Friday, July 20, 2018

Dying for Your Country

British WW1 poster, 1915

In 1917, British writer and editor T.W.H. Crosland penned a war poem that strips war of its glory and speaks directly to soldiers who fight. His tongue-in-cheek advice is just as likely to find a receptive audience in the military today.     

Dying for Your Country
Dead in trenches, WW1

When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
   Arose from out the azure main,
We had no buttons and no band—
   We did our murder very plain;
There were no heroes, no V.C.’s,
    No glory for the honoured dead—
We went and slew our enemies,
    Or they slew us, and nothing said.

Slaughter was slaughter, gore was gore,
   And kicks were kicks the same as now,
And death was just as sharp and sure,
   And just as cooling to the brow.
We did not fight for pelf or fame,
   Neither for honour did we strive,
Nor for to make Old England’s name,
   But just to keep ourselves alive.

German #WW1 poster:
"Because I Must"
It’s him or you, ourselves or them—
   An ugly wild-beast law—and yet
It hits us with a gust like flame
   When we are minded to forget;
For all our sweet tarantara,
   Our “love of right” and “hate of ill,”
Boil down to the old formula—
   We must be killed unless we kill.

So, Johnny, keep your barrel bright,
   And go where you are told to go,
And when you meet, by day or night,
   Our friend the enemy, lay him low;
And you must neither boast nor quake,
   Though big guns roar and whizz-bangs whizz—
Don’t die for your dear country’s sake,
   But let the other chap die for his.
            —Thomas William Hodgson Crosland

TWH Crosland
Siegfried Sassoon described Crosland as “a remarkable man… a human battleground of good and evil.”* Crosland’s biographer praised him as “one of the last of the small band of brilliant Victorian literary men…. he was a true poet, a master of prose, an acute, fearless and sane critic, a great satirist, a patriot of patriots, a smiter of skunks and humbugs, a prince of Bohemians, and one of the most original and remarkable literary men that ever lived.”** Yet Crosland was also “a severe alcoholic, terribly self-destructive, bigoted, homophobic, and possessed too what today would perhaps euphemistically be referred to as ‘anger management issues.’”

Elizabeth Vandiver notes that Crosland’s war poems are a collection “whose entire burden is unambiguous praise of the war effort and the soldiers.”†† However, the poem “Dying for your Country” seems to mock the idea that war is noble or glorious;  it  acknowledges the gore and slaughter, while sympathetically addressing the fighting men.
* Siegfried Sassoon, qtd. in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Duckworth, 1998, p. 146.  
**  William Sorley Brown, The Life and Genius of T.W.H. Crosland, C. Palmer, 1928, p. vii.
† Richard J. Bleiler, The Strange Case of “The Angels of Mons”: Arthur Machen’s World War I Story, McFarland, 2015, p. 103.
†† Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles, Oxford UP, 2010, p. 400.

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