Poems on the Occasion of the Centenary of the End of World War I – Moments of Quiet Reflection

Monuments in Saskatchewan (left) and Alberta to the people unjustly interned by the Canadian government during World War One, reminders of the repression at home that accompanies imperialist war abroad. 

Today we will hear a lot about Remembrance Day and what to remember on Remembrance Day. For instance, we are told that Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will be in Paris, France for a special 100th anniversary Armistice Day service followed by a “Peace Forum.” British Prime Minister Teresa May, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, U.S. President Donald Trump and “more than 70 other world leaders” are also invited. The “Peace Forum” will discuss “issues of international security.”

To use the commemorations of the end of the greatest inter-imperialist slaughter experienced by humankind to promote inter-imperialist war preparations today is unconscionable but it is indeed taking place.

France is the country on whose soil many of the greatest battles of World War I were fought. Many of the 61,000 Canadians killed on foreign soil are buried in cemeteries in France, along with all others, as well as all over Europe. They will be remembered today by Canadians from all walks of life in a manner which specifically does not glorify or justify inter-imperialist wars or prepare for more to come, as the current leaders of the Great Powers which fought on one side in World War I are doing on this occasion. These forces claim the sacrifice of Canadians during the war “helped forge a nation.” They repeat the line from the poem by the poet laureate of empire Rudyard Kipling, “Lest we forget” with its message that despite our loss and suffering, let us not forget that they did their duty to King and Country. “They did not die in vain.”

In response TML Weekly brings to your attention the words of the great Canadian patriot and internationalist Norman Bethune: “I refuse to live in a world that spawns murder and corruption without raising my hand against them. I refuse to condone, by passivity, or by default, the wars which greedy men make against others.”

We then publish some of the many poems which express the anti-war consciousness and sentiments of the millions of men and women the world over even at the time of World War I. They are the best food for thought on this Day of Remembrance, one hundred years since the end of World War I.

Please note that this week’s TML Weekly is supplanted by the Supplements 1-6 on the Commemorations of the End of World War I.

Belguim-YpresWWIBattlefieldArtInstallation-sculptures-crop

Art installation in a battlefield in Ypres, Belguim commemorating the centenary of World War I, by Koen Vanchchelen, individual clay sculptures represent those who died in World War I.

To What God?
– Harold Monro –

To what God
Shall we chant
Our songs of Battle?
Oh, to whom shall a song of battle be chanted?
Not to our lord of the hosts on his ancient throne,
Drowsing the ages out in Heaven alone.
The celestial choirs are mute, the angels have fled:
Word is gone forth abroad that our lord is dead.To what God
Shall we chant
Our songs of Battle?
Oh, to whom shall a song of battle be chanted?
If you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace!
But now they are hidden from your eyes.
Oh, to whom shall a song of battle be chanted?

(England, 1914)

Summer’s Pioneers
– Rabindranath Tagore –

Tired of waiting, you burst your bonds.
Impatient flowers, before the winter had gone.
Glimpses of the unseen comer came into your wayside watch
And you rushed out running and panting.
O restless jasmines, O troop of riotous roses!

You were the first to march to the breach of death.
Your clamour of colour, perfume troubled the air.
You laughed and pressed and pushed each other.
Bared your breasts and dropped to the ground in heaps.

The summer will come in time
Sailing in the flood tide of the South Wind.

(India, 1915)

The Gift of India
– Sarojini Naidu –

Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and the West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of victory?
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!

(India, 1915)

In Wartime
– Stephan G. Stephansson –

In Europe’s reeking slaughter-pen
They mince the flesh of murdered men,
While swinish merchants, snout in trough,
Drink all the bloody profits off!

(Canada, 1916)

Fraternisation
– Marc de Larréguy de Civrieux –

I call in your name, Brothers in obscurity,
Who fear to shout aloud your grievous sufferings,
But die without a word or hope of better things,
For the dishonoured Leaders of humanity!

I call in your name, Parents weeping bitterly
To mourn a son, for whom death liberation brings:
You can believe no more, smarting from sorrow’s stings,
In your false Torturers, who dupe you constantly!

I call in your name, comrades silent in the tomb
As endlessly you swell the senseless hecatomb,
But on the Day of Truth will rise triumphantly!

It is in all your names that I address my call
For people everywhere to raise, as Nations fall,
The Banner of Revolt and of Fraternity!

