Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Windmill

Ruins of Poziéres by Ernest Brooks
Australian War Memorial (AWM EZ0098)
Colorized by Benjamin Thomas (on

“The natural world often remains a voiceless casualty of war,” writes Tait Keller in his essay “Destruction of the Ecosystem.”*  In his poem “The Windmill,” British soldier and writer A.P. Herbert listens to the landscape of the Great War and invites it to tell its story.  

The Windmill
A Song Of Victory
Poziéres windmill
Yes, it was all like a garden glowing
   When first we came to the hill-top there,
And we laughed to know that the Bosch was going,
   And laughed to know that the land was fair;
Acre by acre of green fields sleeping,
   Hamlets hid in the tufts of wood,
And out of the trees were church-towers peeping,
   And away on a hillock the Windmill stood.

Then, ah, then, ’twas a land worth winning,
   And now there is naught but the naked clay,
But I can remember the Windmill spinning,
   And the four sails shone in the sun that day.

But the guns came after and tore the hedges
   And stripped the spinneys and churned the plain,
And a man walks now on the windy ledges,
   And looks for a feather of green in vain;
Acre by acre the sad eye traces
   The rust-red bones of the earth laid bare,
And the sign-posts stand in the market-places
   To say that a village was builded there.

But better the French fields stark and dying
   Than ripe for a conqueror’s fat content,
And I can remember the mill-sails flying,
   Yet I cheered with the rest when the Windmill went.

Away to the east the grass-land surges
   Acre by acre across the line,
And we must go on till the end like scourges,
   Though the wilderness stretch from sea to Rhine;
But I dream some days of a great reveille,
   When the buds shall burst in the Blasted Wood,
And the children chatter in Death-Trap Alley,
   And a windmill stand where the Windmill stood.

And we that remember the Windmill spinning,
   We may go under, but not in vain,
For our sons shall come in the new beginning
   And see that the Windmill spins again.
            —A.P. Herbert

Before the war, the countryside is a living thing: green fields sleep, small villages hide in leafy woods, and church towers peep above the tree tops.  In the midst of playful leisure stands the Windmill. Named as if human, the Windmill's sails spin in the sun, almost as if it aspires to flight.

Poziéres Windmill 1919 (AWM E05748)
But men bring war. They tear at the bodies of hedges, expose the bones of the earth, strip the woods naked, annihilate the village, and destroy the Windmill. And Herbert’s poem records that despite admiring the Windmill’s proud beauty, he “cheered with the rest when the Windmill went.” 

Herbert does not deny the British army’s responsibility for the devastation, but explains “we must go on till the end like scourges,” even if it means that “the wilderness stretch from sea to Rhine.” He justifies the obliteration of the French countryside, preferring that it be utterly destroyed rather than surrendered to German control. 

“The Windmill: A Song of Victory” proclaims that the landscape will rise from the ashes like a phoenix, and that even the death of soldiers will prove to be a meaningful sacrifice: “For our sons shall come in the new beginning/ And see that the Windmill spins again.”

Ruins of Poziéres
Herbert survived the First World War and lived to serve as the only non-commissioned officer in the House of Commons during World War II.  During that war, Herbert’s only son, John, joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve (as his father had in the WWI), serving as a midshipman on destroyers that played a part in the Normandy beach landings.** It’s intriguing to wonder if John knew of the poem “The Windmill” or of the faith his father had placed in the next generation to restore the countryside of Europe.  
* Taut Keller, “Destruction of the Ecosystem,” 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
** “John Herbert,” obituary in The Times, 20 December 2013.
† A.P. Herbert's poem "Beaucourt Revisited" appears on this blog here