Saturday, June 30, 2018

The last of wars



One of the most common catchphrases of the First World War was that it promised to be “the war to end war.”  H.G. Wells had written a series of essays at the war’s outbreak; these were published in book form in October 1914 and titled The War That Will End War.  Wells wrote, 

For this now is a war for peace. It aims straight at disarmament. It aims at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever. Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war!*

Just one year later, a poem written by a British lieutenant with the Essex Regiment questioned such optimism.


Austrian WW1 poster
Pal Suján
Sonnet**

Coming in splendour thro’ the golden gate
Of all the days, swift passing, one by one,
Oh, silent planet, thou hast gazed upon
How many harvestings, dispassionate?
Across the many-furrowed fields of Fate,
Wrapt in the mantle of oblivion,
The old, grey, wrinkled Husbandman has gone,
Sowing and reaping, lone and desolate—
The blare of trumpets, rattle of the drum,
Disturb him not at all—He sees,
Between the hedges of the centuries,
A thousand phantom armies go and come,
While Reason whispers as each marches past,
“This is the last of wars,—this is the last!”
            —Gilbert Waterhouse

Battle of the Somme 1st Batt Sherwood Foresters
July 1916 © IWM (Q 780)
The splendid “golden gate” of both sunrise and sunset marks the swift passage of time, while the earth sits in mute witness to the repeated harvests of war: bodies that lie strewn in “the many-furrowed fields of Fate.” Amidst the scene, an ancient and solitary Husbandman – the medieval term given to a farmer who cultivates the land – continues to reap and to sow, appearing deaf to the sounds of battle. While the figure may represent Fate or Death, it is a more likely reference to God, as Christ says in John 15:1, “I am the true vine, and my father is the husbandman” (KJV).  The husbandman sees nothing new, for He has watched thousands of ghostly armies march to their deaths.  Only Reason appears shocked, for to the rational mind, it is inconceivable that war continues to yield its macabre harvests.

The sonnet offers an interesting comparison to Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” published in 1918.  In both poems, the natural world is an indifferent bystander to the killing fields of battle. As Teasdale’s poem concludes,

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Waterhouse's grave, Serre Road No. 2
Gilbert Waterhouse was mortally wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916 (his poem “Bivouacs” was previously shared on this blog). In one of his last poems, “To England,” he had written, “Mayhap my body shall lie bare/ And stark between the trenchéd lines.” Waterhouse was listed as wounded and missing until March of 1917.  His body wasn’t discovered until the summer of 1917 after Germans withdrew from Serre; he is buried at Serre Road Cemetery No. 2.
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* H.G. Wells, The War That Will End War, Frank & Cecil Palmer, 1914, p. 11. Although the phrase is often attributed to American president Woodrow Wilson, the Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies (2013) notes that Wilson biographer John Milton Cooper Jr. "casts doubts on whether whether Wilson ever actually uttered the phrase" (318, fn. 5).
** The poem first appeared in the English Review in October of 1915 and was titled “Sonnet”; it appears in Waterhouse’s posthumously published Rail-head and Other Poems (1916) as “IV” under the heading “Four Sonnets,” and was reprinted in American anthologies, newspapers, and trade journals (including The New England Journal of Medicine and Brooms, Brushes & Handles) as “This Is the Last of Wars.”

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