Happy Birthday Wilfred Owen

Owen

Born on this day in 1893 Wilfred Owen died aged 25, on November 4th 1918, one week before the end of the Great War.  This is his 125th birthday.

A thoughtful poet before the war Owen was denied a proper education by his family poverty.  He did not attain sufficient marks to win a scholarship.  When the war began he was a reluctant participant, but saw it as his duty to enlist which he did in October 1915.

He was commissioned as an officer in June 1916 and spend the months when the Battle of the Somme was raging in a training camp at Étaples.  He was brought up to active duty on the Somme in January 1917.  He underwent heavy shelling in January, was injured in March from a fall into a cellar.  Returned to duty in April, was hit by a shell in May.

Suffering from shell shock he was repatriated to Edinburgh to recuperate.  It was in Craiglockhart War Hospital that he met Siegfried Sassoon who became his mentor.  The pair went on to write some of the best anti-war poetry in history.  They saw it as their duty to expose the awful reality of war.  For me the poem below achieves this better than any other.

Dulce Et Decorum Est ; by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
and towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
but someone still was yelling out and stumbling
and flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
as under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
behind the wagon that we flung him in,
and watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
his hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
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.

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Another Road

Syria Team

Syrian Terror Squad

I can’t let the recent Paris and Belgian terror attacks pass without making some comment.

The seed of French difficulty lies in the Sykes-Pichot agreement after the Great War, when Britain and France carved up the Levant between them.  France took possession of Lebanon and Syria.

Under Turkish Ottoman rule the middle east was stable.  Perhaps not exactly happy, but stable and mostly content.

Since Western powers took control of the Levant the Middle East has been a disaster.  At what stage do Western “Powers” hold up their hands and admit they are unable to achieve anything positive in the region?

Hate causes many problems, but it solves none.  The French solution to the Paris attacks is yet another bombing campaign.  Do they expect that to succeed in stabilizing the region?  Truth is bombing campaigns are a short term solution.  Politicians thrive on short term solutions.  The voting public has no patience for long slow strategies that eventually deliver the desired results.

We, the voters in the democracies of the West are individually and personally responsible for what is happening in Syria.  We have caused the misery and conflict that has fostered the rise of terrorism.  We have raped these countries of their resources.  We heat our homes and fuel our cars with their oil.

Do you want to feel safe from terrorism?  What do you believe will “cure” terrorism?

Option 1: Attacking Syrians and making them poorer, more fearful, killing their children, razing their homes and driving them into refugee camps, or

Option 2:  Rebuilding the Syrian nation, making the economy prosper, raising the standard of living, rehousing the population, building schools and libraries.  Western nations actively buying up the products of Syrian production including their agricultural produce and their industrial output.

Option 1 involves spending a lot of Western money on bombs and missiles which we drop on Syria.  This is good for weapons manufacturers.  They are lobbying for this option by paying lots of money to the “right” political candidates.  It is also good for the rich capitalists who hold shares in the weapons companies.  In Syria it creates a new generation of ‘terrorists’.

Option 2 involves spending Western money too.  But it is actually a whole lot cheaper than option 1.  Unfortunately it delivers no value to the companies who make weapons.  The rich shareholders of the weapons companies see no return.  The money is just ‘wasted’ on a lot of poor Arabs.

People who have jobs, who own their own homes, who have food on the table and who can envisage a future for themselves and their families, those people are not terrorists.  Terrorists are not born, they are created.  We create them when we take their homes, their food, their lives.  If you want to recruit terrorists I suggest you look in a refugee camp.

In the next election, when the candidates come knocking on your door, ask them how they are going to make you safe from terrorism.  Ask them will they choose Option 1 or Option 2.  Let’s take another road.

 

Paris Winter; by Howard Altmann

That we can breathe and not forget
our dreams entirely. In the cold sun

the warmth of timelessness. There is
panic, rest assured, so much beauty

stirring, I want to touch all that
contains me. We know the questions

and the light shifts without a word.
In the clouds, a philosopher’s chair

rocks. In the riverbed, the buff
and lathe of stones, change glistening

past. And from the afternoon, drops
of her monthly blood drip down

the stairs, the kitchen table, all of her
unopened bills, a cold floor that timed

us. O, the ins and outs of memory
breathe, too, images at rest in the dark

chambers, the gilded daylight whir
a heart’s dusting—one walkup,

one post storm quiet blinking at
infinity. Who shot the moon

and claimed victory in the morning?
The constellations touch down;

the years collapse; the boom
and bust of love lowers the crane

at dawn: in what earth, in what sky
will the soul find its keeper?

