Sunday, January 6, 2019

Joyless Victory

Ivar Campbell
In his anthology For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War (1918), editor Arthur St. John Adcock writes, “Not a hint of the war enters into the poems of Ivar Campbell.”* Campbell, grandson of the 8th Duke of Argyll, was a published writer in the years before the war, his poems appearing in the Westminster Gazette and Country Life.  He loved exploring the Scottish countryside, writing, “Walking is a brave thing… a large thing, a dusty thing, an you will.  But like the sea it touches Heaven.”** Campbell also served as an honorary attaché to the British Embassy in America, living in the United States from late 1912 until March of 1914.  

When war broke out in August of 1914, he sought an army commission, but was rejected due to poor eyesight.  Wanting to join the war effort, Campbell learned to drive and volunteered with the Red Cross Ambulance in France for a time, while persistently reapplying to the military. He was finally accepted on his third try and commissioned in early February of 1915 in the regiment of his clan, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He served on the Western Front until late November of 1915, and was then posted to Mesopotamia, arriving at Basra on Christmas Eve.  Two weeks later, the 25-year-old second lieutenant was fatally wounded leading his men in a charge against the Turks at Sheikh Sa’ad.  Ivar Campbell died the next day, January 8, 1916, and “was buried that evening by the banks of the Tigris.”***  The location of his grave was lost, and his name appears on the memorial to the missing at Basra.

“A Meditation upon the Return of the Greeks,” included in his posthumously published Poems (1917), never directly mentions the First World War, but instead, its questions examine the costs and moral consequences of all wars. 

A Meditation upon the Return of the Greeks

Trojan War, 5th c. BC terracotta cup
When in their long lean ships the Greek host weighed
Their splashing anchors, then they had much joy
For lovely Helen’s sake to humble Troy…
Their first deed was the murder of a maid.

Ten years from their pleasant land they stayed,
And after ten years, had they any joy?
They had old Helen, and they humbled Troy:
Were they at her lost loveliness dismayed?

Thinking of their lost Youth were they afraid?
Was Youth worth more than Helen—Helen of Troy?
Was it for this tired face they had spent joy?
"For What," Frederick H. Varley
Canadian War Museum
For this tall, weary woman burnt a maid?

When on that quiet night the Greek host laid
Down their old dinted armour, had they any joy?
            —Ivar Campbell

Both the Great War and the Trojan War began with joyful enthusiasm.  Soldiers were certain that they were fighting for a noble cause and would easily humble their enemies. Yet both wars dragged on for years, while young men and their dreams died by the thousands—and the millions—sacrificed for reasons that no longer seemed clear.  Innocents were killed, among them women and children, so that by the time the war had ended and the weary fighters returned home, they were forced to confront questions that echoed in the silence of peace: was it worth it? Where was the joy that had accompanied the men into battle?
* Arthur St. John Adcock, editor of For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918, p. 56.
** Ivar Campbell, Poems, A.L. Humphreys, 1917, p. 11.
*** Guy Ridley’s memoir in Poems by Ivar Campbell, p. 27.
Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis. 


  1. Surely "When in their long lean ships the Greek host weighted" should be "When in their long lean ships the Greek host weighed", for both rhyme and sense.

  2. Absolutely right, Roger, and I sincerely thank you for catching my error (which I've corrected).