Soldiers

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

If I should die” …. a thought that must have crossed the minds of soldiers several times. Fear, sense of loss, homesickness are the common feelings that follow that painful moment of awareness, which takes the form of death. It “puzzles the will“, Hamlet mused and can make us cowards, but for Rupert Brooke the sacrifice of one’s life for his own country ought not to be feared, but quite the contrary, particularly if that country is England. In his patriotic poem, “The Soldier”, in fact, Brooke sings the love for his country, and how noble and glorious dying for that country would be and how noble and glorious an English soldier is. Just like in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” this pre-war poem is still full of the imperialistic ideal of the superiority of the English troops in their civilising missions all over the world. This English soldier seems to be a sort of god, who does not fear death. He is serene, as he believes that wherever he will die, that place will be forever England.

I can assure you that for non-English readers, this is a very striking line. The idea that and an English soldier once dead with his dust could somehow “fertilize” any “foreign land” with the seeds of Englishness, turning it into a better and richer place is  undoubtedly a powerful picture of English patriotism and nationalism. English indeed. The war Brooke images, is somewhat idyllic, there is no blood, dirt, cold, fear and death is represented only in its most glorious form. He didn’t have much time to experience how far this picture from reality was, in fact, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite while en route to Gallipoli with the Navy. He was 27.

The truth, we know, is different. There is nothing idyllic in any war, much less World War I.  Soldiers spent endless days in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side. War had prolonged too much and millions of people had already died. In July of 1917 poet Siegfried Sassoon sent the following open letter to his commanding officer and refused to return to the trenches:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
July, 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

For those who did not have enough imagination to realise the horrors of the war and continued to use the powerful means of propaganda to recruit young innocent lives, Wilfred Owen lifted the veil which covered the truth in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”

These opening lines of Owen’s poem smash Brooke’s epic narration. English soldiers are not young upright fearless Adonis, but look mostly like “beggars” and “hags” , who are “bent double” with fatigue, fear, cold, sickness and whose native “gentleness” has given way to rudeness and curse. They are young men who have become quickly old, once abruptly abandoned their world of innocence.

“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.”

 

This is what war is: struggle to survive, dirt, blood, pain, death. Hence, there is nothing sweet and glorious to die for one’s country, Owen concludes, quoting Horace, but it is only a  terrible lie. Owen died in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

 

“Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.”
(It feels like in autumn on the trees leaves.) (Soldati, Giuseppe Ungaretti)

 

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