I volunteered to write this article about the 100th anniversary of World War I, because I had a million ideas. I considered writing something about the German matchbox case that my mechanic gave me, which bears the motto “Gott Mitt Uns”: “God With Us.” But then I remembered this review by Benjamin Wetzel and decided to leave that angle to the experts. I thought about talking about the comedy show “Blackadder Goes Forth” that was set in World War I, and specifically its surprising final episode, “Goodbyeee.” But that speaks for itself.
I thought about the Oxford English Dictionary’s “100 Words That Defined World War I”—containing terms like “The Great War,” “The War to End All Wars,” as well as “Lost Generation” and “unknown soldier”—but again I realized that there are many who could write much more knowledgeably about it. I even thought about some of my childhood literature obsessions that brought on my interest in “The Great War”—specifically, “After the Dancing Days,” the only book I ever went into the YA section of the library for, and the only book whose entire second half I read through hiccupping sobs and tears—and, of course, about the war experiences of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Ultimately, though, I dabble in World War I. I’m fascinated and horrified by it, and I think it is worth my study, and the study of any Christian, but I am not qualified to lecture you about it for 1,000 words. Instead, I will walk you through two of many amazing poems by young Englishmen who died in World War I, and explain why you, too, should be ransacking your library’s World War I displays.
The first poem that I want to bring to your attention is “The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke. Brooke died in April of 1915 at the age of 27 of complications from an infected mosquito bite. He was on his way to the Gallipoli landing, a campaign commemorated now by ANZAC Day, that brought the deaths of thousands of Australians and New Zealanders because of the bad decisions of (among others) Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. Brooke had written “The Soldier” a year before:
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
It is a bittersweet poem, but more sweet than bitter because of its intense patriotism. It is not quite the jingoism parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”: “For he himself has said it/and it’s greatly to his credit/That he is an Englishman” and “For in spite of all temptations/to belong to other nations/he remains an Englishman.” It is saved from that by its homeliness. The soldier’s dust retains the nature of England—the flowers and the rivers—and his mind, the company—the “laughter, learnt of friends.” The soldier’s dead body should be remembered as “blest” and “happy.” His spirit is filled with “gentleness” and “peace.” In fact, an appropriate epigraph for this poem might be “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: “It is sweet and appropriate to die for one’s homeland.”
This quotation from the ancient Roman poet Horace does provide the title of a very different poem by Wilfred Owen: “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Wilfred Owen died in action at the age of 25, one week before Armistice Day. He had written this poem a year previously:
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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 writhing 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.
This graphic poem hardly needs comment, the image is so clear and so horrifying. Nothing about the aftermath of a mustard gas attack is sweet or appropriate. Nothing about those words, “dulce” and “decorum,” apply to a man’s body and lungs blistering and burning. And by questioning the appropriateness of the death, Owen questions the patriotism. Does anything make it glorious to be the one whose blood comes “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”? And is it right or responsible to ask any young man—one of the “doomed youth” who “die as cattle,” as Owen says in another poem—to suffer this fate for the honor of his country? It questions the sentiment of “The Soldier” in a way that feels unanswerable.
Why, then, are we looking at these poems in the first place? Aside from the literary value of great works by men like Brooke and Owen and Rosenberg and Sassoon and many others, there is a value to the tension between various views of patriotism that World War I poems reflect. They are not statistically useful, of course, but they reflect a tension that existed on a far broader scale—for instance, between the questioning of English patriotism by Gilbert and Sullivan in the late Victorian era that I mentioned above and the writings of the Edwardian doctor Sir Frederick Treves, and this nauseatingly patriotic line in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1917 Sherlock Holmes story “His Last Bow“: “There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” But the generalization that World War I brought a pessimism about war and patriotism is not completely unjustified.
How do we Christians deal with such a sentiment? We are told in I Peter 2:13-14 to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” And I believe this means we are to be patriotic in some sense, even to the extent of being willing to die for our country.
But at the same time, as Peter said in verse 11 of the same chapter, Christians are “sojourners and exiles.” A patriotism that sees a patriotic death, as Brooke did, as freeing the soul to continue as a “pulse in the eternal mind” thinking thoughts of its patria is idolatry. Death is a horrible enemy that cannot be defanged even by love of one’s country. For “the last enemy that shall be abolished is death.” That enemy is not abolished or destroyed because the soldier thought of the earthly country he loved while he faced the swords/muskets/mustard gas/heat-seeking missile. Such thoughts will not bring him to heaven. That enemy is abolished only by Christ, who suffered a worse death, “even death on a cross.”
World War I, probably to a greater extent than any war before it, reminded many people like Wilfred Owen that death, even death for the honor of one’s country, ultimately is nauseating and vile. And it reminded many people that they are sick.
Whatever happened then, we live in an equally sick age filled with wars and rumors of wars. Let us remember that Great War of one century ago and the wars of today, and consider how sick our world is. And let us be encouraged to tell the sick of the Great Physician.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell would like to take this opportunity to apologize to any friends who were in her vicinity while she read “After the Dancing Days,” to any students who were in her vicinity when she listened to a reading of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and to any labradoodles named Arthur who were in her vicinity but were occasionally ignored while she wrote this article.