1914 and all that

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I travelled with a friend around northern France a couple of weeks back, cycling around Boulogne, Amiens and Lille. The Ch’tis were very friendly and accommodating with my Franglais. We met a lot of very good people and had a few adventures.

We also visited Albert, headquarters of the British during the Somme offensive. ‘Somme’ is actually the name of the whole region, with the battle itself being ‘fought’ in the fields and villages between Albert and Péronne. A little before the trip I started writing something on the looming legacy disputes. I share the finished doggerel here, ‘1914 and all that’.

It’s no succour to blind or limbless men
When historians crown the victor of a luckless war.
Trade machine gun rattle for imperial prattle.

Cabinet rooms become playing fields,
Bomb factory man smarts ‘never again’,
Great men too proud to call off the hounds.

War misery now makes the mock GCSE
Centenaries continue on over-the-hill TV
Patriotic pastorals without syphilis or gin.

This accursed heritage gloom and doom
Leaves no room for the wounds of living men,
Basra or Belfast, that lost DLA appeal.

Commemorations led by horsey royals
Whose subjects still die in today’s poppy-fields.
Victory’s paper flowers and penny change.

*

What’s left of Wipers or the Somme?
Lads swallowed whole by Flanders mud,
Devoured by the moods of distant guns.

Never forget the rats or the lice,
Nine in ten soldiers actually survived,
Unclassifiable degrees of disintegration.

Strictly adhering to deference and duty
Today still blinds any attempt at explaining
The necessity of perpetual and unwinnable war.

One side loses more slowly.
A game of blood-potlatch
Played out by history’s great men.

Sweet and proper it must be then
To die for abstractions, like fatherland
Or liberty, or the fallacy of democracy.

The long queues outside the labour exchange,
Memories that no will can possibly erase,
Medals of a man who once shared your name.

*

Strange hells left in Gurney’s head,
Demented choirs of wailing shells
Like Owen saw, a banal picaresque of death.

A century now since that “never again”,
One hundred busy years of the destruction of men.
Nothing we learn, nothing we forget.

Never before, so never again?
Larkin laments lost innocence then,
Innocence and obedience, time tends to bend.

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16 thoughts on “1914 and all that

  1. I’ve read a little on WWI. A. G. Empey’s “Over the Top,” and Gibbs’ “Now It Can Be Told.” “A Very Long Engagement,” too, of course. The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy turned out to make the world safe for Adolf Hitler’s thugs, too. Amazing stupidity.

  2. Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory” is also a great piece in understanding past and modern perceptions on WWI. Excellent bit of poetry here, thanks for sharing. It feels very fitting now that we’ve entered the 100th anniversary of the maiming machines of the Great War (1914-1918).

  3. One hundred busy years of the destruction of men.
    Nothing we learn, nothing we forget.
    Very true sadly,
    Thank you for sharing,
    Lakshmi Bhat

  4. Thank you for this amazing, thought provoking piece. Really makes you think- especially now that we’re entering the centenary of the Great War- lest we forget.
    Phoenixflames12 x

  5. Stuff like this always looms pretty large in my mind when I think of Australian attitudes and storytelling with respect to WWI. So much of it over here is covered in the ANZAC Legend, Simpson and his Donkey, Australia’s baptism of fire, mateship, etc. etc. that it morphs into kind of a romantic, nationalistic mess that overlooks the sort of details you’ve alluded to so deftly. I guess you get the same sort of attitude all over the world, but I’m a bit hard-pressed to come up with an example from another country that is so fixated on one detail.

    What I’m trying to say is: great poem, would read again!

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