Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cricket in war time

British troops play cricket, WWI

In 1892, Henry Newbolt wrote a poem comparing the violence of war with school sport:

The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,

"Play up! play up! and play the game!" 

Cricket and Grenade Throwing, Geoffrey Stobie
(I much prefer Newbolt’s poem about a marching cat, but that’s not strictly relevant to this post). 

At the time of the First World War, it was commonly believed that experience and ability in athletics would translate directly to success on the battlefield. (Americans were reputed to be better than the French at tossing grenades, due to Americans' love of baseball). The British Army encouraged sporting competitions to improve troops’ physical fitness, boost morale, and strengthen bonds between officers and their men. 

Perhaps the most English of sports is cricket, and so it’s not surprising that numerous First World War poems make reference to the game.  

Cricket: The Catch

Rossall School, General View from the Cricket Field, W.J. Allingham 
Whizzing, fierce, it came
Down the summer air,
Burning like a flame
On my fingers bare,
And it brought to me
As swift - a memory.
Happy days long dead
Clear I saw once more.
Childhood that is fled:-
Rossall on the shore,
Where the sea sobs wild
Like a homesick child.
Oh, the blue bird's fled!
Never man can follow.
Yet at times instead
Comes this scarlet swallow,
Bearing on its wings
(Where it skims and dips,
Gleaming through the slips)
Sweet Time - strangled things.
--Frederick William Harvey

As the poem opens, a projectile – shell, shrapnel, or grenade – hurtles toward a soldier. For a heartbeat, the fiercely whizzing weapon recalls the youthful memory of a school cricket game played near the English shore.  Time is suspended as gunfire mimics the crack of the bat, and the soldier flashes back to a leisurely afternoon of fair play within earshot of the sea. 
"We dropped bombs on a British formation, causing the
troops to disperse and run about in a panic-stricken
manner" 
(Punch cartoon, 4 July 1917)
But just as quickly comes the realization that childhood has ended and the blue bird, associated with light-hearted happiness, has fled.  War is a deadly game played in earnest.  

Death rains down from the sky, and the incoming missile is imagined as a blood-red swallow that “skims and dips” as it gleams past men. The soldiers, like cricket fielders, hope to make a play that will put their opponent out of the game. 

In the moments before the explosion, seconds are drawn out.  There's a beauty even in the arc of the incoming weapon, for each bomb seeking its human target carries with it both “Sweet Time” and “strangled things.”  The sweetness of time is magnified for those who know that each moment may be their last, yet living under the threat of imminent death also constricts thought and action, strangling and suffocating the men.   

While the poem nostalgically remembers the past, it exists in suspended time as it anticipates what will happen in the next moments.  The soldier longs both for the past and for a future, but the poem ends before the explosion.  All  possibilities  remain open: perhaps the soldier survives, thinking to himself, that was a close one; perhaps he is struck and falls under the searing pain of a wound; or perhaps his life ends in the silence left at the close of the poem.  Sweet Time or strangled things?  We are left to imagine the attempted cricket catch and the outcome of the game.  

F.W. Harvey, the “Laureate of Gloucestershire,” typically wrote light-hearted poems (the best known being “Ducks”).  He was a key contributor to the first British trench newspaper, the Fifth Gloucester Gazette, and a close friend of the soldier-poet-composer Ivor Gurney (Gurney would later set several of Harvey’s poems to music).  During a night reconnaissance mission on August 17, 1916, Harvey was captured by Germans and spent the remaining years of the war in prisoner camps, making several failed escape attempts.  He survived the war and returned to Gloucestershire, dying in 1957.  A memorial to him in Gloucestershire Cathedral reads, “He loved the vision of this world and found it good.”*

F.W. Harvey
*Lines from Harvey’s poem describing himself, “F.W.H: A Portrait.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Retreat


Retreat from Mons
















“The Great Retreat” is the name given to the forced march from Mons to the outskirts of Paris in late August and early September of 1914, the British Army’s longest retreat. The summer of 1914 was one of the hottest of the century, and the retreat was grueling and dangerous, as exhausted British troops attempted to escape the pursuing Germany Army. Men slept as they marched, some regiments covering nearly 250 miles in 13 days.  Describing the scene, historian John-Lewis Stempel wrote, “Some units lost all cohesion, some men lost all reason. One officer was so spooked he started firing his revolver at imaginary Germans in the street.”

