"" Behind Their Lines

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Lament: the Trench Edition



There’s something extraordinary about holding an old book in your hands, wondering about its history and journey. This summer in an Oxford bookstore, I found a copy of Soldier Poets: Songs of the Fighting Men, published in September 1916. The small book was labeled “Trench Edition,” made particularly for soldiers: compact and light-weight, easy to pack in one’s kit. The front cover proclaimed the book to be “The most significant literary volume connected with the war: a revelation and an inspiration: of great individual and historic interest and value.” Few of the contributors were familiar to me, despite my research in obscure poetry of the First World War, so of course I purchased the book. But the real draw wasn't in the printed pages, but in the handwritten additions to the book. In careful script, someone—most likely a soldier—had copied five additional poems into the front and end pages.

The first hand-copied addition was Robert Nichols’ “At the Wars.” First published November 1917, it was reprinted in February 1918 in the popular anthology The Muse in Arms, edited by E.O. Osborn. The second poem added was William Watson’s “The Yellow Pansy,” published in 1917 in The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising out of the War. The third was W.N. Hodgson’s “Before Action.” This poem must have been loved: although it is included in the text of the anthology, the first and third stanzas were also copied in the front of the trench edition, and a date was added beneath: June 29, 1916. This when the poem was first published in the weekly magazine The New Witness under the pen name Edward Melbourne. The poem's closing line is “Help me to die, O Lord.” Hodgson was killed two days later at the Somme.

In the end papers of the trench edition, two more poems were added in pen: Colwyn Philipps’ “Release” and a W.W. Gibson poem. Phillips' “Release,” like the Nichols’ poem, was likely copied from Osborne’s A Muse in Arms, because when Osborn published “Release,” he added the title that had not appeared in Philipps’ 1915 posthumous collection of poems. The Gibson poem, the last to be copied in the small anthology, first appeared in 1918 in Gibson’s collection Whin (a Northern dialect term for gorse). It was the last poem in Gibson’s collection, but it was copied without the title that Gibson gave it: “Lament.”  

Lament

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun, or feel the rain,
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent
Their all for us, loved, too, the sun and rain?

A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings—
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?
—Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

While he didn’t experience front-line combat, Gibson suffered greatly at the loss of friends who were killed in battle. A member of the Dymock poets along with Edward Thomas, Gibson tried to enlist in the British Army, but was rejected four times due to his poor health and bad eyesight.* In October 1917, he was finally accepted as a recruit in the Motor Transport Corps, serving the entirety of the war in England. 

We can only guess at the war experience of the owner of the Trench Edition of Soldier Songs. The hand-written poems added to the volume suggest that the book was owned by someone who was an avid reader of war poetry and who lived at least until early 1918 when Gibson’s poem was published.** Perhaps, too, the owner was a soldier who sought to find meaning and purpose in the overwhelming death and suffering; the Preface to the volume asserts, “The note of pessimism and decadence is altogether absent, together with the flamboyant and hectic, the morose and the mawkish. The soldier poets leave the maudlin and the mock-heroic, the gruesome and fearful handing of Death and his allies to the neurotic civilian who stayed behind to gloat on imagined horrors and inconveniences and anticipate the uncomfortable demise of friends.”***

But I am convinced that the owner of the book was someone who loved the countryside, who found solace in “An upland field when’s spring’s begun, / Mellow beneath the evening sun” (Nichols, “At the Wars”), in flowers blooming in frozen winter gardens (“Watson, The Yellow Pansy”), in “that last sunset touch that lay / Upon the hills when day was done” (Hodgson, “Before Action”), in “The vasty distance where the stars shine blue” (Philipps, “Release”) and in the “birds and winds and streams” made holy by the dreams of those who would never return home to the countryside they loved.
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* Gibson’s account, published in “The Development of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s Poetic Art” by Geraldine P. Dilla, The Swanee Review, Jan. 1922, p. 39.
** According to Hogg’s thesis, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson: People’s Poet, Gibson compiled the poems in August 1917 and published them late that year; the Times Literary Supplement reviewed Whin on 14 Jan. 1918. 
*** A characterization of civilian poets that I believe to be ungenerous and quite simply inaccurate (see my comments on Sassoon's "Glory of Women").

