Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Memory

Armenians, WWI
War is waged by men only, but it is not possible to wage it upon men only. All wars are and must be waged upon women and children as well as upon men.
                        -- British journalist Helena M. Swanwick, “Women and War,” 1915.

Contemporary understandings of the First World War have been significantly shaped by the trench poets of the Western Front, particularly the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, the effects of World War I were felt far beyond the trenches; this modern, industrialized war also targeted civilians in long-range artillery bombardments, U-boat attacks, zeppelin raids, military reprisals, and trade blockades.  

While it is difficult to precisely account for deaths in the First World War, an estimated 11 million men who served in the military or in military support roles died.  What is less well known is the impact of the war on noncombatants: it is thought that between 6.5 and 7 million civilians died as a result of the war.  These deaths include those who were executed or killed in military actions, as well as those who were the victims of genocide, famine, and disease that were directly related to the war (the statistic does not include those who died as a result of the Spanish flu, the Russian Revolution, or the Turkish War of Independence).  While many know that nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the Somme, few are aware that an estimated 30,000 Serbian civilians were executed by Austro-Hungarian forces; nearly 250,000 civilians died in Poland due to famine and disease, and another 300,000 in France – both numbers dwarfed by the 730,000 civilians who perished in Russia as a result of starvation and disease attributed to the conflict.*

The voices of noncombatants and women have often been marginalized in relating the subject and pity of The Great War.  Margaret Sackville’s poem “A Memory” turns its gaze on the civilians whose tragedies blur the boundaries between the war and the home front.   

Night Bombing, William Orpen
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2994)
A Memory

There was no sound at all, no crying in the village,
Nothing you would count as sound, that is, after the shells;
Only behind a wall the low sobbing of women,
The creaking of a door, a lost dog — nothing else.

Silence which might be felt, no pity in the silence,
Horrible, soft like blood, down all the blood-stained ways;
In the middle of the street two corpses lie unburied,
And a bayoneted woman stares in the market-place.

Humble and ruined folk — for these no pride of conquest,
Their only prayer: "O! Lord, give us our daily bread!"
Not by the battle fires, the shrapnel are we haunted;
Who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead? 
                         --Margaret Sackville

The poem opens on a scene of unnatural quiet. There is neither pity nor mercy in the stillness, but rather a palpable silence, a dense emptiness that bears the weight of absence and loss.  If the silence is soft, it is soft like blood that pools under a corpse. This is a tense quiet; it vibrates with stifled sobs and silent screams as an onlooker stares at bodies torn open and a world ripped apart. 

The troops and the violence have passed on, leaving in their wake the blankness of death and shock. The unburied bodies are not those of soldiers nor the dead of No Man’s Land, but the “humble and ruined folk” whose bodies sprawl unnaturally in the marketplace and lie in the middle of a village street. There has been shellfire, but not all the violence has been delivered anonymously from a safe distance: a woman has been bayoneted -- killed at arm’s length by a soldier.  Her body stares sightlessly at the sky. 

Serbian executions
The war has spilled out beyond its boundaries, and the memory of this “still life” village has the quality of a horrific wound: grotesque, unreal, and unforgettable. And yet, in grim irony, these dead have been largely forgotten.  The poem’s last line asks, “Who shall deliver us from the memory of these dead?” While it is a rhetorical question, most centenary commemorations of the First World War seek to remember in ceremonies, cemeteries, poems, and public memorials the military men who were killed.  Much less often do we remember the civilians who died, all those who, as described in another Sackville poem, “Quietly… lie beneath your armies’ feet.”**
*For an overview on the human cost of the war, see “World War I Casualties.”
**From Sackville’s poem “Victory.” For other poems on the war’s effect on civilians, see Margaret Widdemer’s “Homes,” Maria Benneman’s “Visé,” and May Sinclair’s “After the Retreat.”  Marian Allen’s “And what is war?” also uses the image of a door ajar in the wind to suggest the haunted quality of empty homes and villages.

Salonica refugees, WWI


  1. I have goose bumps and chills reading this. Beautiful and so sad.

    1. Thanks for reading -- it's one of my favorite poems from the war.

    2. Oh MY,WHAT A Poem. Makes one wonder.

  2. From my desk, where I am pondering over a reaction, I am watching one of the only two surviving pics of the grandfather I never had. With a crew of forced labour workers he was killed in late May 1918 "along the road in the uninhabited village of X", as the death certificate states.
    Whilst doing road repair work under strict (German) enemy surveillance intended to keep access lines to the front intact, he was killed when an English pilot (our ally) flew over, bombing the spot. My dad was barely a 3-month baby when it happened.
    The incident left his mother without income.
    She lived to reach the age of 95. I never heard her say so much as a word about the fate that befell her and her 41-year-old husband and father of 5.

    1. Dear Chris, I'm humbled by your family's story, your grandmother's strength and courage, and your generosity in sharing. They are not forgotten.