(France, 1916)

Recruited-Poplar
– Margaret Postgate –

They say–they say

(And that’s the bugles going all the day
Past Cooper’s Arms and round by Stepney way
Till you’ll be mad for hearing of them play)

They say–they say

You were the finest stuff men ever had
To make into a soldier. And they say
They put the needed strength and spirit in you,
Straightened your shoulders, made you clean and true,
And fit for England’s service–I can say
They clothed you warm, and fed and worked you fair
The first time in your life, on Derby Day;
Maybe that did a little–Anyway
They made a man of you this year, the sort
That England’s rich and proud to own, they say

They say–they say

And so they went and killed you. That’s their way.

(England, 1916)

Five Souls
– William Norman Ewer –

First Soul
I was a peasant of the Polish plain;
I left my plough because the message ran: —
Russia, in danger, needed every man
To save her from the Teuton; and was slain.
I gave my life for freedom — This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

Second Soul
I was a Tyrolese, a mountaineer;
I gladly left my mountain home to fight
Against the brutal treacherous Muscovite;
And died in Poland on a Cossack spear.
I gave my life for freedom — This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

Third Soul
I worked in Lyons at my weaver’s loom,
When suddenly the Prussian despot hurled
His felon blow at France and at the world;
Then I went forth to Belgium and my doom.
I gave my life for freedom –  This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

Fourth Soul
I owned a vineyard by the wooded Main,
Until the Fatherland, begirt by foes
Lusting her downfall, called me, and I rose
Swift to the call — and died in far Lorraine.
I gave my life for freedom — This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

Fifth Soul
I worked in a great shipyard by the Clyde;
There came a sudden word of wars declared,
Of Belgium, peaceful, helpless, unprepared,
Asking our aid: I joined the ranks, and died.
I gave my life for freedom – This I know
For those who bade me fight had told me so.

(England, 1916)

Who Made The Law?
– Leslie Coulson –

Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains?
Who made the Law?

Who made the Law that Death should stalk the village?
Who spake the word to kill among the sheaves,
Who gave it forth that death should lurk in hedgerows,
Who flung the dead among the fallen leaves?
Who made the Law?

But who made the Law? the Trees shall whisper to him:
‘See, see the blood — the splashes on our bark!’
Walking the meadows, he shall hear bones crackle,
And fleshless mouths shall gibber in silent lanes at dark.
Who made the Law? At noon upon the hillside
His ears shall hear a moan, his cheeks shall feel a breath,
And all along the valleys, past gardens, croft, and homesteads,
He who made the Law,
He who made the Law,
He who made the Law
shall walk along with Death.
WHO made the Law?

(England, 1916)

Anthem for Doomed Youth
– Wilfred Owen –

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

(England, 1917)

Dulce et Decorum Est
– Wilfred Owen –

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 flound’ring 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.
[1]

1. This Latin phrase is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

(1917)

The Modern Abraham
– Osbert Sitwell –

His fingers clutch a large cigar —
Plump, mottled fingers, with a ring or two.
He rests back in his fat armchair. The war
Has made this change in him. As he looks through
His cheque-book with a tragic look he sighs:
‘Disabled Soldiers’ Fund’ he reads afresh,
And through his meat-red face peer angry eyes —
The spirit piercing through its mound of flesh.

They should not ask me to subscribe again!
Consider me and all that I have done-
I’ve fought for Britain with my might and main;
I make explosives — and I gave a son,
My factory, converted for the fight,
(I do not like to boast of what I’ve spent),
Now manufactures gas and dynamite,
Which only pays me seventy per cent,
And if I had ten other sons to send
I’d make them serve my country to the end,
So all the neighbours should flock round and say
‘Oh look what Mr Abraham has done.
He loves his country in the elder way;
Poor gentleman, he’s lost another son!”

(England, circa 1917)

“Rhyfel” (Excerpt)
– Hedd Wyn –

Rhyfel means war in Welsh. The excerpt below
is followed by the English translation.

“Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt,
Yng nghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.”

It translates as follows:

“The harps to which we sang, are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain.”

(Wales, 1917)

The General
– Siegfried Sassoon –

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

(1917)

Prelude: The Troops
– Siegfried Sassoon –

DIM, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down
The stale despair of night, must now renew
Their desolation in the truce of dawn,
Murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.

Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,
Can grin through storms of death and find a gap
In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.
They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky
That hastens over them where they endure
Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,
And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.

O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.

(England, 1918)

Spring Offensive
– Wilfred Owen –

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept.
But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.
Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field–
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.
Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle. No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste–
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun,–
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames–
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder–
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

(1918)

Exposure
– Wilfred Owen –

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces —
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
— Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, —
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

(1918)

Base Details
– Siegfried Sassoon –

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say — ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

(1918)

Attack
– Siegfried Sassoon –

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!

