If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Saturday, 25 July 2009

And then there were none ...

I am greatly saddened to hear of the death of Harry Patch today. Harry was the last surviving veteran of the trenches in the Great War (as it was called before we had to start numbering them). I am not old enough to have fought in any war, although the Second War was fairly recent when I was a child - I missed it by eight years, and 'before the War' and 'during the War' were very common phrases at home, as was the spirit of 'make do and mend', and 'waste not, want not' that the War had engendered in my parents' generation. I still cannot throw away a jar with something still inside it, and find it very hard to discard something that could, just possibly, come in handy some time.

The Great War produced some of the most poignant poetry in the English language, and quite probably changed our attitudes to war for ever. When Wilfred Owen wrote Dulce Et Decorum Est, he was using a phrase that was common currency amongst the educated. After 1918, no-one any longer thought dying for your country was 'sweet' or 'noble', although we have plodded along quite satisfactorily ever since on the notion that it is sometimes a regrettable necessity.

I am pleased that Gordon Brown has decided that a national memorial service, to commomorate Harry and his generation, is to be held. I hope he doesn't try to turn it into a political gesture (as Blair did with the Queen Mum's funeral) and turns up rather more smartly dressed than Michael Foot at the Cenotaph. Hey, we can hope.

It is worth remembering that the Great War was possibly the nastiest war ever fought, making all the wars ever since (even WWII) look small beer in comparison. On 1 July 1916, at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, the number dead was estimated to be 19,240. That's one day, and Allied casualties only. Nearly twenty thousand young lives lost in a matter of a few hours.

My contribution will be to post one of Owen's finest poems about that conflict, which sums up the sheer sadness of the loss of young lives. He doesn't make a political point; he doesn't need to. The pathos speaks for itself:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

War is never any less than a tragedy, which is why it should never be embarked upon unless there is no alternative, and after great deliberation. And why Blair, Brown and all their foul and spineless hangers-on deserve to burn in Hell for the rest of Time.

Cheers to you, Harry.

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