For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 8
Upon his will he binds a radiant chain,
For Freedom's sake he is no longer free.
It is his task, the slave of Liberty,
With his own blood to wipe away a stain.
That pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain.
To banish war, he must a warrior be.
He dwells in Night, eternal Dawn to see,
And gladly dies, abundant life to gain.
Until Thomas Hardy wrote The Dynasts, no poet had attempted to fashion into one great poem the epic story of the Napoleonic wars. There had been odes, lyrics, sonnets, narrative and didactic poems innumerable on Waterloo and other famous battles by land and sea, on dramatic or sentimental episodes in the fighting, on the aims or personality of the Emperor himself, but the theme as a whole had seemed too vast, too complex even for epic treatment, and had been left to the plodding Muse of History. Nor has Hardy welded it all into anything like another Iliad; there is something more in his verse that the 'horror of arms endlessly thundering, piety, justice, valor and royalty' which Chapman found in Homer's. He has not the simple directness of the story-tellers of the ancient world, because he has not their simple faith in the glory of war nor in the warrior as the loftiest of possible heroes. He relegates the supreme war-maker to his place in the universal scheme of things, puts him in relation to the spiritual significance of life and human progress, and recognises that he merely fulfils his destined function,
Like meanest insects on obscurest leaves.
The pomp and circumstance of war are the business of both The Dynasts and the Iliad, but Hardy has a habit of looking through the dazzling pageantry to the underlying wrong and individual suffering, to the squalor, the cruelty, the tragedy, the stupid and piteous waste of it all, and shows you his defeated hero at the last, stripped of his childish splendours and dignities, and foreseeing the coming of a day when, despite the showy and noisy wonders he has done:
I shall be nothing....
To shoulder Christ from out the topmost niche
In human fame, as once I fondly felt,
Was not for me. I came too late in time
To assume the prophet or the demi-god,
A part past playing now.
Possibly his pinchbeck German imitator has by this arrived at the same self-knowledge. The war-monger has become an anachronism in the modern world which has, from hard experience, got sense enough to know that if stealing a man's purse be a vice, stealing his country can scarcely count as a virtue; that it is a hypocritical mockery to build a gallows for the man who slays one of his fellows, and a throne for the man who slaughters millions. That was the great argument in the latest that was to have been the last of wars, and you cannot read the literature, especially the poetical literature, that the war inspired without realising that the free peoples of the world rose to the height of that argument.
The Napoleonic wars were not so immeasurably vaster than the siege of Troy as the titanic world-war was than the far-reaching campaigns of Napoleon; and the probability is that it will take more than another century to produce the poet who shall be fitted to put the full story and significance of our Armageddon into one tremendous song. Meanwhile, to say nothing of what has been done by civilians, the soldiers themselves have written such an enormous body of verse touching on its infinitely varied aspects that it would be possible to compile from their ballads, lyrics, sonnets and miscellaneous rhymes, a sort of composite epic which in range and variety, in poignant truthfulness and intimacy of experience, would excel all that any one poet could compass.
That compilation is outside our scope here, within the limits of a single volume, where we can look to do no more than pay due tribute to the soldier poets of our own islands, and only to the too many of those who have died for the faith that was in them. But their work is sufficiently representative to indicate how different such an epic would be from any that has yet been written; for the attitude towards war, the feeling against the wrong, the crime of it, that was theirs is expressed or implied in the work of their comrades in arms and in song who fought the same good fight and lived to see the end of it. But though it is also impossible, within our limits, to attempt any adequate record of the poet soldiers of the other English-speaking peoples, a passing reference to what they have done may serve at least to show that the purpose and ultimate hope behind our and their patriotism was not peculiar to any one of these nations, but common to them all. At the risk of repeating oneself, one must emphasise that from their own words it becomes clear that they went to their deaths for a love of justice and liberty in which the love of country was swallowed up in a larger love of mankind. They died not merely for England, America, Australasia, Canada, South Africa, but that France, the very Mecca of the free, might be saved; not merely to rescue and avenge Belgium or Serbia, but for the redemption once for all of all humanity from the iniquities and maniacal horrors of war.
