Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our mutual dead

French and British women

This week, the world will mark the 97th anniversary of Armistice Day: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, when the First World War ended. 

In 1916, following the death of her older brother, Margaret Sackville wrote a poem imagining that future time when the fighting and killing would cease.  Men had made the war – and now it would be left to the grieving women to make the peace.   


Youth Mourning, George Clausen
When all the stress and all the toil is over,
And my lover lies sleeping by your lover.
With alien earth on hands and brows and feet.
Then we may meet.

Moving sorrowfully with uneven paces,
The bright sun shining on our ravaged faces,
There, very quietly, without sound or speech,
Each shall greet each.

We who are bound by the same grief for ever,
When all our sons are dead may talk together,
Each asking pardon from the other one
For her dead son.

With such low, tender words the heart may fashion,
Broken and few, of kindness and compassion,
Knowing that we disturb at every tread
Our mutual dead.
            --Margaret Sackville, published in The Pageant of War, 1916

In this imagined future, soldiers once again become lovers who lie not beside their sweethearts, but in the alien earth beside the men they killed.  At their lovers' graves, the bereft women meet:  German and French, Russian and Austro-Hungarian, British and Ottoman. 

Margaret Sackville
Quiet and sunshine have returned to the world, but the dead soldiers’ wives and mothers stumble through cemeteries with “ravaged faces,” greeting each other in a language for which there are no words.  Shared tears and gazes acknowledge a pain too great to be fully expressed.  The halting speech and uneven steps of the women are echoed in the poem’s structure, for each stanza begins with three lines of eleven syllables, then ends abruptly with a last terse line of four syllables that mirrors all that is broken, lost, and unspeakable.

Forever separated from the men they have loved, these women from enemy countries find themselves “bound by grief.” Speaking for their “mutual dead,” the women ask one another’s forgiveness:  Your son shot mine. My son gassed yours. I am sorry. 

In the Preface to Margaret Sackville’s Selected Poems (1919), Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote, “Her war poems are not mere experiments in realism, but genuine laments for the pity of such things, the ugliness of rage and the waste of what is noblest.” 

What lessons of peace were learned from the waste and violence of World War I?  The “Reconciliation” imagined in Sackville’s poem failed to occur -- I have fruitlessly searched for any account of former enemies meeting on fields of battle or in cemeteries in the years immediately following the Armistice.  A better predictor of the future, Siegfried Sassoon would write in his poem “Aftermath,” composed just five months after the war ended,
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
            Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
            And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
            Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'


  1. While doing research for this post, I came across this insight from a book on WWI: "The most depressing lesson of World War I is that people once believed in a war to end all wars and now no one does" (from Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour by Joseph E. Persico).

    1. On Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele (Zonnebeke) - pronounced by the British as 'Passion Dale' - I could show you the headstone of a private with an inscription that says 'Sacrificed to the fallacy that war could end war'.
      And the inscription at the bottom of the statue of the fallen of my (Flemish) village is as follows - I quote literally: "What use is there in the shedding of our blood?". They were forced to forfeit their lives in a war that no-one here had asked for.

      The more I read or write or think about war, the more I am convinced that any question it raises is doomed forever to remain unanswered afterwards. Tyne Cot is a city of the dead and a blizzard of white stones.

      While attempting to pay tribute to the fallen, its 12,000 headstones and the apse wall with another 34,000 names raise more questions than a lifetime's friendship or understanding could ever hope to answer.

      When the British General Douglas Haig's staff officer visited the spot (mid-November 1917), he burst into tears, crying: "Good God, did we send men to fight in thàt?" To which his batman replied was that "It is worse further on."

      Every one of 8,000 out of the 12,000 of Tyne Cot's dead remains unknown. 'A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God' is what their inscription says.

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    3. Dear Chris, thank you so much for sharing these inscriptions. I am honored beyond words that the author of "The International First World War Poetry Anthology" is reading my posts. The work you have done is inspiring to all working on First World War history and literature.

  2. Lovely post, Connie. And sad. Thank you for not breaking faith with those who died.