Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Armistice Week I: Poems of the Great War

As we prepare to celebrate Veterans’ Day on Thursday here in the U.S., it occurred to me that nowadays, the holiday’s original name, Armistice Day, is all but forgotten. (I think my British, Canadian, and Down Under friends still term it Remembrance Day.) This is not totally surprising, as World War I (also The Great War) did not affect the U.S. as much as it did Great Britain, Europe, and countries connected to them. Although over 320,000 Americans were killed or wounded in World War I, that’s a small number compared to over a million killed or wounded in World War II. In my own family, I can count on the fingers of one hand the relatives, some fairly distant, who served in World War I. In World War II, my father and several uncles served, as well as many uncles and cousins of my husband’s; my mother worked in a defense plant. I have seen the World War I draft registrations of my two grandfathers; my maternal grandfather was a married farmer with three children at the time he registered, and my paternal grandfather was 35 years old and had a tracheotomy, so both were exempt. I do have a photograph of Uncle George in his doughboy uniform. He was (Great-)Aunt Maude’s first husband and never made it to France, as he died of the flu epidemic at Camp Devens. George Whorf,Maude's 1st Husband Grampie’s foster brother, James McClellan,

had Canadian connections and joined the Canadian forces. Here’s a photo of him wearing his uniform, with my grandparents, aunt and uncle.


So what I know of World War I I know, not from family stories, but from history classes, books, music, films and poetry. Today (in lieu of Monday, when I didn’t manage to post), I have some World War I poetry to share.

I think my first experience of World War I was reading the poetry that sprang from it. Four poets in particular caught my youthful imagination – one Canadian, one American, and two British. All died during the war.

John McCrae was a Canadian doctor serving in Flanders (Belgium) when he wrote “In Flanders Fields’ in 1915 as a memorial to a friend and former student who was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. He himself died of pneumonia in the field in January, 1918. This poem was almost immediately popular and is probably responsible for the custom of wearing a red poppy for Armistice Day.

American Alan Seeger was leading a Bohemian life in Paris when, on August 24, 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion so that he could fight for France. He died in battle on July 4, 1916. His most famous poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was published posthumously. It is read here by his nephew, Pete Seeger.

Rupert Brooke’s poems often speak of home, reflecting what must have been the thoughts of many British soldiers away from England for the first time (although Brooke had actually traveled quite a bit). His most famous poem, “The Soldier,” was sadly prophetic; he is buried on the island of Skyros in Greece. His death was hardly heroic (sepsis from an infected mosquito bite) but his poem stands as a song of love and gratitude to England.

Wilfred Owen (who is a character in the Regeneration Trilogy, about which I’ll talk tomorrow) was treated for shell-shock (what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and could have escaped further service in the trenches, but returned out of a sense of duty to the young men he led. He was killed one week before the Armistice was signed. His poems are shocking even today in their vivid imagery of the horror of war. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is one of the best anti-war poems to come from this or any war.

On Wednesday I will talk a bit about some books on World War I.

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