Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter Day 1917

Church Service before Battle (postcard, WWI)
Captain John Eugene Crombie of the 4th Battalion Gordon Highlanders wrote what was most likely his last poem on April 8th, Easter Sunday of 1917. It was the eve of the battle of Arras.  Crombie was killed two weeks later on April 23, 1917.  He was 20 years old.

Easter Day, 1917 -- The Eve of Battle
John Eugene Crombie

I rose and watched the eternal giant of fire
Renew his struggle with the grey monk Dawn,
Slowly, supreme, though broadening streaks of blood
Besmirch the threadbare cloak, and pour his flood
Of life and strength on our yet sleeping choir,
As I went out to church on Easter morn.

Returning with the song of birds and men
Acclaiming victory of throbbing life,
I saw the fairies of the morning shower
Giving to drink each waking blade and flower,
I saw the new world take Communion then --
And now 'tis night and we return to strife.

The bloody struggle of dawn, the sun's flood of light that pours strength on the soldiers, the joined songs of birds and men, and the fairies of the dew that bathe grass and flowers with water: the poem's images juxtapose blood and war with life and song.

He is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  The joyful chorus of Easter morning gives way to the preparations for battle on Easter eve: "And now 'tis night and we return to strife." On Easter Monday, the battle of Arras begun: by the time it ended on May 16, 1917, over 300,000 men were missed, wounded, or dead.

A month earlier, Crombie had written to his mother, "if we hate all that is Prussian, we shall become all that we hate....It is an extraordinary tangle when you think of it. And I am sorry to be pessimistic, but I doubt if it will have helped us to find God. Among the millions actually fighting it seems only to have increased the drunkenness and vice -- perhaps some among those at home, anxious for dear ones fighting, may have learnt to rely on Him.  It is wonderful to think of Peace, and all this ghastliness ended."*

The inscription Crombie's mother chose for her son's headstone reads, From the Ground There Blossoms Red, Life That Shall Endless Be.  

Burial place of J.E. Crombie,
Duisans British Cemetery, photo by Andy Bailey (Flickr)
*Quoted in Anne Powell's A Deep Cry, pp. 239 - 240.

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