpouring of poetry? For World War II, satire might have been the dominant form (Heller’s “Catch-22,” Waugh’s “Put Out More Flags”). Vietnam had its novels — or maybe even reporting (“Bright and Shining Lie”?). The Spanish Civil War gave us Guernica and propaganda posters.
    I’m no poetry scholar, so what am I missing?

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