Poem I: The ‘Great War’

Thiepval Memorial World War I Cemetery, Somme, France -- photo by Trillion via flickr

Thiepval Memorial World War I Cemetery, Somme, France — photo by Trillion via flickr. “On 1 July 1916, the British Army endured the bloodiest day in its history, suffering 57,470 casualties including 19,240 dead on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Most of the casualties occurred in the first hour of the attack. The entire Somme offensive cost the British Army almost half a million men.” Wikipedia, “World War I”

For reasons that are not entirely clear even to me, I have been reading and listening to everything I can find about conditions leading up to World War I. I won’t even try to describe the causes; they can’t be tidily summarized.

World War I trenches seen from the air

Both sides dug in along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier with France. This line remained essentially unchanged for most of the war. –Wikipedia, “Western Front”

According to the excellent instructor of a UC-Berkeley course I’m listening to via “iTunes U,” the emergence of Germany as a unified nation— its hundreds* of independent principalities, duchies, kingdoms, electorates, and other sovereign units having been conquered or cowed into submission during the 19th century, ultimately by Prussia under Otto von Bismarck — fractured the delicate “balance of power” in Europe. Unrest in the Balkans, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and a complicated web of alliances that kept changing, even Europe’s network of railroads — these were factors, too.

Those in power seem to have thought that the war would be over in a matter of months. But no one had ever seen a war like this. Once it started, the politicians and the generals couldn’t figure out how to end it, the instructor says. “Earlier wars were over when either side lost a major battle,” he explains, adding that these “earlier wars” had largely been fought without the dazzling new technology of artillery, chemical weapons, aircraft, and trains… nor had they utilized the trenches that made occupation of enemy-held territory so damnably slow.

The official count of war dead is under 17 million, including 1.5 million murdered during the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of Armenian genocide. Many historians believe that civilian casualties—including those from disease—are higher than reported, however, and estimate that nearly 20 million people died as a direct or indirect result of the so-called Great War. The website www.centre-robert-schuman.org reports more than 40 million casualties—”20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million….”


*Prior to 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation… had included more than 500 independent states. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unification_of_Germany


It wasn’t even hate that made the armies
wait imperiled in the long scar spanning
boundaries, bisecting fields—the long
scar from the mountains to the sea.
Their hearts were far from the artillery,
the lethal gas, the twisted wire— in
Ireland, perhaps, beside the hearth,
a baby on one knee.

It wasn’t hate that made the nations
send their young men off to war, with
rifles and too little more. In parliaments
and palaces were pride and fear enough,
ambition, and this theory and that;
and as they strategized, exchanging futile
plans and making promises in
desperation, as they wagered though
the banks were dry, fate laughed and
damned their schemes and snatched her
human sacrifice. The princes and the
ministers of war stood by, resigned and
horrified by turns, as twenty million died,
and even now, when more than ninety years
have passed, no one is certain why.

Who could have known that it would last
so long? —this lottery of lives begun when
leaders failed to lead or to inspire and
armies marched despondently to where
the trains were leashed, impatient-
seeming, monsters straining with kinetic
energy, to chase each other, iron on
steel, with only minutes’ separation,
greedily devouring miles, as powerful on
the incline as on the plain, speed
unabated till they stopped at last,
expelled their loads, insentient
machines that they had always been,
though they had carried men but left
their hearts behind as if these sons,
these fathers, and these husbands might
thus tend the tidy fields and spend the
evening by the fire — such humble
aspirations, honest work and well-
earned rest, how could they possibly
accept the gray reality that fate,
unsatisfied, and war’s momentum would
determine otherwise? They did what
pawns have always done: Until their
countries were impoverished, until the
money to subsist was gone, they kept on
keeping on.

Many who survived were broken when it
ended (though in truth the giant only
slept); some would heal, some wrote in
poetry and prose of what they’d seen,
what they’d endured, what they had
witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man;
but there were those returning to the
land, if land remained, who never spoke
of it, and no one knows if they believed
that fortune had been kind in keeping
them alive or if, instead — their
comrades missing, maimed, or killed
by what they did not understand
sufficiently to hate— they wanted
nothing but oblivion and would have
gladly shared their fellows’ fate,
to perish in the ruined countryside
and lie amid the final stillness of
the twenty million who had died.

* * *

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2 responses

  1. This is one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read.

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