The challenge of the war was not only to stay alive, but to remain sane.  While others would write of the tactics and topography of the retreat from Mons, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s short poem captures the interior landscapes of the mind.


Retreat

All-heal
Broken, bewildered by the long retreat
Across the stifling leagues of southern plain,

Across the scorching leagues of trampled grain,
Half-stunned, half-blinded, by the trudge of feet
And dusty smother of the August heat,
He dreamt of flowers in an English lane,
Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain—

All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet.
Willow-herb (photo by Paul Lane)

All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet—

The innocent names kept up a cool refrain—
All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet,

Chiming and tinkling in his aching brain,
Until he babbled like a child again—

"All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet."
            --Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

The war has stripped these men of power and of sense.  Bewildered and dazed, the trained soldiers appear almost child-like as they march “half-stunned, half-blinded” in the stifling August heat. This is the retreat of the body. 

Meadow-sweet
But there is also the retreat of the mind. Exhaustion and fear compel one man to escape into his imagination.  As he stumbles down the dusty roads of Belgium and France, he dreams of an English lane, “Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain.” The sing-song chanted names of herbs and flowers distracts from the misery of the present moment as it comforts with memories of home and the peace of the countryside. 

“All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet” -- like the refrain of a nursery rhyme or lullaby, the very sounds of the healing herbs and fragrant flowers calm and soothe. But no flight of the imagination could escape the actual toll of the retreat; over 15,000 men were casualties of the march, either captured, wounded, or killed.   

Today, the British Commonwealth Grave Commission invites visitors to travel the “Retreat from Mons Remembrance Trail” and learn of the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate the thousands of men who died on the Great Retreat.

Gibson created a different kind of memorial in “Retreat”; the poem also honors the memory of the men who “went ungrudgingly, and spent their all for us,” that we might “feel the heartbreak in the heart of things.”*
--------------------------------------------------------
*These lines are from Gibson’s poem “Lament.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

When will the war be by?


An estimated half-million Scots enlisted in the British army in the First World War; 125,000 of those men died, never to return home.  Perhaps the most popular Scots poet of his day, Charles Murray published a slim volume of poems in 1917 titled A Sough O’ War (in Scots dialect, a sough is a deep sigh or strong breeze, and the word may also be used figuratively to refer to a song).    

Murray’s lovely poem “When will the War be By?” is poignantly read with accompanying images in the first 1:15 of this video.  Below is the poem in Scots (on the left) and my rough translation in modern English (on the right).     

When Will the War Be By?                                         When Will the War Be Over?

‘This year, neist year, sometime, never’                 ‘This year, next year, sometime, never,’
A lanely lass, bringing hame the kye,                      A lonely lass, bringing home the cows,
Pu’s at a floo’er wi’ a weary sigh,                          Pulls at a flower with a weary sigh,
An’ laich, laich, she is coontin’ ever                      And softly, whispering, she is counting ever
‘This year, neist year, sometime, never                  ‘This year, next year, sometime, never
When will the war be by?’                                     When will the war be over?’

‘Weel, wouned, missin’, deid,’                              ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead,’
Is there nae news o’ oor lads ava?                         Is there no news of our lads at all?
Are they hale an’ fere that are hine awa’?            Are they strong and unbroken that are far away?
A lass raxed oot for the list to read—                    A lass reached out for the list to read—
‘Weel, wounded, missin’, deid’;                           ‘Well, wounded, missing, dead’;
An’ the war was by for twa.                                  And the war was over for two.
                        --Charles Murray, 1916

Noon, by George Henry
In both its language and action, the poem evokes the simple traditions of the countryside: herding the cattle home from the fields and the timeless practice of plucking at daisy petals while reciting “He loves me; he loves me not.”

In Murray’s poem, however, the young lass recites a variation on the chanted refrain, seeking a different kind of foreknowledge. She isn’t asking if her love is returned, but instead if her lover will return. Is the young man who occupies her thoughts well or wounded? Worse still, might he be missing or dead? 