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Above a shallow grave



One of the missing of the Somme, Lieutenant Cyril Winterbotham was killed on 27 August 1916 near Ovillers, France when his battalion was ordered to attack a German trench at a few minutes past 7:00 pm. Although the German position was taken, at least fifteen men from the unit were killed. Nine of them, including Winterbotham, were buried by their fellow soldiers two days later in the German trench.

Winterbotham’s widowed mother received news of her son’s death in a letter written by the battalion’s chaplain. Reverend George Helm wrote, “It may be some consolation to know that I buried him early this morning in the German trench he did so much to win, both by his example beforehand and of his actual leadership on the day … he was the British Officer at his best.”*

At the time of the burial, a wooden cross was erected that named the dead and the six men who remained missing. Shortly before his death, Cyril Winterbotham had written about these wooden crosses, often fashioned out of packing crates or salvaged wood, that marked the graves of thousands upon thousands of soldiers hastily buried by their comrades in arms. Winterbotham’s poem “The Cross of Wood” was published in his hometown paper the day before he died.**

The Cross of Wood

from Lives of the
First World War

God be with you and us who go our way
And leave you dead upon the ground you won.
For you at last the long fatigue is done,
The hard march ended; you have rest to-day.

You were our friends; with you we watched the dawn
Gleam through the rain of the long winter night,
With you we laboured till the morning light
Broke on the village, shell-destroyed and torn.

Not now for you the glorious return
To steep Stroud valleys, to the Severn leas
By Tewkesbury and Gloucester, or the trees
Of Cheltenham under high Cotswold stern.

For you no medals such as others wear—
A cross of bronze for those approved brave—
To you is given, above a shallow grave,
The Wooden Cross that marks you resting there.

Rest you content; more honourable far
Than all the Orders is the Cross of Wood,
The symbol of self-sacrifice that stood
Bearing the God whose brethren you are.
—Cyril Winterbotham

Over two years after her her son's death, in March of 1918 Winterbotham’s mother received a letter from a local man serving with the Army Service Corps who had visited her son’s grave. Corporal Thomas Woolhouse wrote, “Yesterday I went again to the spot where your son lies. His comrades and I shall have to try and get something to grow other than roses as the soil is very chalky.... but I believe that I shall be moving on in a day or so. The cross is firm and stands about 4ft 6in out of the ground, by itself, close to the trench.”*

Undated photo Cheltenham Cemetery
After the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission began the work of identifying and reburying the dead. The original wooden cross grave markers were offered to the families of the fallen soldiers, and in 1925 the Winterbotham wooden cross was returned to Cheltenham and erected in the cemetery.* It joined numerous others, as the people of Cheltenham had raised funds to have as many crosses of local men returned as possible. A “Soldiers’ Corner” was established in the Cheltenham, Gloucestershire cemetery, where the wooden crosses were mounted on specially constructed oak rails. A historian notes, “By 1927 there were 200 wooden crosses in place and a year later the number had risen to 230 crosses. The crosses were not reported on after 1928.”*** Today, only twenty-two crosses remain, but they have been researched, restored, and preserved. 

Despite the wooden cross marker, Cyril Winterbotham’s body, along with those of ten others from his unit, was never recovered due to continued heavy artillery shelling on the battlefield. Winterbotham’s name is listed on the Thiepval monument (Pier 5B), though a replica of his original wooden cross can be visited at Cheltenham cemetery. 