These were the ideals, and nothing but these, that led hundreds of young Americans to anticipate the decision of their Government and enlist in the French and Canadian and English armies immediately the war was upon us; and one of the first of those hundreds was Alan Seeger. He came of an old New England family, and was born in New York in 1888. Two or three years' residence in Paris had inspired him with a deep love and admiration of France and the French, and when the Huns were swarming into Belgium, the menace to Paris, the prospect of France being broken and humiliated again as in 1871, so wrought upon him that he promptly joined the French foreign legion.
Rupert Brooke's ideal of self-sacrifice was not higher, nor Julian Grenfell's joy in battle keener, than are the idealism and the eager, soldierly spirit that are alive in Seeger's letters and diary and poems. He claimed to share with Sidney a devotion
but, like the friend he honours in 'Champagne, 1914-15,' he went to his heroic martyrdom, not for military glory, but
That other generations might possess—
From shame and menace free in years to come—
A richer heritage of happiness.
'Nothing but good can befall the soldier, so he plays his part well,' he writes in his diary; and in a letter to his mother from the front he says:
'You must not be anxious about my not coming back. The chances are about ten to one that I will. But if I should not, you must be proud like a Spartan mother and feel it is your contribution to the triumph of the cause whose righteousness you feel so keenly. Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity.... If so large a part should fall to your share, you would be in so far superior to other women, and should be correspondingly proud. There would be nothing to regret, for I could not have done otherwise than what I did, and I think I could not have done better. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life.'
'It is the slackers and shirkers alone in this war,' he writes, again to his mother, in 1915, 'who are to be lamented. Had I the choice I would be nowhere else than where I am.' He notes in his diary that he is glad to be fighting with the French, who have 'the admiration of all who love liberty, and heroism in its defence.... Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of morality on one's side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that 's like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence.' And in a last letter, to a friend, written on 28th June 1916, the night before he was killed in a victorious charge, he rejoices: 'We go up to the attack tomorrow. We are to have the honour of marching in the first wave—I am glad to be going in the first wave. If you are in this thing at all it is best to be in to the limit. And this is the supreme experience.'
A delight in the loveliness of nature, a passion for life and all the beauty and mystery of it find expression in the sensitive music and jewelled phrasing of the poems he wrote at peace in his homeland or in Paris; but there is a deeper note of feeling, a more passionate sincerity, in the verses he wrote after he had started on his last adventure, down the Valley of the Shadow. I think if he had lived another year he would have revised some bitter passages of his 'Message to America' and of his glorious ode 'In Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France'; but assuredly he would have left untouched in the former his call to his countrymen to pay homage to the French who 'wanted the war no more than you,' but would fight heroically to the end 'for their hearths, their altars, and their past.' Nor would he have found it necessary to take anything from his triumphant eulogy of those Americans, his friends, who had died beside him for Liberty:
Yet sought they neither recompense nor praise,
Nor to be mentioned in another breath
Than their blue-coated comrades whose great days
It was their pride to share—ay, share even to the death!
Nay, rather, France, to you they render thanks
(Seeing they came for honour, not for gain)
Who, opening to them your glorious ranks,
Gave them that grand occasion to excel,
That chance to live the life most free from stain
And that rare privilege of dying well.
And as surely he would have taken no word from his appeal to America to be proud of those sons of hers who thus had died:
And cry: Now Heaven be praised
That in that hour that most imperilled her,
Menaced her liberty who foremost raised
Europe's bright flag of freedom, some there were
Who, not unmindful of the antique debt,
Came back the generous path of Lafayette;
And when of a most formidable foe
She checked each onset, arduous to stem—
Foiled and frustrated them—
On those red fields where blow with furious blow
Was countered, whether the gigantic fray
Rolled by the Meuse or at the Bois Sabot,
Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée;
And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel's iron showers:
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.
