I mentioned recently that I’ve been following The Great War, a week-by-week account of WW1 on YouTube. It covers events that happened exactly 100 years ago. And very soon – in about 5 weeks time, on 11 November – it will finally reach the end of that colossal war.
Perhaps it’s just because I was not living in those times, and if I had been I would have been as much caught up in it as anyone else back then, but in hindsight that war seemed to be an exercise in collective madness. What on earth induced millions of men to stand in trenches shooting bullets and shells at each other for four long years? And all for what? It only ended up bankrupting nations and toppling dynasties and costing millions of lives, in what amounted to the collective suicide of European civilisation.
There’s one poem, by Wilfred Owen, that seems to capture the madness of it all: The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Wilfred Owen was himself a soldier in the British Army in WW1, and he died shortly before the war ended:
Owen was killed in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant the day after his death. His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration. Owen is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, Ors, in northern France. The inscription on his gravestone, chosen by his mother Susan, is based on a quote from his poetry: “SHALL LIFE RENEW THESE BODIES? OF A TRUTH ALL DEATH WILL HE ANNUL” W.O.
Over the next few weeks, I may return to this subject a few times.