(1918)

Aftermath
– Siegfried Sassoon –

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz —
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench —
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack —
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads — those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

(1918)

A Dirge Of Victory (Sonnet)
– Lord Dunsany Edward Plunkett  –

Lift not thy trumpet, Victory, to the sky,
Nor through battalions nor by batteries blow,
But over hollows full of old wire go,
Where among dregs of war the long-dead lie
With wasted iron that the guns passed by.
When they went eastwards like a tide at flow;
There blow thy trumpet that the dead may know,
Who waited for thy coming, Victory.

It is not we that have deserved thy wreath,
They waited there among the towering weeds.
The deep mud burned under the thermite’s breath,
And winter cracked the bones that no man heeds:
Hundreds of nights flamed by: the seasons passed.
And thou last come to them at last, at last!

(England/Ireland, 1919)

Of the Great White War
– Thomas Burke –

During the years when the white men fought each other,
I observed how the aged cried aloud in public places
Of honour and chivalry, and the duty of the young;
And how the young ceased doing the pleasant things of youth,
And became suddenly old,
And marched away to defend the aged.

And I observed how the aged
Became suddenly young;
And mouthed fair phrases one to the other upon the Supreme Sacrifice,
And turned to their account books, murmering gravely:
Business as Usual;
And brought out the bottles of wine and drank the health
Of the young men they had sent to fight for them.

(England, 1920)

Island Lights
– Geoffrey Fyson –

On the battlefield tourists

VIMY RIDGE
From Arras, on the straight white road
where all marched up, where some limped back,
now, motor-load on motor-load,
the tourists mass for the attack.
Over each splintered track we trod,
over each shelving trench we made,
over each grass-grown space, — Ah God! —
where dust of my friends in dust is laid.
Cheerful, loud-voiced battalions pass,
gorging the sights their money buys
while you who are sleeping ‘neath the grass,
you who have waked beyond the skies,
keep everlasting silence. Yet
are glad, maybe, when eve draws on,
when still’d the turmoil is, and fret,
and Arras chants her carillon,
when round-eyed children, with soft tread,
draw near, and frame a diadem
of glowing poppies, that are red
because your blood has watered them.

(England, 1925)

The White Poppy
– Tom Lashley –

A cold morning on the eleventh of November,
Destruction taints all the world’s splendour,
Pastoral fields now trenches with mice,
Only we could make the same mistake twice.

Millions dead and billions affected,
‘Wear red and we’ll all be protected!’
Instead the red reminds us of pleas,
To be rid of this war, death and disease.

The red poppy is just a fundraising tool,
The white is not to insult or fool,
White signifies no more war,
Red signifies the death of the poor.

We are reminded of war every day,
It causes rupture, death as well as dismay,
Why should we remember it again?
Peace and love is what to attain.

The link between red and peace is tenuous,
The red poppy’s message is disingenuous,
People wear it without reason or rhyme,
Reminding themselves of a deadly time.

So don the white poppy instead of the red,
You don’t need to be told to think of the dead,
And for those who say ‘lest we forget’ in November,
I’ll be sure to tell them ‘lest we remember’.

(England, 2015)

 

1917anti-ConscriptionCartoonconscription

Anti-WarCartoonWWI-Meighan

Caricature of Arthur Meighen, a future Prime Minister of Canada, callously handing over a Canadian soldier into the hands of “Imperialism.” As Solicitor General in 1917, Meighen was instrumental in drafting the conscription bill. (Click to enlarge).

WWI-Anti-WarWorkersGraphic

On the occasion of the centenary of the end of World War I, TML Weekly has been producing an excellent series of informative Supplements on the war and related matters of concern. This is the sixth in the series. Click for No. 1 (How the First World War Out); No. 2 (Canada and the First World War); No. 3 (British Movement of Conscientious Objectors); No. 5 (Steadfast Opposition to the Betrayal of the Workers’ Movement )

5 Comments

Filed under Canada, Europe, History

5 responses to “Poems on the Occasion of the Centenary of the End of World War I – Moments of Quiet Reflection

  1. Pingback: Contributions and Slaughter of Colonial Peoples in World War I | Tony Seed's Weblog

  2. Pingback: Centenary of the End of World War I: British Movement of Conscientious Objectors | Tony Seed's Weblog

  3. Pingback: Canada and the First World War | Tony Seed's Weblog

  4. Pingback: Canada and the First World War: Opposition to Conscription in Canada and Quebec – Viralmount

  5. Pingback: Canada and the First World War: Opposition to Conscription in Canada and Quebec – Counter Information

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