Those wishing more information on the original wooden crosses of the Great War can find a wealth of information at Returned from the Front, a project dedicated to establishing an online resource and database that provides information on the locations of currently existing returned crosses, as well as stories surrounding the people whose graves they marked.
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* This information and many other details on Cyril Winterbotham and Cheltenham in the First World War can be found in Neela Mann’s The story of Cheltenham’s Official WW1 Memorial Painting.
** The poem was first published untitled and unsigned in the July 1916 issue of the 5th Gloucester Gazette: A chronicle, serious and humorous, of the Battalion while serving with the British Expeditionary Force. The poem appeared in August 1916 in the Cheltenham Chronicle the day before Winterbotham was killed.
*** This and other information can be found in Cheltenham Cemetery Great War Crosses, which recounts the history of the crosses, as well as recent efforts to restore and preserve the crosses remaining and to research the stories of the men whose graves they marked. 


Thursday, August 11, 2022

Oldest Surviving War Poet

Dearmer from article in Dutch Daily NRC (24 Mar. 1993), Michiel Hegener

Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are two of the best-known poets of the First World War; John Oxenham was the best-selling poet during the war, and Edgell Rickword, born in October of 1898, is often identified as “youngest of the soldier-poets” (Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War). But the oldest surviving soldier-poet of the Great War is a name few will recognize: Geoffrey Dearmer. 

Dearmer was born March 21, 1893, just three days after Wilfred Owen. In 1914, Dearmer enlisted with the London Royal Fusiliers, serving in Malta, Egypt, Gallipoli, and at the Somme. He was demobilised in 1920. By the time of his death on August 18, 1996 at the age of 103, he was “the oldest member of the Fusiliers Association, the Gallipoli Association, the Society of Authors and the Poetry Society.”* As he approached his 100th birthday, Dearmer was asked by a radio interviewer “‘the secret’ of reaching the century so mentally agile and in such comparatively good shape physically. He replied: ‘Bad temper shortens life. Even temper never does.’”* 

Dearmer is perhaps best-known for his poem "The Turkish Trench Dog," but his lesser-known work deserves attention as well. His poem "Resurrection," first published in Poems (1918) as the second of two “Trench Poems,” grapples with the incomprehensible deaths of millions. 
Detail "Resurrection of the Soldiers,"
Stanley Spencer NT790185 Sandham

II. Resurrection

Five million men are dead. How can the worth 
Of all the world redeem such waste as this? 
And yet the spring is clamorous of birth,
And whispering in winter’s chrysalis
Glad tidings to each clod, each particle of earth.
So the year’s Easter triumphs. Shall we then
Mourn for the dead unduly, and forget 
The resurrection in the hearts of men? 
Even the poppy on the parapet 
Shall blossom as before when Summer blows again.
—Geoffrey Dearmer

Dearmer starkly assesses the cost of war—he was no stranger to loss and death. His younger brother, Christopher, died at Gallipoli in October 1915, just one week before Geoffrey arrived there, and his mother died the same year of typhoid while nursing the wounded in Serbia (she and his father were volunteers in Serbia with the Red Cross ambulance). What sets Dearmer’s work apart from that of the canonical war poets is that he finds solace in the restorative power of nature and faith. 

Geoffrey Dearmer
Although Dearmer’s war poems were well received during the war and in its immediate aftermath, they slipped into obscurity for close to 70 years until friends and admirers arranged to have a selection of his work, A Pilgrim’s Song, published to honour his 100th birthday in 1993. In the Foreword to that book, Jon Stallworthy writes of Dearmer, “his trust in God survived the horrors, and he was sustained...by the ministering beauty of a natural world that never ceases to bind the wounds that man unnaturally inflicts.” Stallworthy notes, “One does not have to share Geoffrey Dearmer’s beliefs to respect them and to recognize that he speaks for many less articulate victims of the Western Front. No doubt his seemingly unshaken vision of this world and the next helped to sustain him and bring him safely home to make a fresh start.”**

Dearmer’s legacy lives on in the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, annually awarded by the Poetry Society for the best poem published in The Poetry Review written by a poet who doesn’t yet have a full collection. All his life a modest man, Dearmer said after the publication of A Pilgrim’s Song, “I don’t know if I like any of the poems in it very much. Some are rather worse than others. Remember, all the great poets died.”*** 
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* Laurence Cottrell, “Obituary: Geoffrey Dearmer,” Independent, 19 Aug. 1996. 
** Jon Stallworthy, “Foreword,” A Pilgrim’s Song by Geoffrey Dearmer, John Murray, 1993, vii. 
*** Dearmer quoted in “‘The Dead Turk,’ Geoffrey Dearmer (1916): Echoes of Calvary in Gallipoli,” by Nigel Steel, Telegraph special supplement "Inside the First World War: Redrawing the Middle East," 2 Feb. 2014. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

