Folly and Fortitude11/6/2019
Pathos and Poets
Call it what you will — Armistice Day, Veterans Day, Remembrance Day. By any name, Nov. 11 is at best nine parts grief and one part glory. It is, or should be, a day of somber reflection. Nov. 11 commemorates the end of World War I, the supposed “war to end all wars” — a hope countered by peace treaties some call “The Peace to end all Peace.”
This November also marks the 102nd anniversary of the death of Merle David Hay, 21, a farm mechanic from Glidden. He was among the first, if not the first, Americans to be killed in WWI, Nov. 3, 1917, in fighting near the French village of Artois with two others in his regiment, James Gresham of Indiana and Thomas Enright of Pennsylvania.
They were among the estimated 5 million Allies (our side) and the 3.4 million Central Powers soldiers (their side) — along with at least 7 million civilians — killed in a war that left the world in more strife than before warfare was ignited. (“Peace to end all Peace” links the WWI end to 20th and 21st century woes created by multiple peace pacts, including carving up the Ottoman Empire — a dot connected to today’s Turk-Kurd dispute.)
After the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, treaties led nations to take sides. Warfare seemed sought by political and military leaders who thought combat would shape up the younger generation. So did young men who flocked to recruiting stations, and their families and flag wavers who took great pride in their boys.
In “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell wrote, “Britain had not had a major war for a century. There had been no war between the Great Powers since 1871. No man in prime of life knew what war was like. All imagined it would be an affair of great marches and great battles, quickly decided.”
Indeed, those who would send millions to their deaths dismissed the notion machine-gun fire could take a horse out of action!
In no prior war, however, did the soldiers and officers have the background in literature that was an important part of the upbringing of many British fighting men. So it was that poets — including Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen — wrote of WWI from a far different perspective than that championed by political and military leaders who misled willing believers on the home front.
Fussell wrote that Lloyd George, British Prime Minister 1916-1922, was convinced that if the war were described accurately, knowledgeable people would insist it be stopped. Lloyd George: “But of course they don’t and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and censorship wouldn’t pass the truth.”
Among the truth tellers, however, were Sassoon, Graves and Owen — collectively casualties five or six times, including Owen being killed in combat, a week before the war ended.
Lieutenant Sassoon, respected by his men for his manic bravery in combat, wrote of trench warfare in “Suicide in the Trenches”: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye/ Who cheer when soldier lads march by/ Sneak home and pray you’ll never know/The hell where youth and laughter go.”
Recovering from his latest wound, Sassoon made a public statement against the war, writing in part, “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.”
He was saved from court martial by Captain Graves’ convincing a review board that Sassoon suffered from battle fatigue.
About a year before his death, Lieutenant Owen wrote “Dulce et Decorum Est,” a gut-wrenching poem in which Owen says if the reader could witness the horrors of warfare, “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.” [It is sweet and fitting …to die for one’s country.]
Having begun with Merle Hay, let us close with an Armistice Day thought from another Iowan, WWII vet Bob Feller (1918-2010). He forfeited more than three seasons of his major league baseball career, enlisting immediately after Pearl Harbor: “I’m no hero. Heroes don’t come back. Survivors return home. Heroes never come home. If anyone thinks I’m a hero, I’m not.” ♦
Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes the monthly Rants and Reason column for CITYVIEW.