For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 9
I AM not attempting anything of criticism here; I am attempting nothing more than to show in their own words what was in their hearts and minds when these men of peace, these civilians in grain, made soldiers of themselves under stress of necessity, and what was the real object of their fighting. Going about their every-day business in the trenches or in the hurly-burly of conflict, they were like the rest of that incomparable fellowship of our fighting men who, as Lieutenant Coningsby Dawson has it in his Khaki Courage, 'wear their crown of thorns as if it were a cap and bells'; but behind the scenes, waiting for their cues to go on again, they opened their inmost thoughts in these verses of theirs, laid bare their ideals and the secret sources of their strength. Without some compelling cause which they could defend with clean consciences, some appeal to what was highest and most chivalrous in them, it is obvious in all they have written that they were not men who could have brought themselves to turn aside from the arts of peace to master the black art of war.
There are lyrics in St. Vincent Morris's little book that are thoughtful, fanciful, touched with religious fervour, and more carefully finished than his sonnet, 'The Eleventh Hour,' but there is nothing more simply earnest or more self-revealing. He was the son of Canon Morris, of Ashbourne, Derbyshire. When the war came he was only eighteen, too young for the Army, and the feeling that fretted him while he waited and made him glad to take up his duty as soon as he was old enough, finds an outlet in that sonnet:
Is this to live?—to cower and stand aside
While others fight and perish day by day?
To see my loved ones slaughtered, and to say:
'Bravo! bravo! how nobly you have died!'
Is this to love?—to heed my friends no more,
But watch them perish in a foreign land
Unheeded, and to give no helping hand,
But smile, and say, 'How terrible is war!'
Nay, this is not to love, nor this to live!
I will go forth; I hold no more aloof;
And I will give all that I have to give,
And leave the refuge of my father's roof.
Then, if I live, no man shall say, think I,
'He lives, because he did not dare to die!'
He left Brighton College in the summer of 1915 and, on 7th August, was gazetted to the 3rd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. 'Finding that his chance of getting across to France seemed remote,' says the memoir in his book, 'he transferred in the year following to the Royal Flying Corps. In the spring of 1917 he crossed to France. On 10th April his machine was brought down by a blizzard at Vimy Ridge. His right leg and left thigh were fractured, and he sustained several cuts about the head.' On 29th April he died of his wounds.
A yet more irresistible call to action than Morris's chivalrous love of comrades was the martyrdom of Belgium. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Frank Lewis was a boy of nineteen when he was killed in France in an air battle. The call that drew him out to France is in the second of two sonnets on 'Belgium, 1914' that he wrote in the first months of the war, while he was still at Marlborough:
There came a voice from out the darkness crying—
A pleading voice, the voice of one in thrall:
'Come, ye who pass—oh, heed you not my sighing?
Come and deliver! Hear, oh, hear my call!
For when the invader stood before my gate
Demanding passage through with haughty tone,
A voice cried loud, "Wilt thou endure this fate?
Better have death than live when honour 's flown!"
And so my children now lie slain by him
I had not wronged; with strife my land is riven;
Dishonoured here I lie with fettered limb,
To desecration all my shrines are given,
And nought remains but bondage drear and grim—
God! Is there any justice under heaven?'
This was the cry, too, that Reginald Freston heard and could not but answer:
Suppose, as some have done, I had made excuse,
I, who am poor,
Suppose I had sought seclusion in the dim far lands of exile,
Over the leagues of foam;
And there in warmth and safety, far from the din and roar,
Had built me another home!
Surely, had I done this, in the dark still hours of night,
I should have woke from sleep, with my soul in great affright,
Hearing the cry of innocent blood
From over the Eastern wave,
Voices of little children
That I could but would not save.
But beyond and above even pity for the foully slaughtered children and women of Belgium rose the stronger, holier call to save the sanctuaries of civilisation from the destroyer, and so shatter his power for destruction that the peace of the world and the rights of the weak should never go in fear of it again—a call that rings like a tocsin in some of the noblest poetry of the war.
