Friday, April 27, 2012

Uncle Fred

So this is the grave of my Dad's uncle Fred.  In France, if I'm not mistaken.  He was killed in World War I, again, if I'm not mistaken, when he was 25.  My cousin is over there right now and searched out the grave and sent around this picture a few days ago.

Fortuitous timing, as the day before yesterday was Anzac day, the Australian and New Zealand day of remembrance for veterans.

Anzac day was established to commemorate the Gallipoli battle.  Today, there's this interpretation that holds that Gallipoli was a foundational event for Australia - the moment when this place became a nation.  That's the sort of thing that prime ministers talk about when they commemorate Gallipoli.

I'm coming into this conversation in mid-stream, so all that goes right over my head - I just don't follow the logic.  But when I do hear that idea expressed, I always think of this line from the American writer, Tim O'Brien:

If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.

And seeing the photo of the grave reminded of my favorite World War I poem.(That's what you get for going to a private high school - you end up having a favorite World War I poem.)

Wilfred Owen
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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.

Nothing much I could add to that...


  1. God Bless being an educated fellow.

    I always loved Wilfred Owen's poetry too for his depiction of the horrors. I think that other War Poets (especially Rupert Brooke, and particularly If I should Die, Think Only This of Me) had a tendency, at times, to promote that old and terrible lie.

  2. Yes, I agree... and In Flanders Field, written by a doctor who had just served 17 consecutive days in Ypres - I wasn't there (of course!), but "Take up our quarrel with the foe" hardly seems like the take-home message from the experience...

  3. This is another touching war poem:

    When you go home,
    Tell them of us, and say,
    For your tomorrow
    We gave our today.

    Went the day well?
    We died and never knew.
    But, well or ill,
    Freedom, we died for you.

    Poem by John Maxwell Edmonds,1875-1958. Printed in The Times of London, 6 February 1918.
    attributed to Simonides Greek poet (557-476BC)

    1. yeah….but. Did soldiers in WW1 die for freedom?