A Soldier's Candid Opinion

Doiran Cemetery, Greece
photo from Researching the Lives and Service Records of FWW Soldiers

 “His major wrote that he was a brave and resolute soldier,” states the Roll of Honour entry for William Fox Ritchie. Serjeant Ritchie died less than two months before First World War ended, killed in Greece (then known as Macedonia) in a British attack on the Bulgarian lines on Sept. 12, 1918. He was thirty-one years old. 

Ritchie enlisted in the British Army with the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in April 1909, just shy of his twenty-second birthday. He served for six years in Malta and India prior to the war, arriving on the Western Front in December of 1914. Early in 1915, while in the fighting line near Ypres, he “was one of five who had to be dragged out of the trench, and was the only one of that number who was able to speak, the others being utterly exhausted and practically paralysed from the hips down.”† The Wigton Free Press reported that the men had been “standing for nineteen hours, waist-deep in water, in the trenches, and had to be dug out.” Suffering from severe frost-bite, Ritchie was hospitalised in France, then transferred to England, and finally sent home to recover in Scotland with his parents, who were living in Colmonell on the estate of local landowner where his father worked as gamekeeper and forester. 

While home recovering from his injuries, Ritchie wrote a poem that was copied into one of the estate’s guest books: 

A Candid Opinion*

Do we want to go back to the trenches?
To get biscuits and bully to eat,
To get caught by a sniper’s chance bullet
Or crippled with frost bitten feet?
There are some say they’re anxious to get back,
There are others who say they are not.
It is not that they care for the danger
Or are frightened that they will get shot.
It’s the awful conditions you live in,
Midst the rain and the mud and the dirt,
Where you’d give a month’s pay for a square meal,
And twice that amount for a shirt.
No, I’m not at all anxious to get back,
But I’ll have to go that’s understood.
So I’m willing and ready to go there,
And if needs be to stop there for good.
    —William Fox Ritchie (dated April 23, 1915)

Ritchie did not come home from the war. After recovering from frostbite, he earned the qualification to serve as a Musketry Instructor, but instead,“volunteering for active service, he was transferred to the 12th Battn. of his regiment.” From July of 1917, his unit fought with the British Salonika Army, and Ritchie was “killed in action at the Grande Couronne, Salonika, 12 Sept. 1918.... He was recommended by his Commanding Officer (who was subsequently killed) for the Croix de Guerre.”††

Few know of the Salonika campaign, and fewer still visit its battlefields and cemeteries. William Fox Ritchie is buried in the Doiran Cemetery in Greece. The inscription his father chose for his son’s grave—  “UNTIL THE DAY BREAK AND THE SHADOWS FLEE AWAY"—comes from a hymn published in 1918. The last two verses must have provided poignant comfort to William’s grieving parents: 

Many of His waiting ones in Him now sleep,
Till the night be over, earth their dust will keep;
But at day break, they from out their graves shall rise,
And with all His people meet Him in the skies.

He is waiting patiently for that bright day,
When the earthborn shadows will have fled away;
When He will receive us to Himself at last—
No more separation, sin and sorrow past.
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† 26 March 1915, Carrick Herald, “Colmonell and the War.”
* I have edited minor errors in punctuation; the original text can be seen in the photo accompanying this blog.
†† From the “Roll of Honour” sent to me by Ritchie and Lorna Conaghan of the Girvan and District Great War Project. They have spent countless hours researching men listed on war memorials in Colmonell, Ayrshire, and the surrounding area, and I am grateful to them for generously sharing this poem and its history with me. Any errors or inaccuracies are mine. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

To Tony, Aged 3


The Great Offensive, Samuel Begg (Illustrated London News, 1916)

In 1918, shortly after the death of her brother on the Western Front, Marjorie Wilson wrote an elegiac poem that tried to make sense of the tragic loss. The poem was published in the Spectator on October 26, 1918, just seven months and three days after Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson was killed during his unit’s withdrawal from Hermies. 