Though the delightfully frivolous and satirical things in the Poems and Parodies of Professor Kettle justify the prefatory description of him as 'a genial cynic,' what the preface says further of his personal charm and his love of humanity are as amply justified in the dedicatory sonnet to his wife:
Faith lasts? Nay, since I knew your yielded eyes,
I am content with sight...of paradise—
in the impassioned appeal 'To Young Ireland'; in the subdued pathos of the lines 'On Leaving Ireland; July 14, 1916,' when in the glow of the sunset he could think only of bayonet flash and bugle call,
And knew that even I shall fall on sleep.
He notes at the head of these lines that 'the pathos of departure is indubitable,' and adds a reference to his essay 'On Saying Good-Bye.' If you turn to that essay in The Day's Burden these are its closing words: '"However amusing the comedy may have been," wrote Pascal, "there is always blood in the fifth act. They scatter a little dust on your face; and then all is over for ever." Blood there may be, but blood does not necessarily mean tragedy. The wisdom of humility bids us pray that in that fifth act we may have good lines and a timely exit.' Well, he had a brave ending to his fifth act and fell in action, and for the good lines, there could have been none better than his own 'To My Daughter Betty,' written 'on the field, before Guillemont, Somme, September 4, 1916,' telling her that when she grows up she may ask why he abandoned her to dice with death:
And oh! they 'll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret Scriptures of the poor.
That was the great cause he had at heart, and he acclaims it again in his 'Song of the Irish Armies,' which in reality is the song of all our armies, old and new. Sing the old soldiers:
...Not for this did our fathers fall,
That truth and pity and love and all
Should break in dust at a trumpet call,
Yea, all things clean and old.
Not to this had we sacrificed:
To sit at the last where the players diced
With blood-hot hands for the robes of Christ,
And snatch at the Devil's gold.
Sing the new soldiers:
To Odin's challenge we cried Amen!
We stayed the plough and laid by the pen,
And we shouldered our guns like gentlemen,
That the wiser weak should hold....
Time for the plough when the sword has won;
The loom will wait on the crashing gun,
And the hands of Peace drop benison
When the task of death is through.
Sing the old and new soldiers in unison:
Then lift the flag of the last Crusade!
And fill the ranks of the last Brigade!
March on to the fields where the world 's remade,
And the Ancient Dreams come true!
If through this roar o' guns one prayer may reach Thee,
Lord of all Life, whose mercies never sleep,
Not in our time, not now, Lord, we beseech Thee
To grant us peace. The sword has bit too deep.
We may not rest. We hear the wail of mothers
Mourning the sons who fill some nameless grave:
Past us, in dreams, the ghosts march of our brothers
Who were most valiant...whom we could not save....
We see all fair things fouled—homes Love's hands builded
Shattered to dust beside their withered vines,
Shattered the towers that once Thy sunsets gilded,
And Christ struck yet again within His shrines....
We have failed—we have been more weak than these betrayers—
In strength or in faith we have failed; our pride was vain.
How can we rest who have not slain the slayers?
What peace for us who have seen Thy children slain?
Hark, the roar grows...the thunders reawaken—
We ask one thing, Lord, only one thing now:
Hearts high as theirs who went to death unshaken,
Courage like theirs to make and keep their vow:
To stay not till those hosts whom mercies harden,
Who know no glory save of sword and fire,
Find in our fire the splendour of Thy pardon,
Meet from our steel the mercy they desire....
Then to our children there shall be no handing
Of fates so vain—of passions so abhorred....
But Peace...the Peace which passeth understanding....
Not in our time...but in their time, O Lord.
Vernède had made a name as a writer of fiction and was in his fortieth year when the war burst upon us. He had been educated at St. Paul's School, and at Oxford; and four years after leaving Oxford was, in 1902, married to Miss Carol Howard Fry, and was settled in Hertfordshire, happy in his work and the growth of his literary reputation, when the fatal August 1914 changed everything. Within a month, though he was well beyond military age, he enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the 19th Royal Fusiliers as a private. 'He was,' says Mr. Edmund Gosse, in an introduction to Vernede's War Poems, 'without any predilection for military matters and without any leaning to what are called "Jingo" views. But when once the problem of the attack of Germany on the democracy of the world was patent to him, he did not hesitate for a moment.' His profound conviction of the rightness of the cause for which he was to lay down his life runs like a glowing thread through much of his poetry. The selfless aspiration he voices in 'A Petition' is
That now when envious foes would spoil thy splendour,
Unversed in arms, a dreamer such as I
May in thy ranks be deemed not all unworthy,
England, for thee to die.
