One hundred years ago this month, after a few days of preliminary skirmishes and maneuvers in late July, World War I began in deadly earnest. The guns of August, to use the title of Barbara Tuchman's aptly-named book, would blaze non-stop for the next four years, resuming again and again for most of the century.
But it was August 1914 when killing kicked into an unprecedented high-gear. Gears indeed. Machinations met machines–particularly machine guns–and slaughter became mechanized. Europe (and a good deal of the rest of the world) lost its collective mind. As to the mass-idiocy and attendant butchery, Ezra Pound nailed it with magisterial scorn in his great poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
That "old bitch gone in the teeth" is, of course, England's Queen Victoria, known as "the grandmother of Europe" since her prolific, inbred spawn saturated the continent's royal houses. Most notably, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, Russia's Czar Nicholas II, and England's George V were all her grandsons and, hence, first cousins. Just weeks before the war, these absurd living dinosaurs would be playing tennis with each other. Of course, the people of their respective nations were, in the main, equally as absurd, rushing off lemming-like to volunteer for rapid liquidation.
The war produced a group of poets with firsthand combat experience who sought to dispel pernicious romanticization of the fighting in which senseless carnage was valorized as heroic sacrifice. They came to be known as "the war poets," though I prefer the term "soldier poets." England's notable soldier poets were Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, and Siegfried Sassoon, but the best among them was Wilfred Owen.
When war broke out, Owen didn't sprint to the enlistment office. He was 21 and, after having finished nearly a year as an English instructor at the Berlitz School of Languages in Bordeaux, France, was employed tutoring two boys in a Catholic family there. Already Owen had a strong sense of his poetic vocation.
He also had more than an inkling of the war's terrible waste. In a letter dated August 28, 1914, Owen expressed a hatred for the war that bristles with uncanny prescience (and a closing barb that–just as uncannily–Pound echoes in the prior lines from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.) It's a sentiment that many expressed only in aftermath's grim clarity:
I feel my own life all the more precious and more dear in the presence of this deflowering of Europe. While it is true that the guns will effect a little useful weeding, I am furious with chagrin to think that the Minds, which were to have excelled the civilization of two thousand years, are being annihilated–and bodies, the products of aeons of Natural Selection, melted down to pay for political statues.
Eventually, in October 1915, Owen joined the Army and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in June of the following year.
Owen had begun writing before the war, but the poems on which his fame rests were written almost entirely in a thirteen-month period in 1917 and 1918 on the front lines of the Somme sector. It was an incredible burst of creative, as well as moral growth in which Owen found not only his own voice as a 20th century poet but the definitive voice of soldier poets: visceral, direct, unflinching, unassailably just, and, above all, deeply human.
As an example of how Owen (and his peers) had laid to rest the anachronisms of poetic diction and approach still used by the pro-war propagandists, he begins his sonnet, "Anthem for Doomed Youth," with the coarse question: "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"
No romance there.
His most famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," describes a gas attack. It takes its title from a line in an ode by the Roman poet Horace; a much-quoted phrase at the start of World War I, "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" translates as "it is sweet and honorable to die for one's country." At the end of his own poem, Owen calls the Latin slogan "the old Lie," powerfully rhyming "est" and "mori" with "zest" and "glory." Those magnificent final eight lines are always worth reading:
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.
On October 1, 1918, Lt. Owen was awarded the Military Cross for capturing a German machine gun position along with many prisoners. On November 4–almost exactly one week to the hour in which the Armistice would be declared–he was shot and killed trying to get his men across the Sambre Canal.
As various hundredth anniversaries of the First World War approach–the battles of the Marne, Ypres (all five of them), the Somme, Anzac Cove, Isonzo (a dozen), Verdun, Gallipoli, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, the Argonne Forest–eloquent memorials and elegies will abound. No doubt, Wilfred Owen will be remembered and his poetry, especially "Dulce et Decorum Est," generously quoted.
But I would like to draw attention to a lesser-known gem of Owen's, "The Next War." As always, Owen deploys keenly observed details. But he has something else in mind with this one, a surprising turn of an ending that rises above the trenches and the armies and even the Continent itself to look forward. Wilfred Owen would have been a great poet just for denouncing "the old Lie," but he went further, he offered an answer.
The Next War
War's a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death;
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, –
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death–for lives; not men–for flags.