To Tony—Aged 3
In Memory (T.P.C.W.)* 

Gemmed with white daisies was the great green world
Your restless feet have pressed this long day through—
Come now and let me whisper to your dreams
A little song grown from my love for you.
. . . . . . .
There was a man once loved green fields like you,
He drew his knowledge from the wild birds' songs,
And he had praise for every beauteous thing,
And he had pity for all piteous wrongs ....

T.P. Cameron Wilson 
A lover of earth's forests—of her hills,
And brother to her sunlight—to her rain—
Man, with a boy's fresh wonder. He was great
With greatness all too simple to explain.


⁠He was a dreamer and a poet, and brave
To face and hold what he alone found true.
He was a comrade of the old—a friend
To every little laughing child like you.
. . . . . . .
And when across the peaceful English land
Unhurt by war, the light is growing dim
⁠And you remember by your shadowed bed
All those—the brave—you must remember him;

⁠And know it was for you who bear his name
And such as you that all his joy he gave—
His love of quiet fields, his youth, his life,
To win that heritage of peace you have.
                —Marjorie Wilson

The love and admiration that Marjorie Wilson feels for her brother is evident in references to his vocation as a school teacher and to his poetry (Magpies in Picardy was published posthumously by the Poetry Bookshop in 1919). And the poem shimmers with tenderness for the young boy Tony, as she whispers to his dreams “A little song grown from my love for you.” 

Many readers have assumed that Tony is Marjorie’s son, but she served during the war as VAD nurse (unlikely if she had a young son), and she never married. She is buried in Blaxhall, Suffolk, where her father was a rector from 1928 until Marjorie’s death in 1934.**

Marjorie Wilson Memorial,
Blaxhall, Suffolk

Perhaps Tony was the son of another of TPC Wilson’s five siblings? His sister Alice (born in 1889) served during the war with the Duchess of Sutherland’s nursing staff in France, making it unlikely that she was married or a mother at the time of her brother’s death (although she later married Arthur Thorne). And Charles, born in 1899, was most probably too young to have had a son born in 1914 or 1915.  Yet it is possible that either Christopher (born in 1883) or John (born in 1890) named a son after their brother.

But there is another possibility suggested by a manuscript written in pencil that was found with TPC Wilson’s effects after his death and published in 1920 as Waste Paper Philosophy. The philosophical musings left behind by the twenty-eight-year-old soldier were dedicated “To my son.” In the introduction to Waste Paper Philosophy, Robert Norwood writes, “Like Rupert Brooke, who held it his greatest loss to die without a son, Wilson lets the world feel his longing for the boy to come after him in these last words” (viii). 

Yet in Waste Paper Philosophy, Wilson repeatedly and directly addresses his son, at times noting that the child is young: “Go on building, my son, go on building, for nothing on earth begins or ends suddenly” (29); “An uncle of yours once lived to tell the Scotch Manager of a Sugar Plantation exactly what he thought of him” (32); “God help you, little son, if you are trodden under those well satisfied hoofs of authority” (32); “Look for the soul of things, son” (40). 

One of the poems published in Magpies in Picardy also addresses a “little son” (“The Mathematical Master to His Dullest Pupil”). Additionally, several previously unpublished poems of Wilson’s are added to Waste Paper Philosophy, including “The Silver Fairy.” This poem begins, “Listen to me, my son,” and proceeds to conversationally share a vision the soldier in the field experiences: 

Peter Pan, Arthur Rackham
Well, yesterday night when work was done,
And I was smoking a pipe in the sun,
I saw you breasting the bank at a run
I mean the band where the turf goes down
Goes down and up till it ends in a crown
Of yellow chrysanthemums nodding their heads
Over the last of the garden beds,
I saw the last because just beyond
Is weeds and snails and the duckety pond.

