Saturday, September 1, 2018

Light Loss

London Telegraph, 9 June 1916
London Telegraph report on Battle of the Somme
3 July 1916

What is the worth of one life in a war in which millions died? Some families of the dead of the First World War tried to express their loss in the sixty-six characters allowed them by the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The mother of Private William Ogston Craib selected “A Mother’s Love Lies Here,” while the inscription “No No No Oh God/ Not for Naught,” was chosen by the mother of 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Harold Harding Linzell.* Australian poet John Le Gay Brereton described the immense gap that lay between institutional and personal responses to death in war time.

London Telegraph, May 19 1916
Light Loss

“Our loss was light,” the paper said,
“Compared with damage to the Hun”:
She was a widow, and she read
One name upon the list of dead
— Her son — her only son.
            —John Le Gay Brereton

Brereton was forty-two when the war broke out. A librarian and literary scholar, his book of war poetry, The Burning Marl, was published in 1915. The Australian Dictionary of National Biography states that “he was a rare academic on familiar terms with creative writers, while his gentle, whimsical, and sometimes melancholy personality made him widely loved and respected.”** Brereton died suddenly while on a vacation with his family in 1933; his obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald reads, It was because he avoided publicity that he possibly missed some of the honour that was the due of this original mind, whose fancy in prose and in verse expressed so strikingly his intellectual gifts.”***
* Sarah Wearne, Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, Uniform, 2016, pp. 45, 24.
** H.P. Heseltine, “Brereton, John Le Gay (1871-1933), Australian Dictionary of Biography.
*** “Professor J. Le Gay Brereton,” Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Feb. 1933, p. 10.

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