The war that began in August of 1914 was supposed to have been over by Christmas of that year. By November of 1915, it was clear to nearly everyone that peace was nowhere in sight. In 1915 alone, the French lost over one million men, the Germans more than 600,000 and the British more than a quarter of a million[i].
Margaret Postgate Cole’s short poem “The Falling Leaves” evokes a dreary day in late autumn, an afternoon awash in loss and regret -- and tinged with anger.
Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
--Margaret Postgate Cole
The brown of the foliage recalls the khaki of British military uniforms: both autumn leaves and gallant men drop thickly and silently. Neither leaves nor men are borne skyward, but instead lie “withering” and decaying on the cold ground. So many have fallen that the light of the sun seems obscured, and the noon-day is wiped out.
But unlike the falling of the leaves, the death of the soldiers (who are romantically – and perhaps ironically –labeled as “gallant”), is not natural. Neither disease nor old age has killed these young and vigorous soldiers. Instead, struck down at the height of their beauty and potential, the men lie carelessly tossed or “strewn” on the frozen fields of Flanders.
Alternating between long and short lines, the rhythm of the poem itself halting staggers to a lonely conclusion, and the rider wanders slowly on, stunned at the overwhelming and incomprehensible losses of the war.
Margaret Postgate Cole became politically involved in The Great War when her younger brother Raymond refused to be drafted into the British army. Without a religious reason for his refusal to fight, he was denied status as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned. Margaret wrote about her response to his trial in her 1949 memoir, Growing up into Revolution:
…when I walked away from the Oxford court room…I walked into a new world of doubters and protesters – and into a new war – this time against the ruling classes and the government which represented them, and with the working classes, the Trade Unionists, the Irish rebels of Easter Week, and all those who resisted their governments or other governments which held them down….Once the state had taken my brother, it lost his sister’s vote automatically.
|Margaret Postgate Cole|