When the right hour struck, all the youth of America uprose, as Seeger and his gallant companions had risen, to go back along 'the generous path of Lafayette,' and take their stand by the legions of France and Britain, and carry the Stars and Stripes to victory. And among the earliest regiments to land in France from America came Joyce Kilmer, a private of the 165th U.S.A. Infantry, a brilliant and distinguished journalist who had thrown up his post on the New York Times to go and enlist. He was born at New Brunswick, New Jersey, on the 6th December 1886. His mother came of an old English family that went to Connecticut in 1638; and though it is said there were Scottish as well as English strains in him, and he himself claimed, on no particular evidence, to be half Irish, it is safer to say that he was keenly Irish in his sympathies, but all American. After leaving Columbia University, he set up as school-teacher in 'a (more or less) rural community.' Then he became instructor of Latin at Morristown High School, New Jersey, and while at Morristown he married. 'At the conclusion of a year's teaching,' writes Robert Cortes Holliday, in the prefatory Memoir to Kilmer's poems, 'he tore up the roots he had planted, and, together with the young lady he had married and the son born to them, and with a few youthful poems in his pocket, he advanced upon the metropolis, even in the classic way, on the ancient quest of conscious talent.'
He began in New York as editor of a journal about horses, of which he knew nothing; then for a short time he was a retail salesman in Scribner's Sons' book store, and one takes it that his early poem, 'In a Book Shop':
All day I serve among the volumes telling
Old tales of love and war and high romance....
editor of The Churchman. He was soon known in his own and other periodicals as an able and delightful essayist and reviewer; he conducted the Poetry department of The Literary Digest and Current Literature, and wrote a quarterly article on poetry for the American Review of Reviews. In 1913 he emerged as what he called 'a hard newspaper man,' and became a special writer for the New York Sunday Times. Mr. Holliday gives a graphic and amusing picture of the inexhaustible energy with which he got through enormous amounts of work all day at his office; while at home:
'Night after night he would radiantly walk up and down the floor singing a lullaby to one of his children whom he carried screaming in his arms while he dictated between vociferous sounds to his secretary or wife...his wife frequently driven by the drowsiness of two in the morning to take short naps with her head upon the typewriter while the literally tireless journalist filled and lighted his pipe.' Meanwhile he was growing popular as a lecturer and reader of his own poems, and proving himself in those capacities a masterly elocutionist and an excellent man of business. He showed in his life, as so many of our truest poets have shown, that sane living and efficiency in the ordinary affairs of the world are not incompatible with the finest poetical sensibility. You have something of the fineness and the robust healthfulness of his philosophy in his scathing lines 'To Certain Poets':
...You little poets mincing there
With women's hearts and women's hair!
How sick Dan Chaucer's ghost must be
To hear you lisp of 'Poesie'!...
This thing alone you have achieved:
Because of you, it is believed
That all who earn their bread by rhyme
Are like yourselves, exuding slime.
Take up your needles, drop your pen,
And leave the poet's craft to men!
All life was a battle to him; he knew the joy of that battle and loved to be in it; but poetry was his holy place, his refuge and his strength amid the rough and tumble of it. He turned from his other occupations to poetry in much the same spirit as he came home after any wanderings:
But I 'm glad to turn from the open road and the starlight on my face,
And to leave the splendour of out-of-doors for a human dwelling-place....
If you call a gipsy a vagabond, I think you do him wrong,
For he never goes a-travelling but he takes his home along.
And the only reason a road is good, as every wanderer knows,
Is just because of the homes, the homes, the homes to which it goes.
They say that life is a highway and its milestones are the years,
And now and then there 's a toll-gate where you buy your way with tears.
It 's a rough road and a steep road and it stretches broad and far,
But at last it leads to a golden Town where golden Houses are.
Few love lyrics have more grace and charm than his poems 'For Aline'; always there is charm, tenderness, playfulness in his verses about children; he was exquisitely sensitive to the beauty of the world and a conscious artist in conjuring its magic into his lines, but he saw no reason why the poet should not be still a sensible, practical human creature, and is merciless in his lines 'To a Young Poet who Killed Himself,' and was never blind to the fact that even the loveliest words fall short of the loveliness of things:
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Before the war came he had won wide recognition as a poet and a high and assured position among American journalists. 'For a sapling poet,' says Mr. Holliday, 'within a few short years and by the hard business of words, to attain to a secretary and a butler and a family of, at length, four children, is a modern Arabian Night's Tale.' He was not given to heroics nor to letting his emotions run away with his judgment, but the grim struggle in Europe stirred him profoundly, and his own course was clear to him. 'To any one who knew Kilmer,' as his biographer has it, 'it would have been perfectly dumbfounding if, when war was declared between his country and Germany, he had not done exactly as he did. It is inconceivable...to picture him moving about here, from restaurant to office, in this hour. Flatly, the thing can't be done.' Which is what I, too, should have said, even from the little that I saw of him.
