Sunday, November 11, 2012

Remembrance Day / Veterans Day 2012

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(This is a reprint of the post I put up last year, but with a different poem by Rosenberg. Last year it was the justifiably famous "Break of Day in the Trenches," one of the greatest of all war poems (of any war, not just WWI). This year it's "Dead Man's Dump," a remarkable portrait of the brutality of war.)

Today is a day to remember those who served, those who fought, those who gave their lives. But it is also -- and we must not lose sight of this -- a day to remember the horror of war. While many of those who served did so nobly, war itself is not noble, even when somehow justifiable, and undeniably necessary, as was World War II.

Even if we should remember today not just the so-called " Greatest Generation" (a made-up American concept/conceit) that fought that war but also the countless innocent civilians who suffered and died (in that war as in all wars), as well as the incredible devastation of that war, not just on "our" side but on "their" side as well, from Dresden to Hiroshima. There may be ideals of good and evil, but there is an awful lot in between.

But World War I, the "Great War," the specific war this day commemorates? That was a pointless, generation-destroying abomination that resulted in nothing but another war, a continuation of the war, 20 years later. It was a war of dying empires, heavily militarized after a century of relative peace following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna, the generals and their political masters moving pieces around on their gameboard, the lines moving a bit this way, a bit that way, all for some greater glory that existed only in their illusions and delusions, while thousands upon thousands were dying for nothing at all on the fields and in the trenches. Think of the Battle of the Somme, one of the Great War's key turning points, with a death toll over a million. It was one of the worst, but it was also one of many such devastations. It is impossible, I think, to come fully to terms with such horror.

Let us, then, think not of the usual red poppy but of the white one, which symbolizes peace (and not so much military valour and certainly not the "nobility" of war).


Here is the intensely powerful "Dead Man's Dump" by Isaac Rosenberg, a somewhat lesser-known Great War poet (compared to the likes of Owen or Sassoon) but still a very fine one:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended--stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul's sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.

Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called 'An end!'
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man's self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?

A man's brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer's face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

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