One hundred years ago today–on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour, 11 November 1918–Germany signed the armistice that brought World War I to a close. Sixteen million people, military and civilians, died in the four years of conflict. But the “war to end all wars” left some conflicts unresolved, and this gruesome chapter of human history festered for a sequel. Germany’s disgruntlement over the Treaty of Versailles fueled the rise of nationalism that helped foment the Second World War. That more recent event often eclipses its predecessor, but voices from the past have lot none of their clarity. On this centennial, instead of pontificating about the war from my privileged modern perspective, I’ll let the veterans speak for themselves.
Two years ago, for the anniversary of Battle of the Somme, I posted about the recently displayed diary of a young Irish soldier who perished less than twenty pages into his own journal. It resonated with me because my own first lesson in WWI history took a literary form. I don’t remember how young I was when my father first read me Dulce Et Decorum Est, the poem by English soldier and writer Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action a week before the armistice. The horror of trench warfare writhes to life in agonizingly eloquent verse. Among countless poems I’ve encountered in thirty-odd years of voracious reading, Owen’s is one of the first I remember, and will certainly be among the last I forget.
For those a little rusty with Latin, the poem’s last line means “it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.” Not having served myself, I can’t comment on any truth in that statement. What is inarguably “proper”, however, is to study our history with clear eyes; remember those who suffered; and heed the written legacies that a century cannot silence.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
by Wilfred Owen
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 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.
Available online from The Poetry Foundation.