In 1914 he paid a flying visit to England 'to rescue his mother from war difficulties in London,' and it must have been during this visit that I met him for the first and last time. He lunched with me at the Savage Club, and I have the vividest recollection of him and the three hours of that afternoon spent in his company. I remember how alive and alert he was; how, with all his geniality and ready humour, he was keenly and seriously interested in everything that was happening among us here, and spoke with warm enthusiasm of the self-control and imperturbable resolution with which our people were facing the greatest crisis in their history.
'In New York,' said he, 'there are crowds all day outside the newspaper offices waiting to see the latest news thrown on to a big screen, but there 's nothing of that here. I 've been around your big newspaper offices and there 's nothing doing...no crowds; people just going by about their business as if there was nothing to worry about. It 's fine. I believe we are more excited over it all than you are in little old England. You seem to take it for granted that however much things go wrong at the moment they are bound to go right for you in the finish. I like that confidence. It looks like indifference, but it isn't; you 've only got to scratch the surface a little and you find there 's no indifference underneath. I 'm a mixture of three or four nations, I suppose, but since I 've been here I 'm glad I 'm partly English.'
I remember how he gloried in the posters that were then calling from all our walls and hoardings, appealing for recruits; he felt, as most of us did, how much finer was that call for volunteers and the wonderful response to it than any prompt, autocratic recourse to conscription could have been. 'We shall be in with you before long,' he said. 'We 're a good way off, and some of us don't know all about it yet, but we 're getting to know, and nothing can keep us out, unless you finish the job up quickly.' He thought that Americans who had not crossed the Atlantic since the war began did not realise the spirit in which England was meeting it, and to help them to that realisation he was anxious to secure as complete a set as possible of our recruiting posters for reproduction in his newspaper when he returned home; so we presently taxied on that quest to the Government Stationery Department. 'You do all the talk,' he urged, as we went in. 'If they hear my American accent they may suspect I am a German, and that will settle our chances.'
The Stationery Department was sympathetic, but referred us to the War Office, which could do nothing for us, but assured us that the Stationery Department could do everything. A second visit to that Department resulted in our invading the War Office again with the name of an official who, when we found him, protested that he knew no more of the posters than we did, and it was on the advice of a policeman outside in Whitehall that we rode round to the big recruiting depot in Old Scotland Yard, walked past the crowd waiting to enlist and the officers who were shepherding it, as if we belonged there, and, once inside, were directed to a large basement room in which we discovered what we were seeking. I had to answer a good many questions, Kilmer standing by in discreet silence, and, in the end, with a little diplomacy, we possessed ourselves of samples of almost every variety of poster and window-card and carried them out between us, a bulky armful apiece, to the taxi.
We piled them in, and then Kilmer paused to look round for a minute at the long queue of young men who were waiting to offer themselves for enlistment—a long queue that stretched from the door in Scotland Yard right out and round the corner out of sight in Whitehall. It was being continually lengthened by new arrivals. Something in the sight touched him profoundly, and he turned of a sudden, laid his hand on my arm and said, 'Come on. My God, if I look at these boys much longer I 'll have to hook on at the tail of this queue and join up with them!'
He joined up immediately America entered the war, and this personal recollection of mine explains why I feel they are right who say it was unthinkable that he could have done otherwise. And once he was a soldier it was characteristic of him that he was one wholeheartedly. 'He ceased altogether to be a journalist of any kind,' writes Mr. Holliday; 'that is, even the instinct of the journalist dropped from him when he touched it.' He wrote of himself, 'My days of hack writing are over, for a time at least.... The only sort of book I care to write about the war is the sort people will read after the war is over—a century after it is over.' He told the Rev. Edward F. Garesche, S. J., in a letter from France, 'I have discovered, since some unforgettable experiences, that writing is not the tremendously important thing I once considered it. You will find me less a bookman when you next see me, and more, I hope, of a man.'
He won the admiration and affection of his comrades in arms; they 'speak with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in No-Man's-Land'; and the chaplain of his regiment, Father Duffy, says, 'He was absolutely the coolest and most indifferent man in the face of danger I have ever seen. It was not for lack of love of life, for he enjoyed his life as a soldier—his only cross was distance from home. It was partly from his inborn courage and devotion—he would not stint his sacrifice—partly his deep and real belief that what God wills is best.'
