The poet and the soldier

By Keith Best, Former Executive Chair, WFM/IGP

I have a confession: although not excessively sentimental I am emotionally stirred by certain things – a fine piece of music, a rousing speech or a poem can bring tears to my eyes and move me greatly. It is not just the inherent beauty in the composition or the language but the message that is conveyed.

Perhaps unusually for a world federalist I served some twenty years in airborne and commando forces in my earlier days and thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie, the rough humour and the new technical skills in gunnery and military management that I learned. We did not think too much about the fact that these skills were principally to enable us to kill more people more efficiently – because the saving grace was that we were confident that we should deploy them only in support of protecting our values, fellow citizens and way of life in the face of an extraneous threat from an aggressor who wanted to destroy those things we held dear.

I have to admit that with the deployment of our armed forces to some areas of conflict the test of whether we are always doing good becomes more questionable. As the Americans found in Vietnam and both they and us, sadly after so much blood has been spilt, may yet find in Afghanistan those who intervene with, to them, noble intentions sometimes find that they become unwelcome guests.

Soldiers become peace activists

It is not unusual for those who have either experienced the true tragedy of conflict, especially on non-combatants, or understand the destructive power of modern weaponry to become advocates for peace. Those of us with long memories recall with, in my case pleasure, knowing Brigadier Michael Harbottle(who died in 1997 aged 80) who had been wounded in the Second World war and became Chief of Staff of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus in the 1960s.  He was Vice President of the UK’s UNAand general secretary of the World Disarmament Campaign and took part in setting up Generals for Peace and Disarmamentand in many other ways was an effective peace campaigner.There are countless other examples of soldiers turned peace activists. Perhaps they realise the futility of war as a means of resolving conflict to which there can be only politicalsolutions.

Perhaps even more effective in bringing home this message is the soldier turned poet. Most of us know the selfless words of soldier and renowned poet Sir Philip Sydney at the Battle of Zutphen in 1586 who, when lying mortally wounded (as a result of leaving off his armour because his men were not so protected), gave his water to another wounded soldier, saying, “Thy necessity is yet greater than mine.”


That is poignant in itself but not as arresting as those soldier-poets who wrote about war itself in their verse – “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” wrote Wilfred Owen, for me the most moving of them all. I have been a member of the Wilfred Owen Society for many years and have visited the place in Ors, France, where he was killed attempting to force a crossing of the Sambre Canal in 1918 – one week before the Armistice – he was 25. In a preface Owen wrote “All a poet can do today is warn” yet his poetry has come down the subsequent generations as arguably one of the greatest indictments of war ever written. Like so many of the other great War Poets his verse speaks to us as the voice of the soldier, not pontificating on the merits or otherwise of conflict but as the impact on those fight and die.

In one of his most famous poems he describes soldiers coming under chemical warfare attack and one who is too late in putting on his gas mask:

“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.

Senseless jingoism and dark humour

Every time I read that poem I cry – it is such a condemnation of senseless jingoism and misplaced narrow nationalism that it should be enforced reading for every tub-thumping bigot who believes uncritically that their cause is invariably just – in fairness to G. K. Chesterton he wrote in his book The Defendant“My country, right or wrong’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”

In the First World War both sides thought that God was on theirs – the senseless slaughter of what should have been the “war to end all wars” (coined by HG Wells) sometimes brought the soldiers facing each other in the trenches closer together than they were to their high commands – the famous incident of playing football in December 1914.

For me, the poem Inspection brings home the dark satanic comedy. It tells, possibly autobiographically, of an officer inspecting troops and finding one with “dirt” on his clothes for which he is then punished. Subsequently, the soldier tells the officer that the mark was blood – his own. “Well, blood is dirt” the officer replies.

‘Blood’s dirt,’ he laughed, looking away,
Far off to where his wound had bled
And almost merged for ever into clay.
‘The world is washing out its stains,’ he said.
‘It doesn’t like our cheeks so red:
Young blood’s its great objection.
But when we’re duly white-washed, being dead,
The race will bear Field-Marshal God’s inspection.’

We are not really different

The human cost of war, from which some never recover from their mental and physical wounds while others’ families have to come to terms with bereavement, is summarised in the disturbing poem Strange Meeting in which Owen describes a dream. It also brings home the loss of talent through lives foreshortened and the often shared humanity of combatants even though their governments clothe them in different uniforms and they are taught to distinguish themselves from “the enemy”:

It seemed that out of battle I escaped

Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,

Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.

Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared

With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,

Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.

And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,— 

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;

Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,

And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.

“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.” 

“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,

The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,

Was my life also; I went hunting wild

After the wildest beauty in the world,

Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,

But mocks the steady running of the hour,

And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.

For by my glee might many men have laughed,

And of my weeping something had been left,

Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,

The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

Now men will go content with what we spoiled.

Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress. 

None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.

Courage was mine, and I had mystery;

Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: 

To miss the march of this retreating world

Into vain citadels that are not walled.

Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, 

I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,

Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

I would have poured my spirit without stint

But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.

Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .”

Sometimes, let poetry do the talking

I hope that, like me, you may have been moved by these small snippets of poetry which are so evocative. We can argue for a peaceful world through logic, religious conviction, humanitarian consideration, economic utility, the most productive use of resources, the advancement of humankind and wellbeing, the avoidance of suffering, curtailment of refugee flows and a host of other reasons that from time to time we articulate very well in WFM/IGP. Sometimes, however, it is good to allow our emotions to take over and permit our desire for a better world to be voiced through the words of a poet – perhaps more eloquent than we can ever be. “The Pity of War” should affect us all.