Today is ANZAC Day. The day commemorates the
Australian and New Zealand Army Corps members who served in wars, conflicts,
and peacekeeping missions. April 25th is chosen because this was the
date (in 1915) on which ANZAC forces landed on the beaches of Gallipoli in an
attempt to open up access to the Black Sea. It was their first significant
campaign of WW1.
George Herbert Meder
(killed in action, Northern
France, 10 August 1917)
Below I am posting a poem I wrote a few years ago, entitled For The Forlorn. Before doing so there are a few comments necessary. Some may read this as not showing respect or honour towards those who served. One of the most common phrases heard on ANZAC Day is, “We will remember them.” My great-uncle (George Herbert Meder) was killed by a sniper in Northern France – one of 62 members of the NZ Tunnelling Company to lose their lives in WW1. He was 29 years old, slightly older than the average age at which a soldier was killed in WW1 – 27 years. The most common age for a WW1 soldier to be killed was just 19 years. Nineteen years! – their lives were only just beginning. I am remembering my great-uncle and all those other young men and women who were killed – senselessly.
I am not the only one to speak of senselessness. Many of those who took part did so also. In fact, the very last veteran of WW1 to die (in 2009) said of the war that it was “nothing better than legalized mass murder.”1 You can’t get more senseless than that.
Remembering is like a coin that when it is taken out of a purse or wallet only one side is looked at – the side that reads “We will remember them.”
We need to turn the coin over and read what is on the obverse. We will Learn from this.
But, we have so little looked at, let alone read that side.
The title of this blogpiece (Feeble Lies) is a reference to the second line of the poem For The Forlorn. The word feeble means to be lacking in physical, moral, and/or intellectual strength or vigour. I use it to mean that the lies we are told about war are feeble – they lack moral and intellectual vigour. If we are to learn anything from WW1 (remember, it was supposed to be the war to end all wars) then let us learn the lies to begin with.
What are some of these lies? We are fortunate to have the words of some of the participants in WW1, who wrote poems, letters, and even novels about their experiences and their thoughts. I’ll pick out just a few.
Lie #1. Wilfred Owen served in WW1 and was killed in action just one week before the signing of the Armistice to end the conflict. He wrote many poems. His gripping poem Anthem for Doomed Youth asks, in its first line, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” Doomed youth – cattle! That is how he, and others, came to think of themselves.
Lie #2. Owen’s friend, Siegfried Sassoon, met Owen at Craiglockhart Hospital, Scotland, where they both spent time recovering from shell-shock. Sassoon was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 (and later tossed the ribbon into the River Mersey). In 1917 he sent a letter to his Commanding Officer (which was subsequently read in Parliament) in which Sassoon claimed that the war was being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”
Lie #3. The Welsh Christian pacifist Hedd Wyn did not enlist, but was conscripted to fight in WW1 and was killed at the beginning of the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. One of his most famous poems is simply titled Rhyfel (War). The third stanza of that poem cries out: “Drowned by the anguish of the young/ Whose blood is mingled with the rain.” It is the young that are sent to war. It is the young who die.
The words don’t all come from just the Allied side either. The Germans too, had eloquent poets and novelists who voiced some of the feeble lies.
Lie #4. Perhaps best known is Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front.2 That novel includes many poignant quotes, one of which is:
“Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils just like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me comrade; how could you be my enemy?”
How indeed? The positing of the other as enemy is a lie.
Lie #5. Gerrit Engelke, like Wilfred Owen, was killed just days before the signing of the Armistice. Awarded the Iron Cross for bravery, one of his poems is dedicated To the Soldiers of the Great War. He asks:
“Do you love a woman? So do I.
And have you a mother? A mother bore me.
What about your child? I too love children.
And the houses reek of cursing, praying, weeping.”
It is a lie to label the other side as evil, and “our” side as good.
So, yes, I am remembering. I wish to also remember the 286 young men imprisoned in New Zealand during WW1 because they objected to military service. I remember also that 28 New Zealand servicemen were sentenced to death for desertion (often suffering from shell-shock) during WW1. Five of them were shot, the others imprisoned or sent back to the front lines. In 2000 those five were offered a posthumous pardon by an Act of Parliament.
I also want us to learn.
Now, finally, for the poem – For The Forlorn
They went with songs to the battle, always the young
Straight from school, led to death by feeble lie
They were scared and frightened, names accounted
They fell with their faces condemned from high
They mingle now in mud and blood soaked trenches
They sit alongside fields in No Mans Lands
Many with uncle or cousin over there, locked in fear
Both sides ordered by older and unwise hands
They are never the young, those that plot grow old
Aged men decree and the young they do condemn
At the dropping of the bomb and whistling of the shell
We ought forgive them
Best we desist.
1. Harry Patch, the last veteran of WW1 to die, in 2009, died at the age of 111 years, 1 month, 1 week, and 1 day.
2. Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front, originally published 9 December 1928. It sold 2.5 million copies, in 22 languages, in just the first 18 months after publication.