The spirit of that faith and devotion are in the 'Prayer of a Soldier in France,' one of the five poems he wrote while he was there on service:
My shoulders ache beneath my pack
(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).
I march with feet that burn and smart
(Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart)....
My rifle hand is still and numb
(From Thy pierced palm red rivers come).
Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me
Than all the hosts of land and sea.
So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.
He was killed in action near Ourcq, on the 30th July 1918. 'At the dawn of a misty Sunday, 28th July, the 165th had made a gallant and irresistible charge across the river and up the hill. In the height of the great five days' battle for the mastery of the heights that followed Kilmer was killed.'
We pride ourselves at times on being unsentimental internationalists, citizens of the world, superior to the weakness of loving any one country, any one people more than another; but so long as we are human (and we are a long way yet from being anything else) the people that we know, the country made sacred to us by the memories and the graves of our dead and associated with the joys and sorrows of our own lives, will always keep a surer hold upon our hearts than a people we have never known and the countries that enshrine for us no memories that are ours.
What but that mystic love of one's own land, one's own race, brought the myriads of Canada and Australasia rallying to the banners of the Motherland? Thousands in those armies were not born in England and had never trodden its soil, but it had been the home of their fathers; they were linked to it by all the records and traditions of their ancestry; they drew their life from it as from the very root of their being. They may have thought little of such things or forgotten them in ordinary times, but when the shadow of peril was over these islands they remembered, and went out to fight with a hatred of tyranny, a love of freedom that was bound up indissolubly with a love which was instinct in their blood and spirit of the land whose people and whose history were also theirs.
A song by Corporal James Burns, who fought in the ranks of the Anzacs, voices the heart of Australia in that dark hour when she heard the far-off réveillé:
The bugles of England were calling o'er the sea,
As they had called a thousand years, calling now to me;
They woke me from dreaming in the dawning of the day,
The bugles of England—and how could I stay?...
O England, I heard the cry of those who died for thee
Sounding like an organ voice across the winter sea;
They lived and died for England, and gladly went their way,
England, O England—how could I stay?
He answered the call and gave his life at Gallipoli for the ideals of life and conduct that are the equal inheritance of all the English-speaking nations. It was the same impulse that brought Geoffrey Wall over to England to enlist. Born at Liscard, in Cheshire, he went with his family to Melbourne when he was twelve years old. The war came while he was still at school there, a graduate of Queen's College in Melbourne University, and in 1915 he offered himself for the Australian Army, but fell short of the standard of measurement, and was rejected. Towards the end of 1916 he arrived in England, bent on joining the Royal Flying Corps, and, after surmounting the usual War Office obstacles, succeeded in getting into the Service, and qualified as a pilot.
The Letters of an Airman, and the diary included in the same volume, published after his death, narrate his experiences and express shrewd and frank opinions on some of our national institutions, and on things and people in general. He took the rough as cheerfully as the smooth; was full of pluck and energy and eager to play his part in the war, but he saw the absurdities as well as the necessity, in the circumstances, of Army discipline. 'How do I like it?' he wrote to his mother. 'Well, frankly I hate it. I was never cut out for a soldier and have no desire to be one longer than I can help.... It is easy enough to theorise and idealise at a distance, but when you get right up against it you begin to see that absolutely nothing can justify war.'Young as he was and fired with boyish enthusiasms, he was not slow to see through the romantic show of it to that revolting, inglorious side of war that darkens like a disillusioned afterthought through so much of the poetry, especially the later poetry, that the soldiers wrote out of bitter knowledge of the difference between sending others into hell and going there yourself. Meanwhile, seeing that, as a matter of commonsense, there was no hope of ending war by meekly leaving the aggressor to overrun the earth and gather, unopposed, the full harvest of his iniquity, Geoffrey Wall devoted himself eagerly and resolutely to the mastery of his new profession. In one of his letters is an extraordinarily graphic account of his sensations on his first flight alone in an aeroplane; and that he enjoyed life in England, even the slack days when he was loitering about London while the War Office made up its mind to employ him, is evident all through his letters and his diary. He was interested and puzzled by the happenings at a spiritualistic séance where among other answers he obtained by table-rapping was one assuring him he would return to Australia, unwounded, on the 12th February 1918, and he made a note to recollect that date; but before it was reached he had been six months dead. He got a thrill out of recognising Kipling seated near him at an Albert Hall concert. Replying to an inquiry from his father as to what literary work he had been doing lately, he says, 'I shall never write in the proper sense. For one thing, between them, Chesterton and Rupert Brooke have left nothing for me to write about'; and he goes on to give a capital sketch of the only glimpse of Chesterton he ever had. 'Did I tell you I had met him—quite unofficially? It was at the War Office. I was waiting for an interview with some person Sir Astley Corbet gave me an intro. to—I forget his name—and while I was waiting G. K. C. came in and sat down heavily opposite me. It was unmistakably himself—with a cape thrown across his shoulder and a soft felt hat over his eyes. He picked up a couple of papers, grunted, glared at me (I was the only other occupant of the waiting-room), then regarded the chandelier fixedly for about ten minutes, and suddenly heaved himself up on to his feet again and remarked sonorously, "My God! am I to wait here all day?" and lumbered out.'