Gangrene

1915 Ypres

By early 1915 the Great War had become the static, trench bound misery that has become the enduring image of life on the Western Front.  In this world of mud, barbed wire, gas, shell and sniper bullets the soldiers banded together and organised means of surviving the tedium at the rear and the terror at the front.  The art of scrounging was born, to supplement rations and to secure some creature comforts in the soggy, rat and lice infested trenches.

Illness and injury were more feared than death.  Death still carried tones of glory, bravery, heroism.  Better to die with dignity than to return home absent a limb, a burden on society.

Behind the scenes the scientists were doing their bit to save lives, as evidenced by the article below from the Manchester Guardian, 100 years ago today.

A serum, for which remarkable efficacy is claimed, both as a preventive and curative of gaseous gangrene, has been discovered by M.Weinberg, a member of the staff of the Pasteur Institute. Dr. Roux, president of that institution, in announcing the discovery to the Academy of Sciences, said that M.Weinberg had just succeeded in indentifying the bacilli which caused gaseous gangrene – an organism closely akin to the bacillus perfringens. As the development of the disease is very rapid he decided that vaccine was useless. Therefore, after a number of experiments, he evolved a serum. He first tried it on guinea-pigs, and found that, applied within five hours after the first appearance of the symptoms, it brought about a rapid cure, but, seemed to lose its effect after ten hours. He next tried it on a wounded man – a bad case – whose condition rapidly became definitely better.

M.Weinberg continues his experiments with a view to perfecting the serum, but considers that everything justifies the hope that science will soon dispose of a genuine cure for the terrible malady. Arrangements will be made to supply the Army Medical Service with all the serum it requires.

Soliloquy : Francis Ledwidge

When I was young I had a care
Lest I should cheat me of my share
Of that which makes it sweet to strive
For life, and dying still survive,
A name in sunshine written higher
Than lark or poet dare aspire.

But I grew weary doing well.
Besides, ’twas sweeter in that hell,
Down with the loud banditti people
Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple
For jackdaws’ eyes and made the cock
Crow ere ’twas daylight on the clock.
I was so very bad the neighbours
Spoke of me at their daily labours.

And now I’m drinking wine in France,
The helpless child of circumstance.
To-morrow will be loud with war,
How will I be accounted for?

It is too late now to retrieve
A fallen dream, too late to grieve
A name unmade, but not too late
To thank the gods for what is great;
A keen-edged sword, a soldier’s heart,
Is greater than a poet’s art.
And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name.

River of Blood

Le départ des poilus; Albert Herter

Le départ des poilus; Albert Herter

The battle of Verdun began 99 years ago on this day in 1916.  A battle that lasted 303 days, involved over 1.4 million troops and resulted in a quarter of a million casualties.  Verdun was everything that was wrong about industrial warfare.  The Germans planned it as an exercise in slaughter, because they knew that in order to win a war lives must be lost.

The painting above captures the excitement and anticipation of the French heading off to battle in 1914, when it was still a merry adventure.  The American artist, Albert Herter, presented the painting as a gift to the railway company, and it is in the Gare de l’Est in Paris.  The painting is all the more poignant as Herter lost his own son in the war.  The exhuberant man firing in the air with his arms raised is Herter’s son Everitt.  The old man on the right, holding a bunch of flowers, is Albert himself in self-portrait.

By the time Verdun began this exuberance had  worn off.  The Gare de l’Est was a death sentence, similar to Germans in WW2 being sent to the Eastern Front.  Verdun became the French national meat grinder.  Young men marched bravely in and came back dead, injured or horrified.  The diary entry below captures the horror.

Humanity is mad. It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad!
— Lieutenant Alfred Joubaire

Europe learned the lessons of the Great War, but not until after the second world war.  This is why the European Union exists today.  The EU is the most positive force for peace that has ever existed.  It is more effective than the United Nations in achieving peace amongst its members.  Long may it last.

“What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why”; by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.