100 Years

1918 - 2018

Marking the end of World War I


By Geoffrey Dobbs

On 11th November 1918, as the bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration of the Armistice, a telegram arrived at the home of Thomas and Harriet Owen. It told of the death in action of their son, Wilfred, a week previously.

Owen would become the best known poet of the First World War. The unflinching realism of his war poetry and his personal bravery (he won a Military Cross) combined to make him an archetypal WW1 figure: disillusioned, compassionate, without hatred, yet committed to doing his duty and caring for the men under his command. Poems such as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth,' 'Strange Meeting,' and 'Dulce Et Decorum Est' are part of the English literary canon. Yet, we rarely hear them read at memorial services. Instead, we hear the solemn, words of the reverential 'Ode.' Perhaps this is not surprising. Memorial services tend to emphasise courage and sacrifice rather than the suffering and horrors of war. The military elements of these ceremonies, the precise marching, the smack of ordered arms, the polished bugle calls, the minute's silence, the 'Ode' all combine to create an atmosphere of sadness and pride that is at once emotionally challenging and satisfying. We are moved and uplifted, feeling better about the dead and about ourselves. When the ceremony is held at a war cemetery the emotional impact is even greater.

But what would Wilfred Owen have thought about these ceremonies? Certainly he would have approved of the act of remembrance itself but I think the theatrical elements would have disgusted him. He would have wanted us to remember the horror and the futility of the war. I think too that he would have wanted us to share the transcendent compassion and forgiveness for the enemy so movingly expressed in ‘Strange Meeting’:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried: but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…

Wilfred Owen's Grave in Ors Communal CemeteryNow, a hundred years after the end of WW1, have we lost awareness of the realities of that war? Our ceremonies emphasise courage, mateship and sacrifice. Our memorials offer us the names of the dead but say nothing of how they died. In our war cemeteries disciplined lines of uniform headstones stand to attention on clean, clipped grass: all the brutal realities of battlefield death have been tidied away and sanitized. We are moved, as we should be, but shouldn’t we also be horrified? Perhaps those soothing, almost clichéd words of the ‘Ode’ should be accompanied by Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ with its vivid, sickening description of a soldier dying from mustard gas.

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.

And, behind all the solemn rituals, behind the weeping, flag-shrouded ‘pilgrims,’ lurks a dark, uneasy question: where was the justification for this appalling human catastrophe?
This question demands to be asked; and to be answered with the same unflinching honesty of Owen’s poetry. Otherwise our acts of Remembrance will memorialise only palliative myths and the deaths of millions, from all sides, will remain meaningless.

WW1 was claimed to be the war that would end all wars; it didn’t. Honestly confronting its brutal realities and futility may help prevent us from being lured or pitched into other murderous and pointless conflicts. That, at least, might add purpose and practical meaning to our outpourings of emotion.

Quotations from ‘Strange Meeting’ and ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ are from The Collected Works of Wilfred Owen, Edited C. Day Lewis Chatto & Windus London 1984
Geoffrey Dobbs, 2018

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