Men died quickly, but news traveled slowly.  In the time before telephone, television, and the internet, women anxiously waited for the latest publication of the war casualty lists (in the poem, this is the list that the young woman reaches out to read). The British War Office published its first casualty list on September 1, 1914, naming all soldiers reported killed, wounded, or missing. For nearly three years, a daily list was released, and several newspapers included the list in their publications (including The Times and The Scotsman) until August 1917. At that time, newspapers decided to stop publication of the lists, due to their length and the amount of space needed to report the names of thousands upon thousands of casualties. His Majesty’s Stationery Office assumed the task of printing the war casualty lists, selling them for 3 pence each. 

While it is difficult to fully comprehend what 125,000 war deaths meant to Scotland, this poem hauntingly speaks of how the death of a single man upended the world of the woman who waited for him.  This one Scottish soldier’s war ended on foreign battlefield; the war was over, too, for his sweetheart who had so closely followed its progress, praying for her soldier’s return -- “An’ the war was by for twa.” 

Charles Murray, describing his admiration for the Scots dialect, wrote, “I was raised upon Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, and the old Scots, and all my life as a boy I was taught to look out for quaint phrases, out of the way expressions, and to study and delight in the old, original characters of the countryside.”*  Murray was fifty when the war began in 1914, and many of his poems are deeply patriotic, appealing to the ideal of the traditional Scottish warrior. However, there is often also an underlying melancholy in his poetry, heard in the whisper of the sough of war as it blows through the glen with the news of a clansman’s death.   


 *“The Making of the Poems,” Charles Murray: Poet, Prospector, Public Servant

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

If only

A memory can serve as an anchor and a touchstone to the past; when we learn that a remembered place has been changed or erased, we lose a bit of ourselves. Just one month after Britain declared war on Germany in early August of 1914,  fifty-one-year-old English novelist May Sinclair volunteered to join the Munro Ambulance Corps in Belgium.  The early months of the war were chaotic, and Sinclair, along with the Red Cross unit to which she’d been assigned, were caught up in the October retreat of the Belgium army and forced to flee from the German advance.  Sinclair was a witness to shelled villages, crowds of fleeing Belgian refugees, and dying and wounded soldiers who were among the first casualties of the war. She wrote in her journal, “It is extraordinary how your mind can put away from it any thought that would make life insupportable.”* In an attempt to cope with the tragedies unfolding around her, she turned to poetry.

After the Retreat

If I could only see again
The house we passed on the long Flemish road
That day
When the Army went from Antwerp, through Bruges, to the sea;
The house with the slender door,
And the one thin row of shutters, grey as dust on the white wall.
It stood low and alone in the flat Flemish land,
And behind it the high slender trees were small under the sky.

Francis Wolle collection
It looked
Through windows blurred like women's eyes that have cried too long.

There is not anyone there whom I know,
I have never sat by its hearth, I have never crossed its threshold, I have never

opened its door,
I have never stood by its windows looking in;
Yet its eyes said: 'You have seen four cities of Flanders:
Ostend, and Bruges, and Antwerp under her doom,
And the dear city of Ghent;
And there is none of them that you shall remember
As you remember me.'

I remember so well,
That at night, at night I cannot sleep in England here;
But I get up, and I go:
Not to the cities of Flanders,
Not to Ostend and the sea,
Not to the city of Bruges, or the city of Antwerp, or the city of Ghent,
But somewhere
In the fields
Where the high slender trees are small under the sky—

If I could only see again
The house we passed that day.
--May Sinclair

One simple house, “low and alone”: the memory of it is haunting.  The war itself is simply too large to comprehend: thousands of exhausted and frightened refugees, endless lines of retreating soldiers, hospital wards filled with wounded and dying men – these are  too much for the mind to hold. Instead, the woman who watches the war focuses on the one thing that stands apart from the chaos. The normalcy of a single house with its slender door and grey shutters is reassuring, even as both the home and the slender trees surrounding it are dwarfed by the sky and the unfolding drama of the retreat.

The observer in the poem feels a strange kinship with the house, and even its windows are “blurred like women’s eyes that have cried too long.” While the woman watching the war does not know the house nor anyone who has lived there, it seems to stare at her and speak prophetically, perhaps accusingly, imprinting itself on her memory and whispering, “there is none of them that you shall remember/As you remember me.”
Ypres 1915, Gilbert Rogers
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3792

Even after leaving Flanders and returning to the safety of England, the poem’s speaker spends sleepless nights haunted by memories of the war. Rising from her bed, she journeys in her imagination not to the famous cities that have fallen, not to the hospital wards of wounded, not to the files of men marching in exhausted retreat, but to one solitary homestead. Like her, the house is a small and insignificant witness to the war.

