Sunday, September 30, 2018

To My Brother Killed


Just twenty kilometers north of Verdun lie the ruins of a village that no longer exists. As you approach the deserted site, a small sign announces, Haumont: Village destroyed in 1916, Died for France.  Ghostly life-sized photographs of townspeople who once lived in Haumont stand silently amidst the tumbled remains of bunkers and sunken trenches.  By the time the Germans captured Haumont in late February of 1916, nothing of the village remained. They strongly fortified and stubbornly defended the site, and only after fierce struggle was it retaken by American and French forces in October of 1918. 

Haumont, 2017
In 1920, the village of Haumont was designated a “red zone”—unfit for habitation. A plaque informs visitors that rebuilding was prohibited due to the large quantity of explosives that still lie buried in the ground (ammunition is still being uncovered today), the pollution of springs by the decaying bodies of men and horses buried there, and the still-present dangers of land that was subjected to mustard gas attacks and war-time pollutants.  

Thousands died at Haumont, but one was the beloved older brother of American poet Louise Bogan. Private Charles J. Bogan served with the 104th Massachusetts Infantry and was killed on October 17, 1918, less than a month before the war ended.  Some time in the 1920s, his sister wrote the poem she dedicated to him, then sent it in a letter to a friend, without keeping a copy. When Rolfe Humphries returned the poem to Bogan in 1935, she included it in her 1937 volume of poems, The Sleeping Fury.*

To My Brother
Killed: Haumont Wood, October 1918

Haumont before the war
O you so long dead,
You masked and obscure,
I can tell you, all things endure:
The wine and the bread;

The marble quarried for the arch;
The iron become steel;
The spoke broken from the wheel;
The sweat of the long march;

The hay-stacks cut through like loaves
And the hundred flowers from the seed;
All things indeed
Though struck by the hooves

Of disaster, of time due,
Of fell loss and gain,
All things remain,
I can tell you, this is true.

Though burned down to stone
Though lost from the eye,
I can tell you, and not lie,--
Save of peace alone.
            — Louise Bogan
Charles Bogan’s family most likely visited his burial place several years after the war’s end, as photos of Charles’ grave taken in 1920 are among Louise Bogan’s papers.  The family would have seen the wreckage of war: broken wheel spokes, rusted weapons, fields of poppies and cornflowers. And they might have imagined Charles’ last days: exhausting marches, roads churned into muddy ruts, harvests ruined and scattered.

But what has lasted? Bogan’s poem announces that everything has endured, everything will endure—even the decaying remains of the soldier—everything but peace.

Long before the Second World War began, those who had lived through the First World War recognized that the Great War, the war that would end all wars, had failed to achieve this aim.  In 1939, perhaps remembering her brother’s violent death in a wood torn by machine guns and artillery fire, Louise Bogan wrote, “I am still a violent pacifist and refuse to be railroaded into any side-taking that might lead to the air being let into people by means of bullet-holes.”**
* Thomas Simmons, Erotic Reckonings: Mastery and Apprenticeship in the Work of Poets and Lovers, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p. 184.
** Louise Bogan, What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973, p. 183.


  1. Thank you Connie - that is wonderful. Louise Bogan is not included in the list of American poets in Catherine W. Reilly's "English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography" (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1978). This is surprising, given that she was a Poet Laureate. Louise's poem dedicated to the memory of her brother who was killed in WW1 resonates particularly with me because my Grandmother lost her two brothers during WW1 and a son in The SEcond World War. My Mother never got over the death of her brother - she cried every day.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for sharing your family story -- Lest We Forget....