Friday, November 12, 2010

Dulce et Decorum Est

When I was 12 years old I was really fortunate to have an incredibly inspirational English teacher. Among the many brilliant writers he introduced me too, Wilfred Owen remains one of my favourites. At that age, of course I knew about World War One and was dimly aware of the great sacrifices that had been made (whenever we were on holiday, my father used to make a point of finding the local war memorial and taking a moment to honour the dead), but I hadn't really grasped how terrible and futile it all was. That was until Mr Ward introduced me to this poem:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time:
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes, and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

I think it was the image of the man's drowning face that really brought it home to me. Up until then, my notions of warfare were very much based on old war movies, and boys in the playground playing out war fantasies. Ever since then, I've been simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the stories I've read about that particular war, which seems to have been more pointless then most.

Normally on Remembrance Day I tend to think about my dad and fil who were both lucky enough to survive World War 2, but yesterday, I found my thoughts straying to those two great uncles I mentioned in my previous post.

Ernest Ophir Clark (or "Ophie" as he rather sweetly appears on one census when he was small) joined up in 1915, serving in the 5th Battalion of the London Rifle Brigade and died in December 1916. He wasn't killed in battle, but died of an illness (I'm not sure what) that he presumably contracted from being in the trenches. He was 20 years old, and Jemima's third child, and second son, and is buried in Merville Cemetery in France.

Alfred Thomas Clark, enlisted with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in 1915, but ended up with the Hampshire Regiment. He was Jemima's oldest child, and she must have thought she'd got away with it, as he survived all the way to the last week of the war. He died on 4 November 1918 in the Battle of the Sambre - the same battle Wilfred Owen died in.

Last night we caught a wonderful programme that Jeremy Paxman had made about Wilfred Owen. I knew he had a period suffering from shell shock, but I hadn't realised how thanks to some progressive treatment from the doctor who treated him (normal treatment of shell shock at the time consisted of firing your frontal lobes with electric shocks to reprogramme the brain to get back to battle), he started to write the war poems for which he is remembered today. Neither did I realise how influential Siegfried Sassoon had been on his work. Ironically, Sasssoon ended up in the same hospital because the government didn't want him writing any more anti-war treatises, only for him to influence a poet who went on to write some of the greatest anti-wa r poems ever written.

It was an incredibly moving programme, not least because it was cut through with readings from letters Owen wrote home to his mother and sister, in which he spared no detail of the horror of what was happening. Touchingly, in the last letter he wrote, just before the battle of the Sambre, when he and his men were sitting in a dugout, he talks of the peace he has found with them, and how unafraid he is, though the battle rages above him.

The Battle of the Sambre was the last offensive of World War 1. The aim was to take the German line on the other side of the Sambre-Oise Canal. But as the British approached to put up temporary bridges, they came under heavy fire - and it was in that bombardment Wilfred Owen (and I'm guessing Alfred too) lost his life. Tragically, Owen's mother got the news as the bells were ringing to announce the armistice. He was, by all accounts exceptionally brave, having opted to go back to the War so he could keep reporting how it was through his poetry, and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross.

Alfred on the other hand, as far as I know, didn't have an exceptional war, and won no medals that I know of. His loss though, for his mother and family must have been equally catastrophic. I found myself wondering about how he and Ernest would have been, had they lived. I knew all their surviving siblings: Mabel(May) my grandmother, her sister Madge, and youngest brother Herbert. I recall them all with much affection, though May died when I was relatively young. It seems strange to think there were two other great uncles whom I might also have known. And that is the tragedy of World War 1 for so many families, no one in the country was unaffected by it. Owen's phrase "the pity of war" was an apposite one.

Another great poem speaks to me of their loss. It's an almost tender lament for the loss of so much of the nation's youth. Read it, remember, and weep.

Anthem for a Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
-Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Persephone said...

Have you read Regeneration by Pat Barker? It's a fictional treatment of the encounter between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart War Hospital (amongst many other things), and I read it when my daughter was assigned it for her last literature course of high school last year. I understand there was a BAFTA-nominated film which I must have missed because I had very young children at the time. I must seek it out.

Still promoting your new book? Or is another one aborning? Or both?

Virginia Moffatt said...

Thanks for this. Youngest was asking about who died in WW1 in the family, so great to have the detail.

Wilfred Owen is why I am a pacifist!

Rachael said...

Two of my favourites. I think going to Craiglockhart, and seeing where the two men met, had a huge effect on me as an impressionable teenager. I love the War Poets.