|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 180 July/August 2014
‘Blood is cheap and bought for gold’
"I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it… I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest… I can no longer be a party to prolonging those 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".
After these words from the English poet Siegfried Sassoon were read out in the House of Commons in 1917 by the Liberal MP, Hastings Lees-Smith, Sassoon was locked away in Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh supposedly suffering from shell shock. In fact, he was being kept away from making any more damning public statements. Poets writing about the horrors of war were bad enough; for members of the ‘educated classes’ to start challenging the reason for being at war was a completely unpalatable step too far.
The scale of the war and its effects on the lives of vast swathes of the earth’s population were bound to result in works of art in numbers beyond any normal course of events. But no other event has spawned the amount of poetry published during and shortly after the war by writers who had personally experienced the slaughter.
The war was devastating in its brutality – over ten million military deaths plus a further seven million civilians. The Battle of the Somme, lasting four months, extinguished a million lives. England and France lost 60,000 men on the first day. The conditions in the trenches were unprecedented. The mud and water, the extremes of heat, barbed wire, the first use of tanks, gas attacks and ‘going over the top’. And, of course, death.
Both ‘sides’ of the conflict had their poets. In ‘To The Trench’, Ernst Toller captured in a few words the drudgery, the fear, the toll (see box).
Toller started out wanting to ‘do his bit’ for Germany but his whole outlook was changed by his experiences in the trenches. Later, in Munich, he organised a strike by munitions workers, and became president of the short-lived Bavarian soviet republic during the revolutionary upheavals at the end of the war.
The war ushered in the most convulsive decade in modern human history. It led to challenges to capitalism particularly on a European continental scale. In 1917, the Russian revolution triumphed; the failures of social democracy were the only reason why Germany and Hungary did not follow suit. But the horrors of war did not stop Britain, France, the US, Japan and other capitalist states sending armies in 1918 to seek the overthrow of the nascent workers’ state.
The war made workers alive to the fact that they were being used as pawns by imperialist powers which, while arguing among themselves for increased resources to maximise profits, in the final analysis would combine to protect their privileges. This questioning of the real reasons for war and the hatred of politicians and the ruling classes can be found in the poetry of many at the time. Some blatantly (see Siegfried Sassoon’s, 'Great Men'), others more subtly.
In 'After the Offensive', Theo Van Beek leaves the question ‘unanswered’ but this has the effect – the writer’s intention – of providing a strong answer:
Waves of strong men
That will surge not again,
Scattered and riven
You lie, and you rot;
What have you not given?
And what – have you got?
HF Constantine wrote, in 'The Glory of War':
Did he, did that poor lad, truly die for England’s sake?
Did all those thousands who are gone, did they all die for that bright cause?
All England wages war;
The flower of her manhood lies waiting in the cold pale days of Springtime,
Waiting for the harvest that reaps so many souls.
Some are brave and unafraid, some shrink in mortal apprehension;
But all are happy, for they know that by their efforts they are helping
So many of their fellow-countrymen to make their fortunes.
There is no ambiguity here. Nor from Louis Golding, in 'A Soldier Dying':
This is why my blood is oozing,
Because my masters did the choosing.
Blood is cheap and bought for gold.
In a chance meeting at Craiglockhart hospital where he was recuperating, the young Wilfred Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. With Sassoon’s encouragement and assistance, he wrote and honed his short canon of war poems, the majority of which were published posthumously. (Owen was killed in action one week before the end of the war.) This collection of poetry became timeless classics; ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’, ‘The Show’, and ‘The Send-Off’ are wonderful pieces of work. It was at Craiglockhart that Owen penned ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, renowned as probably the greatest poem of its genre.
This combined a haunting description of the exhausted combatants with an account of a gas attack. More than this, Owen used his experiences at the front to ridicule the phrase ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ – how sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country. This was inscribed on the wall of the chapel at the Sandhurst military academy.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is still taught in schools today. It carries a powerful anti-war message. Yet, the sacrifice of millions in pursuit of territory and profit in the century since the first world war only highlights the limitations of art and literature. We should enjoy the war poetry for its quality as writing. We should use it as propaganda, but alone it will not change the world. For that we need to continue to build the revolutionary party to seize our earth from the hands of the warmongers and profiteers.