The poem’s last stanza echoes the its opening lines with the simple plea, “If I could only see again/The house we passed that day.” What meaning does this unremarkable house hold? Perhaps the compulsion to see it once more is simply to insure that the home still stands, that it lives on as a silent witness.  Did the solitary house with the slender door and grey shutters survive, or was it too obliterated by the violence that shook the world in the years of the Great War?

Writing in her journal, May Sinclair voiced her own uncertainties: “I do not know whether I have done the right thing or not in leaving Flanders (or, for that matter, in leaving Ghent). All that I know is that I love it and that I have left it.  And that I want to go back.”**

Although she spent only three weeks with the Field Ambulance Corps in Belgium, the experience touched Sinclair deeply. Her journal notes, “wherever the ambulance cars go, they meet endless processions of refugees; endless, for the straight, flat Flemish roads are endless, and as far as your eye can see the stream of people is unbroken; endless, because the misery of Belgium is endless; the mind cannot grasp it or take it in. You cannot meet it with grief, hardly with conscious pity; you have not tears for it; it is a sorrow that transcends everything you have known of sorrow.”***

Like other women who wrote poems about the First World War (for example, Margaret Widdemer and Maria Dobler Benemann), May Sinclair uses the image of a home and all it represents – normalcy, security, and love – to express the unimaginable devastation of the Great War.  Destroying everything in its path – from remote homes to the very fabric of European society – the war forever altered the world.
May Sinclair

* A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 150.
** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 289.
*** A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, p. 119.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

December of July

Streatley Mill at Sunset, 1859
George Price Boyce

Summer: the season of fireflies, porch swings, day lilies, and beach strolls.  And yet somewhere even now, a war is raging.

One-hundred years ago, during the summer of 1916, a volunteer nurse in the First World War wrote of the enormous gulf that separated the beauty of summer in the English countryside from the carnage that British troops were experiencing at the battle of the Somme.

 July, 1916

Here in happy England the fields are steeped in quiet,
Saving for larks’ song and drone of bumble bees;
The deep lanes are decked with roses all a-riot,
With bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries.
O here a maid would linger to hear the blackbird fluting,
And here a lad might pause by wind-berippled wheat,
The lovers in the bat’s light would hear the brown owl hooting,
A Copse, Evening, 1918
A.Y. Jackson 
Before the latticed lights of home recalled their lagging feet.

But over there in France, the grass is torn and trodden,
Our pastures grow moon daisies, but theirs are strewn with lead.
The fertile, kindly fields are harassed and blood-sodden,
The sheaves they bear for harvesting will be our garnered dead.

But there the lads of England, in peril of advancing,
Have laid their splendid lives down, ungrudging of the cost;
The record—just their names here—means a moment’s careless glancing,
But who can tell the promise, the fulfilment of our lost?

Here in happy England the Summer pours her treasure
Of grasses, of flowers before our heedless feet.
The swallow-haunted streams meander at their pleasure
Through loosestrife and rushes and plumed meadow-sweet.
Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept for us our England inviolate, defended,
But by their passing made for us December of July?
-Winifred Mabel Letts

The poem opens in rural England.  Peace settles over the fields and is broken only by birdsong and “the drone of bumble bees,” while just across the English Channel, the drone is that of incoming shells and aeroplane bombing runs.  Sunken English lanes bloom with roses, a stark contrast to the muddy French trenches littered with bodies of the dead.

The tragedy of the Somme is almost unimaginable, but how much more was it so for those hundreds of miles from the front lines? Awash in the poetry of flowers (“bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries”), those in England who waited for word of their loved ones could barely begin to comprehend the barren, blasted landscape of the Western Front.

Winifred Lett’s poem pays homage to the men who fought on the Somme; they left their “golden heritage,” choosing to “put the Summer by.” For some soldiers, the choice was deliberate and measured; others found themselves caught up in and swept along by the Great War; many were conscripts forced to join the colours. The poem reminds us that each of them surrendered the lush promise of Summer overbrimming with life, exchanging it for the task of keeping England “inviolate.”

