Tag Archives: World War I

Wilfred Owen speaks from the grave

When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.

First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.

I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”

Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:

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.

I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.

To End All Wars, by Alan Hochschild – Favorite Nonfiction of 2011

This history of World War I — To End All Wars by Alan Hochschild — was my favorite nonfiction book of 2011. I don’t usually think of World War I much, yet it was an astounding conflict in so many ways, with its vast loss of lifeless and the almost pointless way it started. I wasn’t really sure how the war ignited before I read this book, and now that I have more detailed knowledge, I’m not sure I can explain it any better. Basically, Austria invaded Serbia, and the rest of the countries of Europe really wanted to go to war, so they all jumped in.

Hochschild uses a smart structure for his history: He focuses on people in Britain, switching between the points of view of the generals running the war and the anti-war protesters trying to stop it. There’s plenty of futility to go around on all sides: The generals don’t understand that they can’t take out machine gun nests by throwing infantry and cavalry at it. Meanwhile, the conscientious objectors are trying turn public opinion that seems absolutely gung ho for war.

Hochschild tells the story through just a few characters, including the Pankhurst family, a mother and her daughters who were radical suffragettes — bombing buildings and rappelling into parliament — before they split over the war issue. The mother, Emmeline, became a fervent war supporter, while one of her daughters ran a prominent anti-war newspaper. 

Finally, World War I has popped up in some uniquely personal contexts for me. My husband has been working on a history of his grandparents, who came to the United States from Ireland in 1913. His great uncle John came to the States around the same time, but was drafted and sent back Europe to fight with the Americans in 1918. Back in Ireland, the Easter Rising, which eventually led to the country’s independence, happened in 1916, right in the middle of the war.

On a lighter note, World War I is figuring heavily in the new season of my favorite TV show Downton Abbey.  

I would strongly recommend this book to people who are interested in history but who find traditional scholarly treatises to be dull and plodding. This book is anything but.