Archive for February 12th, 2014

Poetry in World War I: Owen’s “Mental Cases”

Before reading the poems, read this brief introduction. Then read this poem, complete with explanation.

Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,-but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.
————————–Wilfred Owen

Links for More Information:
More of Owen’s poetry
The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Archive

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The Story of the Christmas Truce

It’s a wonderful little tale– On Christmas, 1914, an unofficial truce was allegedly declared at one place along the front, and presents and goodwill was exchanged between German and British soldiers. The story even goes that there was a soccer game. Here (http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm) is the article from a very good site on information about the Great War.

Here is an excerpt:

‘Scots and Huns were fraternizing in the most genuine possible manner. Every sort of souvenir was exchanged addresses given and received, photos of families shown, etc. One of our fellows offered a German a cigarette; the German said, “Virginian?” Our fellow said, “Aye, straight-cut”, the German said “No thanks, I only smoke Turkish!”… It gave us all a good laugh.’

 

Hulse’s account was in part a letter to his mother, who in turn sent it on to the newspapers for publication, as was the custom at the time. Tragically, Hulse was killed in March 1915.

 

On many parts of the line the Christmas Day truce was initiated through sadder means. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial. Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another.

 

The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy. After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

 

German officer in a British trench during the Christmas truceWith the Truce in full swing up and down the line there were a number of recorded games of soccer, although these were really just ‘kick-abouts’ rather than a structured match.

 

On January 1, 1915, the London Times published a letter from a major in the Medical Corps reporting that in his sector the British played a game against the Germans opposite and were beaten 3-2.

 

Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons recorded in his diary: ‘The English brought a soccer ball from the trenches, and pretty soon a lively game ensued. How marvellously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of Love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.’

 

The Truce lasted all day; in places it ended that night, but on other sections of the line it held over Boxing Day and in some areas, a few days more. In fact, there parts on the front where the absence of aggressive behaviour was conspicuous well into 1915.

 

Captain J C Dunn, the Medical Officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, whose unit had fraternised and received two barrels of beer from the Saxon troops opposite, recorded how hostilities re-started on his section of the front.

 

Dunn wrote: ‘At 8.30 I fired three shots in the air and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” on it, and I climbed on the parapet. He [the Germans] put up a sheet with “Thank you” on it, and the German Captain appeared on the parapet. We both bowed and saluted and got down into our respective trenches, and he fired two shots in the air, and the War was on again.’

 

German comrades, winter 1914-15 (copyright Simon Rees, click to enlarge)The war was indeed on again, for the Truce had no hope of being maintained. Despite being wildly reported in Britain and to a lesser extent in Germany, the troops and the populations of both countries were still keen to prosecute the conflict.”

Read the whole thing.

Poetry in World War I: MacCrae

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up your quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

———————— John MacCrae

What does this poem imply about the meaning of sacrifice by fallen soldiers?

In flanders fields...

In flanders fields…