The poem strikes a note of deep irony, however, as it comments that with their very sacrifice, the deaths of the men who laid down their "splendid lives" brought to England the bitter chill of December.  The desolation of the battlefields travelled across the English Channel, arriving with the unfathomably long lists of the missing, wounded, and dead of the Somme.  Striking deep into the heart of the summer countryside of rural England, July of 1916 was barren, bleak, and dark.
Winifred Mabel Letts


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Clockwork toys

Frederic Manning
It began in August of 1914 and was supposed to be over by Christmas of that year, but the Great War proved to be cruelly obstinate. In peacetime, the rural French village of Guillemont was home to less than one-hundred farmers and their families. By the summer of 1916,  the small hamlet was to become an object lesson on the relentless character of the conflict.

Guillemont before the war
Located in the Somme region, Guillemont was one of the key military objectives for Allied forces during the months’ long Battle of the Somme. From July to early September of 1916, repeated attacks were made on the village. The British launched 90 attacks in the area, while the Germans responded with 72 counter-attacks. Assaults were largely uncoordinated and unsupported, resulting in over 300,000 combined casualties, and heavy rains turned the area into a swamp, adding to the misery of the men.

Before the war, Australian writer Frederic Manning had emigrated to England, where he joined a literary circle that included Ezra Pound, T.E. Hulme, and Richard Aldington. In October of 1915, Manning enlisted in the British Army.  He served at the Somme, and his poem "Relieved" describes the exhaustion produced by a war that some now feared might never end.

Relieved
(Guillemont)

We are weary and silent;
There is only the rhythm of marching feet;
A Battery Shelled, Percy Wyndham Lewis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2747)
Though we move tranced we keep it,
As clockwork toys.

But each man is alone in this multitude;
We know not the world in which we move,
Seeing not the dawn, earth pale and shadowy,
Level lands of tenuous grays and greens,
For our eyeballs have been seared with fire.

Only we have our secret thoughts,
Our sense floats out from us delicately apprehensive
To the very fringes of our being,
Where light drowns.
--Frederic Manning

Like wind-up toys, soldiers exhaustedly march in a trance-like state. In this modern industrial war, the men exist in a pale world of grays and muted tones, much like that of the faded photographs by which we now remember them.

Only two flares of light illuminate this shadow world: the fire that has seared the soldiers' eyeballs and the light that drowns at the “very fringes” of their being. The war has cauterized the men's vision, and they apprehensively fumble and “delicately” grasp at reality. Like the blind, troops stumble through darkness.

Although “relieved” (the title of the poem plays on the double meaning of the word, both released from duty and freed from anxiety), each man has learned that he “is alone in this multitude.” The secret thoughts and haunted memories that each soldier harbors threaten to extinguish any brightness that the future might possibly bring.  Amos William Mayse, a Canadian soldier, wrote to his wife,  "I am sure that if spared, I shall wake often with the horror of it all before me & I shall not want to talk much about it either."

The first recorded use of the verb “soldier on” (to doggedly persevere in difficult circumstances) does not occur until 1954, but the infantrymen of the First World War lived out the sense of the idiom. In a letter written in September of 1916 after the village of Guillemont had finally been taken, British officer P.F. Story wrote, “Guillemont was blotted right out, not one brick standing on another – nothing but a sea of crump holes of all sorts and sizes.”*

And yet the war seemed no closer to ending: the Germans fell back and refortified another village, and so it began again.
*Gerald Giddon, Somme 1916: A Battlefield Companion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Devil's Grindstone

Recruiting Poster, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 2763)
One of the common myths of the First World War is that nearly all women were strong supporters of the conflict. Contributing to the misunderstanding is the fact that one of the best-known female war poets is Jessie Pope.  A BBC Magazine article has described Pope as “the villain of the war” and “the war poet students love to hate.”  Her often-studied poem, “Who’s for the Game,” encourages men to join the army as it chides, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/Than lie low and be out of the fun?”*

Yet while there were women writers who supported the war, many others did not. Nosheen Khan, in Women’s Poetry of the First World War, observes that “women were writing protest poetry before Sassoon and Owen” (15). The poem that prompts Khan’s assertion is Ruth Comfort Mitchell’s “He Went for a Soldier,” published in 1916.

