|Facilitator:||Jane O'Rourke||01942 517862|
|Venue & time:||Leigh Miners||10.30am - 12.30pm||2nd Thursday in month|
As we met in November in the centenary year of the end of the first world war, we read poems about that conflict, some written on the battlefields by those who would never come home. You cannot look back at this period without reference to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”. Unusually the poem is narrated by the dead.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The words show how the millions of dead on all sides were real people who lived and loved and the poem poignantly expresses the uncertainty of life on the battlefields and the loss of so many. It is largely through this poem that the symbol of remembrance is the poppy.
The same themes appear again and again by different writers as soldiers try to articulate their experiences; how the natural world of poppies and birds soaring and singing forms the backdrop to murder and mutilation which men perpetrate on each other.
“Poppies” by Capt. John Mills Hanson echoes McCrae’s themes. The first few lines could be from a travel brochure:
POPPIES in the wheat fields on the pleasant hills of France,
Reddening in the summer breeze that bids them nod and dance;
Over them the skylark sings his lilting, liquid tune--
Poppies in the wheat fields, and all the world in June.
The tone then changes as the story unfolds and the carnage is carried out in the poppy fields, ending with:
Poppies in the wheat fields; how' still beside them lie
Scattered forms that stir not when the star shells burst on high;
Gently bending o'er them beneath the moon's soft glance,
Poppies of the wheat fields on the ransomed hills of France.
Grace Hazard Conkling writes about the Nightingales of Flanders and how they carried on with their lives, seemingly impervious to the raging battles:
THE nightingales of Flanders,
They had not gone to war;
A soldier heard them singing
Where they had sung before.
The earth was torn and quaking,
The sky about to fall;
The nightingales of Flanders,
They minded not at all.
When soldiers were conscripted into the forces during WW1 most had not travelled far from home and, with a few elite exceptions, they certainly hadn’t studied languages as articulated in “French in the Trenches” by William J Robinson. Although the poem starts in a jocular tone, it really brings home the alienation they must have felt both geographically and linguistically as well as coping with the brutality and horror of war.
I have a conversation book; I brought it out from home.
It tells you the French for knife and fork and likewise brush and comb
It learns you how to ask the time, the names of all the stars
And how to order oysters and how to buy cigars.
But there ain't no stores to buy in; there ain't no big hotels,
When you spend your time in dugouts doing a wholesale trade in shells;
Whilst the men were at war women took on their jobs and Jesse Pope’s “War Girls” shows this:
There's the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There's the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
And the girl who calls for orders at your door……
There's the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
There's the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There's the girl who cries 'All fares, please!' like a man,
And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.
It is a German soldier, Gerrit Engelke, who most sums up the total and absolute futility of war in his poem “To the Soldiers of the Great War”. Would that the warmongers had felt like this:
Rise up! Out of trenches, muddy holes, bunkers, quarries!
Up out of mud and fire, chalk dust, stench of bodies!
Off with your steel helmets! Throw your rifles away!
Enough of this murderous enmity! …
Were you at ruined Ypres? I was there too.
At stricken Mihiel? I was opposite you.
I was there at Dixmuide, surrounded by floods,
At hellish Verdun, in the smoke and the crowds;
Freezing, demoralised, in the snow,
At the corpse-ridden Somme I was opposite you.
I was facing you everywhere, but you did not know it!
Body is piled on body. Poet kills poet.
War is a harrowing subject but it is important that we do not forget.