It’s a fantastical vision, as the boy is accompanied by a silver fairy astride his neck, but there is a charming specificity in the description of a young child’s running play. 

Perhaps Wilson’s philosophical writings were dedicated to an imagined son he might have had one day, but it’s not impossible that the child was real. In the final philosophical musing of the penciled manuscript, Wilson writes,

I think that sometimes the most loyal of women must doubt her man, must think herself false to his memory because she cannot fit a halo to his funny old head. I know those who live among the naked truths of war cannot pretend that the man they have loved and who has been killed by their side was a saint because he was dead.... Think of your dead friend (of your dead father, my son, when the time comes) as moving, sweating, struggling always, his sins, his laughter, his nastiness, his kindness, his stupidities as much a part of him as the colour of his eyes. Never complete, always developing in one direction or another, moving, moving, moving. ‘Working out his own salvation.’ .... Expect no man to be a saint, but when you find a saint reverence him as you love the sun. And because death has closed his hand over a sinner do not think that his sins have been frozen on him for eternity. He is not petrified like the corpses of Pompeii. He goes on, my son,—surely he goes on. 

His sister’s poem “To Tony, Aged 3” is the last poem in Waste Paper Philosophy, and to it has been added the title “L’Envoi,” a title often used for the last poem in a collection that adds explanatory or concluding remarks.
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*This is the version of the poem that appears in T.P.C Wilson’s Waste Paper Philosophy (1920). In that publication, the title “L’Envoi” has been added.
**Those wishing to know more about Marjorie Wilson's last days can read Arthur Mee’s account in The King’s England: Enchanted Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1936, pp. 182–184).
***I’d be grateful if anyone with knowledge of the family could provide further information.  

Friday, April 22, 2022

And what is war?


Lt. Arthur Greg, Quarry Bank archive, NT

On April 23, 1917, 2Lt Arthur T. Greg was killed in aerial combat over St. Quentin, France. He was twenty-two. Assigned to the 55th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, Greg was returning from a bombing raid when his DH4 bomber was attacked by German Albatros DIII scouts (it is likely that one of the German pilots was Hermann Göring). Greg’s plane crashed behind British lines at Ervillers, but he had been fatally wounded, and his observer Robert William Robson died of wounds nearly a month later.*

Upon receiving the news of Greg’s death, his fiancée, Marian Allen, began to write of her grief and loss. In 1918, she published a short collection of poems, The Wind on the Downs, dedicating it to “A.T.G.” Her poem “And what is war” appears near the end of the volume.

 And what is war? one said; what of its story?
    A mustered host, a noble battle-throng,
A tale of valour, and a tale of glory,
    Of vanquished enemies and righted wrong?

That is war, we say, but not that only; 
    It is a rising water, deep and wide,
Which washes some away, and leaves some lonely, 
Greg's grave in France,
Quarry Bank archive, NT
    Like driftwood, stranded by the ebbing tide.

War is the passing gleam of eager faces,
    An understanding that makes young men wise
A growing stillness, many empty places,
   A haunted look that comes in women’s eyes;

Unquestioned duty, youthfulness and laughter,
    Sometimes a sudden catching of the breath,
A sure, swift knowing what may follow after—
   Withal a gay indifference to death;

The sound of laughing voices disappearing,
    The marching of a thousand eager feet,
Passing, ever passing out of hearing,
    Echoing, ever echoing down the street;

A sudden gust of wind, a clanging door,
And then a lasting silence—that is war.
              —Marian Allen

 Most of the poems in Allen’s The Wind on the Downs are melancholy and ache with loss, but they attempt to resolve grief into hopeful purpose with lines such as “Beautiful in death as life” (“May-flies”), “Crossing the silent river, there to find / Host upon host their comrades glorified, / Saluting them upon the other side” (“Charing Cross”), and “For you death was a sudden-passing glory” (“Beyond the Downs”).