When he died, in an aeroplane accident in August 1917, Geoffrey Wall was only twenty. He had shared his early ambitions chiefly between literature and mechanics; some years before he dreamt of flying he built himself a motor-car; but all along he had been following aviation developments, and in the first month of the war wrote in praise of Wilbur Wright—that he had toiled, not for gain, and, indifferent to the sneers of the doubters, was the first who shaped 'the burden of an age's thought' and fearlessly navigated the air:
Because of these his name shall sound
Till, gleaming like a comet's tail,
Across the dark that knows no bound
We ply the Inter-Planet Mail.
He poured his keen delight in life into such ringing songs as 'The Road,' 'The Call of the Road,' and 'Moonshine'; his sorrow for those who had died in battle, and his confidence that a better world would rise out of the chaos which had engulfed them, into his 'Requiem':
Yet not in vain that final sacrifice,
For when Australia's sons have shed their blood,
The petty bickerings that, 'neath peaceful skies
The people's weal, the nation's wealth withstood,
Shall cease: through sorrow unity shall rise—
There shall Australia come to Nationhood.
That the war had already welded Australia into a nation is the text of one of the letters of Adrian Consett Stephen. When the news reached him in France that his country had voted against conscription he was disappointed, and, writing home, insisted that the soldiers had only voted against it because they shrank from forcing an unwilling mate to join them in that hell, or because they did not want the sort of man who would not come willingly. 'Australians don't seem to realise their own significance, that each one of them is a guardian of a name, and of a nationhood that has suddenly been revealed to the world. More than that—Australia has at last found a soul—there is no denying that—no denying that before the war we were the most soulless people alive, as a nation.... The life of a man is as nothing compared to the continuity of a nation, to the greatness of its soul.'
That is a great saying, but he meant it, and sealed it with his blood. If Adrian Stephen wrote no poetry—and I am not sure that he did not—it was not because he had none in him. An Australian in the R.F.A., and Four Plays, published since his death by W. C. Penfold, of Sydney, and by the Australian Book Company in London, contain his letters home, with the diary he kept at the front, and the plays he wrote between twenty and twenty-three, two of which were produced, and all of which show that he had the true dramatic instinct, and gifts of satirical humour and characterisation that justify one of his critics in the opinion that had he lived he would have enriched 'the literature of Australia on its dramatic side.'
