Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Retreat from Mons
“The Great Retreat” is the name given to the forced march from Mons to the outskirts of Paris in late August and early September of 1914, the British Army’s longest retreat. The summer of 1914 was one of the hottest of the century, and the retreat was grueling and dangerous, as exhausted British troops attempted to escape the pursuing German Army. Men slept as they marched, some regiments covering nearly 250 miles in 13 days.  Describing the scene, historian John-Lewis Stempel wrote, “Some units lost all cohesion, some men lost all reason. One officer was so spooked he started firing his revolver at imaginary Germans in the street.”

The challenge of the war was not only to stay alive, but to remain sane.  While others would write of the tactics and topography of the retreat from Mons, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s short poem captures the interior landscapes of the mind.


Broken, bewildered by the long retreat
Across the stifling leagues of southern plain,

Across the scorching leagues of trampled grain,
Half-stunned, half-blinded, by the trudge of feet
And dusty smother of the August heat,
He dreamt of flowers in an English lane,
Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain—
All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet.

All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet—
The innocent names kept up a cool refrain—
All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet,

Chiming and tinkling in his aching brain,
Until he babbled like a child again—
"All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet."
            --Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Willow-herb (photo by Paul Lane)
The war has stripped these men of power and of sense.  Bewildered and dazed, the trained soldiers appear almost child-like as they march “half-stunned, half-blinded” in the stifling August heat. This is the retreat of the body. 

But there is also the retreat of the mind. Exhaustion and fear compel one man to escape into his imagination.  As he stumbles down the dusty roads of Belgium and France, he dreams of an English lane, “Of hedgerow flowers glistening after rain.” The sing-song chanted names of herbs and flowers distracts from the misery of the present moment as it comforts with memories of home and the peace of the countryside. 

“All-heal and willow-herb and meadow-sweet” -- like the refrain of a nursery rhyme or lullaby, the very sounds of the healing herbs and fragrant flowers calm and soothe. But no flight of the imagination could escape the actual toll of the retreat; over 15,000 men were casualties of the march, either captured, wounded, or killed.   

Today, the British Commonwealth Grave Commission invites visitors to travel the “Retreat from Mons Remembrance Trail” and learn of the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate the thousands of men who died on the Great Retreat.

Gibson created a different kind of memorial in “Retreat”; the poem also honors the memory of the men who “went ungrudgingly, and spent their all for us,” that we might “feel the heartbreak in the heart of things.”*
*These lines are from Gibson’s poem “Lament.”

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