And he is as fearless and high-hearted in the touching lines 'To C. H. V.':
What shall I bring to you, wife of mine,
When I come back from the war?...
Little you 'd care what I laid at your feet,
Ribbon or crest or shawl—
What if I bring you nothing, Sweet,
Nor maybe come back at all?
Ah, but you 'll know. Brave Heart, you 'll know
Two things I 'll have kept to send:
Mine honour, for which you bade me go,
And my love—my love to the end.
He went to France as a lieutenant of the 3rd Rifle Brigade; was wounded in September 1916, was invalided home for a while, but had returned to the front by the end of the year. Scattered through the Letters to his Wife are his views on the war, his unbounded admiration of the cheerfulness and courage of his men, his deep resentment of the crimes of Germany, and his conviction that there could be no safety for the world and no peace till the Allies had fought on to victory. Here from various letters are some of the things he wrote: 'I still think it right that war should be damnable, but I wish everybody could have an idea of how beastly it can be.... The papers are so complaisant over every little success that they are almost bound to be equally downhearted over every failure—don't believe them. Only believe that we shall win in the end.... The Germans seem to have been behaving abominably; that is in keeping with their traditions apparently, but it makes me feel that they won't realise the war till they have had their own houses deliberately blown up by a number of insulting fiends. Losing colonies or navies doesn't affect the individuals at all closely, and though they mayn't have the guilt of their government, I think they have to bear the punishment of the crimes they commit to order.' He hopes that when the war is past 'people won't altogether forget it in our generation. That 's what I wanted to say in the verses I began about—
Not in our time, O Lord, we now beseech Thee
To grant us peace—the sword has bit too deep—
but never got on with. What I mean is that for us there can be no real forgetting. We have seen too much of it, known too many people's sorrow, felt it too much, to return to an existence in which it has no part.' He finishes a letter dated 8th April 1917: 'I think it will be summer soon, and perhaps the war will end this year and I shall see my Pretty One again.' Next day he fell mortally wounded, leading an attack on Havricourt Wood.
In easier times we have sorrowed over the untimely fate of the young poet who has died with all his promise unfulfilled. Here is not merely one such, but a great and goodly company of poets, and in face of a tragedy so immeasurable, a loss so utterly beyond reckoning, words become idle and meaningless. It is something, it is much, to all those whose sons, husbands, brothers, lovers they were that their country shall hold them for ever in grateful remembrance, something that these songs of theirs shall live and their names be written imperishably in the records of these terrible years; but the greater consolation has been written by themselves—by Lieutenant Cyril Winterbotham, in 'The Cross of Wood':
God be with you and us who go our way
And leave you dead upon the ground you won;
For you at last the long fatigue is done,
The hard march ended; you have rest to-day.
You were our friends, with you we watched the dawn
Gleam through the rain of the long winter night,
With you we laboured till the morning light
Broke on the village, shell-destroyed and torn.
Not now for you the glorious return
To steep Stroud valleys, to the Severn leas
By Tewkesbury and Gloucester, or the trees
Of Cheltenham under high Cotswold stern.
For you no medals such as others wear—
A cross of bronze for those approvèd brave—
To you is given, above a shallow grave,
The Wooden Cross that marks your resting there.
Rest you content, more honourable far
Than all the Orders is the Cross of Wood,
The symbol of self-sacrifice that stood
Bearing the God whose brethren you are.
—and it has been written by Lieutenant St. Vincent Morris in the poem to a friend, whose home the war has left desolate, bidding her be comforted:
Still do you grieve, in that your loved one lies
Beneath some lonely, unforgotten grave....
Like an immortal offering sacrificed?
Because he died that others might not die?
And yet, and yet,
Even though sorrow Love may not forget,
Such was the death of Christ.
Comfort, sad heart! Beyond that little grave
Rests an immortal soul in God's repose:
'Others He saved, Himself He could not save,'
This was the task he chose.
Your love is crucified on that small cross,
That lonely Sentinel where he has trod,
Leaving thereon all trace of grief and loss.
And then your love
Will rise to find him where he waits above
Before the throne of God.