Born in 1892, the second son of Mr. Consett Stephen, of the firm of Stephen, Jaques and Stephen, Sydney, Solicitors, he graduated B.A. of Sydney University in 1913, and obtained his LL.B. in 1915. He was to have been called to the Bar, but decided that just then his place was in the Army, and joined the R.F.A. as a 2nd Lieutenant. After six weeks' training in England, he was sent to France, and his life there, and the general life of the soldier in the trenches, in raids, in pitched battle and behind the lines, are admirably pictured in his letters, with a realism that is salted with humour and an extraordinary and apparently unstudied skill in description. They are less introspective than the letters of Vernède, or Parry, or Chapin; he seldom pauses to analyse his own sensations, but is more concerned to relate incidents and events that are passing around him, and relates them with such dramatic forcefulness that you can see them happening again before you as you read. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre, with palm, for distinguished bravery in the Somme fighting, and the Military Cross for his cool courage and resourcefulness in temporary command of his Battery during the terrific fight for Passchendaele Ridge. He brings the whole thing home to you not only by describing the big scenes, but by his skill in touching in little everyday details for a setting to his more momentous experiences, as thus:
'French peasants herded their cows in the field, or piled up their haystacks, old women for the most part, slaving like niggers, women with wrinkled eagle faces—a regular stage type. The peasants are dull machines, and seem to care little for the war. But one has only to speak to them about the Boches and their voices sharpen like a razor and one reads in their eyes something of the soul of France.' 'Last Friday the gramophone arrived. What excitement! How I roared at feeble jokes. It was strange to sit in one's dug-out listening to bright music, whilst shells wailed overhead. Never, perhaps, had the war appeared more ugly.' 'At 2 A.M. we went down the trench as arranged, and sat with the men in their dug-out. They drank a cup of tea, and then drew lots as to who should share my flask with me. I was armed, let me add, with a flask and a fat cigar. Thus nowadays do we go to war! The Infantry went over the parapet at about 2 A.M. whilst we waited, waited. The password was "How 's your father?" Answer, "All right!" At 4 A.M. our guns opened, roaring continuously for half an hour. At about 5 we received orders to fire, and darted down to our guns. The Germans were retaliating in a desultory fashion. We fired fifteen rounds from each gun in as many minutes. The flash was enormous and lit up the whole trench, so that the men staggering under the bombs and bending over the strange-looking weapon might have been demons in a corner of Inferno.' 'It snows—all the morning it has snowed' (February 1916). 'Many gaping holes and broken walls have been smoothed and beautified. The snow has covered and conquered everything—except the mud. King Mud still reigns supreme, coiling his clammy self two feet deep along the trenches. Mud! Mud that clings like a burr, that has to be pushed away with your legs before you can walk, mud that squelches and squeals as you tread on it, and gurgles and chuckles as you lift your heavy swollen boot out of its embrace. Snow and mud!' 'One of our best servants has been killed, and my sergeant has died of wounds. I have just written to his wife. At such times one feels sick and weary of this world silliness, this mud and death called war. There are times when the greatest victory seems small compared to the grief in one little home.'
To understand all the inner significance of the poetry of the war you must read the prose of it; such letters as Stephen's are the complement of much of the verse that the poets have written, and not infrequently they are as fine, in feeling and in phrase, as the poems they involuntarily interpret.
One of the first of Canada's soldier poets to fall in the war was Sergeant Frank Brown, and one of the last was Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Frank Brown, a sergeant of the 'Princess Pat's Regiment,' was the son of an Ontario clergyman, and had been a schoolmaster in the Quebec district. But he had spent some of his life before that in Western Canada and was a good horseman and an expert shot. He crossed to France with the first draft of his regiment, and was shot at St. Eloi, in February 1915, on his first day in the trenches. His homely, hearty, soldierly rhymes, with their glowing loyalty to the Empire, a ready sense of the humours and the hardships of campaigning, and the glory of fighting against tyranny and wrong, are the simplest, clearest expression of his native courage and honour and sterling manhood. There is in 'The Call' and 'The Convoy' the heart-beat of that love of her sons for the homeland which stirred all Canada, as it had stirred all Australia and New Zealand, when the war-drums began to beat; he sketches the types of men who were his brothers-in-arms in 'Fall In,' 'The Grouch,' and 'Opened by the Censor'; and 'Glory' is his rugged song of the firing line and of how
For every deed rewarded,
For every laurel crown,
Unknown, unsung, forgotten,
A hundred lives go down.
And it was even so that his own life went down when by his active zeal (on his one day in the trenches 'he fired nearly eighty rounds at the enemy, probably as much as the rest of the company put together') he drew upon himself the bullet of a German sniper. 'It is one of the sad things of this war,' wrote Captain Talbot M. Papineau to Sergeant Brown's father, 'that those who will have done most and sacrificed most to bring it to a successful conclusion will not be there to receive their earthly reward nor share the glory of the achievement.'
