Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Land of hope

 In spring, a young man’s fancies turn to…thoughts of war.  In the First World War, spring offensives demanded more men and fresh troops.  By the spring of 1916, the British introduced conscription (or as it’s known in the US, “the draft”) to supplement the hundreds of thousands of men who had been killed and wounded in the first eighteen months of the conflict. Beginning on 2 March, 1916, single men between the ages of 18 and 41 were obligated to serve if called up, and married men were added to the conscription lists on 25 May, 1916.

Many men fought because they had to, but many already in the British military had volunteered earlier in the war.  Why did men enlist? Why did men at the front continue to fight? Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley’s poem “Going to the Front” gives us a glimpse into the minds and motivations of men marching to battle one-hundred years ago in the Great War. 

Going to the Front

I had no heart to march for war
When trees were bare and fell the snow;
To go to-day is easier far
When pink and white the orchards blow,
While cuckoo calls and from the lilac bush

Carols at peace the well-contented thrush.

For now the gorse is all in flower,
The chestnut tapers light the morn,

Gold gleam the oaks, the sun has power
To robe the glittering plain with corn;
I hear from all the land of hope a voice
That bids me forward bravely and rejoice.

So merry are the lambs at play,
So cheerfully the cattle feed,

With such security the May
Has built green walls round every mead,
O'er happy roofs such grey old church-towers peep,
Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?

For hawthorn wreath, for bluebell glade,
For miles of buttercup that shine,

For song of birds in sun and shade
That fortify this soul of mine,
For all May joy beneath an English sky,
How sweet to live—how glad and good to die!


The poem celebrates spring as the perfect season for marching to war.  All of nature seems to celebrate with life and song: orchards blossom in pink and white; trees gleam gold in the morning light, and birds sing from the lilac bushes.  The sun coaxes green shoots of corn to growth, and lambs play in the meadows.  The scene resembles that of pastoral psalms found in the Bible, where “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” a far cry from the blasted, muddy landscapes of the Western Front. 

The English countryside is envisioned as a kind of paradise with its happy roofs, bluebell glades, and ancient church towers.  Ironically, it is this very scene of perfect peace that inspires a martial spirit, as the poem asks, “Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?” 

May, the season of rebirth and regrowth, provides a sense of timeless “security” that urges the men of England to leave their safe homes.  It is as if all of nature emboldens men as they march to war, proclaiming “How sweet to live – how glad and good to die.” 

Hardwicke Rawnsley
Wilfred Owen’s famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” harshly critiques the view that dying in battle is sweet or glorious, but Owen’s poems also are largely silent in celebrating the goodness of life.  The author of “Going to the Front,” Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, was a 64-year-old clergyman in the spring of 1916, far too old to go to war himself.  And while it is easy to dismiss Rawnsley’s poem as naïve propaganda or manipulative jingoism, the poem does give voice to reasons men actually were willing to fight and die for – for their homes, for their countryside.  Francis Ledwidge is just one of the young soldiers at the front who wrote poems that witness to the deep love of home that encouraged men at war. 

It seems fitting that Rawnsley’s legacy also rests in fighting for the countryside he so loved. In addition to being a poet, canon, and hymn writer, he was a tireless campaigner for the environment.  In 1883, he founded the Lake District Defense Society; he resisted railway proposals that would have cut through scenic wilderness areas, and he led public marches to advocate for the opening of public footpaths. In 1895, he and two friends (Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter ) met to strategize the formation of a national organization that would protect Britain’s countryside and history; today, Rawnsley is best known as one of the founders of the National Trust.

While it may be difficult today to understand how it can be considered “good and glad to die” in war, Rawnsley’s poem continues to challenge us with the question, “Who would not fight these dear, dear homes to keep?” 

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