But “What is war?” questions traditional reassurances that link combat deaths with courage and glory. War may be valorous and noble, but we are reminded that it is also a dark and drowning flood that sweeps all before it. War leaves in its wake empty places, haunted eyes, barred entries, and interminable stretches of silence.

In August of 1918, Irish poet Katharine Tynan, writing for the Bookman, offered a short review of Wind on the Downs, describing it as “a collection of poems of a wistful beauty. It has scarcely outstanding qualities, but it cries its sorrowful music at your ear and you are fain to listen. It is drenched with the colours and fragrance of English country.”**

For Marian Allen, the river gliding beneath the trees, the song of the lark, still pools of water, and winds from the sea were all reminders of the love she had lost.

Marian Allen and Arthur Greg,
Quarry Bank archive, NT
For more on Marian Allen and her poetry, see the post on this blog "Stronger than Death."
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* “Arthur Tylston Greg, Cross & Cockade International Forum, post by NickForder, 22 June 2009, https://www.crossandcockade.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=58&title=arthur-tylstOn-greg
** Katharine Tynan, “Songs in War Time,” Bookman, August 1918, pp. 152–153.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Pageant of War

Parade to War, Allegory by John Steuart Curry (1938)

 In 1916, British author Margaret Sackville published a collection of poems titled The Pageant of War. The 180-line title poem begins, 

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down
Beheld amazed,
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town. 

The poem describes a vast parade “Of a million and a million feet” that are led by War, “sitting astride / A pale and neighing horse.” The self-satisfied, glutted leader of the parade wears a mask, for if anyone were to view “That obscene countenance too near,” they would “shrink in loathing and in fear, / And turn upon this thing and slay it there.” But disguising himself, War proudly leads the millions who march. 

Following him  are “The pitiful bright army of the dead,” mourning mothers, war profiteers carrying their bags of gold, and emissaries of peace, all cheered on by a vast crowd of onlookers. 

Yet beneath the feet of those who follow War, the road gleams strangely white, and the poem’s narrator finally realizes why:

I looked again at the white stones;
I saw.
        The dust was trampled bones.

’Twas they that made the road so white.

There were bones of children, bones of men,
Trampled in since the world began.
Road of triumph—road of glory!—
This road conceived by men and then
Built from the ruins of man.
Road which every land has trod
Since the beginning of its story,
And called in turn the road of God;
Road of myriads vowed to rape,
Destruction, mutilation, wrath,
Since there was no escape
And this road was their only path!

Behold! since the world began,
This shining road—man’s gift to man.

The bones which make it are so light
(Children’s bones weigh very little)
You would think the surface of this white
Shining road must be too brittle
To bear the heavy loads which go
Trampling upon it to and fro;
But no—
These bones are ground to such fine dust,
So fine, so firm they form a crust
As firm, as thick as the earth’s crust,
Which all who will may safely tread.
They have no ghosts, these dead!
They are but children, peasants of the soil,
And women—ravished, torn
And murdered at their toil.

It is for this that they were born. 

Bethlehem Steel Parade, 1916
Bill Weiner collection
Since the crowd shouts in its delight
To see along the road so white
The pageant pass in the sunlight.

I will forget the road, the stones
Are less than nothing—dust and bones:
And what has life to do with bones?

Unless they should rise up, these bones!

Meanwhile
They are silent—let them so remain,
These very humble folk, these quiet slain,
And let the living smile—
Until they too shall suffer the same pain.

Whilst the long pageant stretches mile on mile—
As though these innocents had died in vain.

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down
Beheld amazed,
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town. 
—Margaret Sackville 

Sackville’s poem can be seen as a companion piece to one of the most famous poems of the First World War: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Both poems caution against glorified idealizations of war; Owen focuses on the sufferings of soldiers, and Sackville highlights the torment and trauma of noncombatants.

Owen and Sackville warn that children are too often the victims of war, both those who have been told “the old lie” and those whose light bones are ground into dust by the passing Pageant of War.  Sadly and ironically, Sackville's poem ends exactly as it begins, with no alteration in the pace of the marching throng or in the cheers of the crowd that urges them forward.