Dulce et Decorum Est

On the first two days of the battle of the Somme in 1916, more men were killed than America lost in the entire 12-year Vietnam War. In that one battle, England lost more men than America lost in World Wars I and II combined. (Source.)

In England and much of Europe, even today, when you refer to “the War” it is understood that you mean the Great War, not World War II. (My parents told me how this was driven home to them when they went to a church in England on that country’s Memorial Day, where the focus of the grief and the sermons and the memory was the Great War, still, so many years later.)

An entire generation, erased. Young men, sent in an unending stream into a meat grinder of attrition, year after year, amid conditions so dismal and atrocious we cannot begin to imagine them. And for what? What was “won”?

At my home in the US I have a wall of books on the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the lives of Stalin and Hitler. I have an unquenchable thirst to understand how it all happened, the Gulag, Verdun, Treblinka…. I’m not saying they are equivalent or even similar, except in my inability to conceive them.

At least I understand why we fought World War II. There was justification. World War I remains the great enigma. Those tens of thousands of men and boys who in a single day would die trying to gain literally a few inches — did they believe their sacrifice was warranted? Did they believe in their hearts it was worth it?

The English poetry of WWI stands, for me at least, as the most wrenching, emotionally jarring works of literature ever. It’s not just the words and their irony and their terror, it’s that the men who wrote them knew, they knew it was all for nothing. They knew it was a matter of some elegantly dressed officials willing to sacrifice all of their sons for the sake of “honor” or whatever.

Achingly, Siegfried Sassoon wrote, “Does it matter, losing your sight? There’s such splendid work for the blind, And people will always be kind….” I remember learning that in junior high school, and I could never forget it, irony at its most ferocious.

But always most maddening, the one that would give me (and still gives me) emotional upheavals, was Wilfred Owens’ Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori (“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country”).

Owens, the very greatest of the “war poets,” shot to death on the very last day of the Great War, describes a poor unlucky soldier who breathed in the fatal mustard gas:

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
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.

Can a person read those lines and not be viscerally moved? Maybe it’s just me…. I’ve never read anything that so graphically conjures up the horrors of war, the misery, the hellishness, so mercilessly shattering illusions that there is anything, anything at all about war that is valiant, elegant and sweet.

That post was for no reason other than these thoughts were percolating, and I had to capture them before they were gone.

The Discussion: 10 Comments

You refer to English war poetry – Wilfred Owen was Welsh, not English!

November 18, 2003 @ 9:07 pm | Comment

I’ll keep that in mind. I was thinking only that he wrote poetry in English, not his actual nationality.

November 18, 2003 @ 10:42 pm | Comment

Owens and Sassoon were remarkable poets; some of the first to usher in the modernist movement in poetry, and the first world war was probably the biggest change of the twentieth century in my opinion, as well as others. I would highly recommend Paul Fussell’s The Modern War and Memory. He gives an excellent account of the war and its effect on the poets such as Sassoon and Owens.
You’d probably get much more out that book than my students get out of my teaching literature this semester.

January 8, 2004 @ 7:22 pm | Comment

I only brought a handful of books with me from the US to Asia; Fussell’s was one of them. I have read it multiple times. It was my love of Sassoon and Owens that drove me to buy the book, and it’s indispensable. You are the first person I’ve known who’s read it, too!

January 8, 2004 @ 7:33 pm | Comment

I’m pretty sure all Englishmen consider “the War” as WWII, especially as they constantly refer to something being “the most important….. since the end of the war.”
I was very struck by the fact that more died on the Somme in two days than all Americans in the Vietnam War. I’m currently teaching post WWI now and I would put it to you that had Wilson’s idealism won over his own countrymen and helped the radical League of Nations to truly end all wars and support self-determination, then the reasons for the Great War would be lauded today. The fact that the peace was lost and the war would continue a generation later should serve as a warning to those who charged into Iraq without planning for the outcome.

June 3, 2004 @ 7:55 am | Comment

Dave, if you have the patience to browse through Fussell’s monumental book The Great War and Human Memory you’ll find his claim about he Great War being commonly referred to as “the war” in England, not WWII.

June 3, 2004 @ 1:29 pm | Comment

It’s extremely late to comment on this, judging by the dates up there, but it seems everyone took some time to respond.

For me the New Zealand and Australian poetry generated by Gallipolli is by far the most gut-wrenching. For us, ANZAC Day, April 25 (anniversary of the start of the Gallipolli campaign) is the day to remember and the motto alone is enough: Lest we forget.

July 19, 2004 @ 10:34 pm | Comment

I’m English and I do think that most people here think of “the war” as WWII now, just because there is hardly anyone left alive who survived the First World War by now.

However, in school I have done ten times as much work on the first than the second, and it is a core element to English Literature classes.

The more you read about WW1 the more astounded you become: it really was the turning point in British, and European history. The class system broke down as men were thrown in together, dying regardless of accent or wealth. Just think – before the war a third of British men did not even have the vote!

The poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon is perhaps the most famous, but most of the poetry of the time was patriotic and glorified, such as that of Rupert Brooke:
“Now, God be thanked who has matched us with His Hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,…”

It is an interesting speculation that had Brooke survived beyond 1916 (The impact of the Somme saw a shift in attitude), he would have ended up writing more sarcastic anti-war poetry. Looking at Sassoon and Owen’s early work, that started out as patriotic and propaganda-fuelled as Brooke’s.

June 14, 2005 @ 9:50 am | Comment

Brooke died before the full horrors of the war became evident. I agree, he would have converted to pacifist like Sassoon.

Few Americans have any idea what WWI was and how it reshaped the world. That’s because we got off so easy, reltively. It was Europe that lost a generation.

June 14, 2005 @ 10:07 am | Comment

Wow. I just happened upon your site (doing research on China’s suppression of free speech in blogging) and am amazed by both your writing skills and expressiveness. Thank you for the treat.

June 15, 2005 @ 7:42 am | Comment

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