He Went for a Soldier

He marched away with a blithe young score of him
With the first volunteers,
Clear-eyed and clean and sound to the core of him,
Blushing under the cheers.
They were fine, new flags that swung a-flying there,
Oh, the pretty girls he glimpsed a-crying there,
Pelting him with pinks and with roses
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Not very clear in the kind young heart of him
What the fuss was about,
But the flowers and the flags seemed part of him --
The music drowned his doubt.
It's a fine, brave sight they were a-coming there
To the gay, bold tune they kept a-drumming there,
While the boasting fifes shrilled jauntily --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Soon he is one with the blinding smoke of it --
Volley and curse and groan:
Then he has done with the knightly joke of it --
It's rending flesh and bone.
Zonnebeke, by William Orpen
©Tate London T07694
There are pain-crazed animals a-shrieking there
And a warm blood stench that is a-reeking there;
He fights like a rat in a corner --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

There he lies now, like a ghoulish score of him,
Left on the field for dead:
The ground all around is smeared with the gore of him
Even the leaves are red.
The Thing that was Billy lies a-dying there,
Writhing and a-twisting and a-crying there;
A sickening sun grins down on him --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Still not quite clear in the poor, wrung heart of him
What the fuss was about,
See where he lies -- or a ghastly part of him --
While life is oozing out:
There are loathsome things he sees a-crawling there;
There are hoarse-voiced crows he hears a-calling there,
Eager for the foul feast spread for them --
Billy, the Soldier Boy!

How much longer, O Lord, shall we bear it all?
How many more red years?
Story it and glory it and share it all,
In seas of blood and tears?
They are braggart attitudes we've worn so long;
They are tinsel platitudes we've sworn so long --
We who have turned the Devil's Grindstone,
Borne with the hell called War!
          - Ruth Comfort Mitchell

The poem begins with the cheerful musicality of a ballad: blithe, bonny, and “blushing under the cheers,” Billy and scores of other eager young recruits march off to war.  Flags wave in celebration, and young women gaily toss flowers as they encourage the departing soldiers. Although Billy himself is not very clear as to why men are fighting, the shrill notes of the marching band are louder than his doubts.

With all the suddenness of Billy’s own initiation into the horrors of war, the poem’s third stanza plunges into a gruesome realm.  No more a “knightly joke,” the war surrounds the boy soldier until he is one with the smoke and stench, reduced to an animal-like state as he fights for survival “like a rat in a corner.” The fourth stanza is a grotesque parody of the first, as Billy again joins scores of other men, though now they lie mutilated and left for dead in a field “smeared with the gore” of their injuries.

Billy the Soldier Boy never reaches manhood; this ironic hero’s journey begins in naïve adolescence, plunges into bestial fear, and concludes as he writhes in No Man’s Land, a ghastly, torn Thing.  The repeated exuberant refrain of “Billy, the Soldier Boy!” rings darkly satirical, and the sing-song rhyme and meter of the ballad jarringly contrast with the grim imagery.

The poem’s final stanza delivers a bitter condemnation of the “tinsel platitudes” and “braggart attitudes” that have fed the war. These attitudes and platitudes provide the energy that is needed to turn “the Devil’s Grindstone,” until the years run red with the blood of Billy the Soldier Boy and the hundreds of thousands like him.

Ruth Comfort Mitchell, the author of “He Went for a Soldier,” was an American writer born in California in 1882.  Married to Sanborn Young (who would become a California Senator in 1925), Mitchell later became involved in conservative organizations. Her best-known novel, Of Human Kindness, is a defense of gentleman farmers that was written in response to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Mitchell’s anti-war anger was voiced before America entered the First World War: it is likely that censorship would have prevented the poem’s publication after April of 1917.**
Ruth Comfort Mitchell
*Even Jessie Pope's views of the war are more nuanced than the unwavering pro-war view that is typically ascribed to her.  A future post on this blog will share one of her lesser-known poems.
**An interesting companion poem is Mary Gilmore’s “War.”  Although it appeared in The Bulletin April 5, 1917 (titled “The Mother”), this bitter anti-war poem was not included in any of Gilmore's published books of poetry until 1932.