That might have been said, too, of Colonel John McCrae, who has written his name imperishably in Canada's military and literary annals. He had studied and practised medicine for twenty years, and between serving as resident house officer and later as physician at various hospitals, went to South Africa in 1900 and fought throughout the Boer war as a private in the Canadian contingent. At the outbreak of the war with Germany he was on a visit to England, and wrote home saying he had immediately cabled to Ottawa that 'I am available either as combatant or medical if they need me. I do not go into it very light-heartedly, but I think it is up to me.' In the general upheaval and uncertainty of those days there was some little delay in accepting his offer, but presently he had a cable from Colonel Morrison provisionally appointing him surgeon to the 1st Brigade Artillery; and sailed for Canada on the 28th August, and within a few weeks was at the front.
The letters in McCrae 's posthumous volume, In Flanders Fields, give most vivid realistic impressions of his life under fire, especially of the grim fighting in that terrible second battle of Ypres, which will always be remembered as one of the most splendid chapters in the great story of Canada's armies. And an essay by Sir Andrew Macphail, in the same book, chronicles the life and work of McCrae, and elaborates an intimate and admirable full-length character study of the man. Always a hard worker, he established a sound reputation in medicine and natural science between 1900 and 1914, but amid his multifarious activities retained his delight in social life and found time to make many friends, who loved as much as they honoured him. He wrote largely on medical subjects; apart from these articles, and his verse, letters and diaries, he left few writings and, as Sir Andrew frankly admits, 'in these there is nothing remarkable by reason of thought or expression. He could not write prose. Fine as was his ear for verse he could not produce the finer rhythm of prose, which comes from the fall of proper words in proper sequence. He did not scrutinise words to discover their first and fresh meaning. He wrote in phrases, and used words at second-hand as the journalists do.' That in him, as in so many other of its poets, the war wakened new powers of thought and utterance is clear from a comparison of his earlier verses with the poems he wrote under its influence.
Before the war he had looked younger than his years; but when he had endured and suffered and seen others suffer two years of life in the trenches, he aged so and seemed so old and worn that a nurse who had known him well for long past, meeting him after an interval, did not recognise him. 'If I were asked to state briefly the impression of him which remains with me most firmly,' writes Sir Andrew, 'I should say it was of continuous laughter. That is not true, of course, for in repose his face was heavy, his countenance more than ruddy, it was even of a choleric cast, and at times almost livid, especially when he was recovering from one of those attacks of asthma from which he habitually suffered. But his smile was his own, and it was ineffable. It filled the eyes and illuminated the face. It was the smile of sheer fun, of pure gaiety, of sincere playfulness, innocent of irony; with a tinge of sarcasm—never. When he allowed himself to speak of meanness in the profession, of dishonesty in men, of evil in the world, his face became formidable. The glow of his countenance deepened; his words were bitter, and the tones harsh. But the indignation would not last. The smile would come back. The effect was spoiled. Every one laughed with him. After his experience at the front the old gaiety never returned.'
He went into the war 'with no illusions,' but strong in a profound sense of duty and the certainty that he was doing the right thing for the right cause. 'On the eve of the battle of Ypres,' he wrote to his mother, 'I was indebted to you for a letter which said "take good care of my son Jack, but I would not have you unmindful that, sometimes, when we save we lose." I have that last happy phrase to thank. Often when I had to go out over the areas that were being shelled, it came to my mind. I would shoulder the box and "go to it."' The tragic misery of war could not shake his dogged resolve though it could rob him of his youth and all his gaiety and reduce him almost to despair. 'The truth is: he felt that he and all had failed, and that the torch was thrown from failing hands. We have heard much of the suffering, the misery, the cold, the wet, the gloom of those first three winters; but no tongue has yet uttered the inner misery of heart that was bred of those three years of failure to break the enemy's force.'
It was with some dark forefeeling of this mood upon him that, in April 1915, with the second titanic battle of Ypres raging around him, 'the enemy in full cry of victory,' and Paris and the Channel ports apparently doomed, he wrote '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 our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to lift it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
'This poem,' writes General Morrison, 'was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the second battle of Ypres. My headquarters were in a trench at the top of the bank of the Ypres Canal, and John had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank,' and there, as he himself said, he wrote the poem 'to pass away the time between the arrival of batches of wounded.' He sent it to Punch, enclosing a stamped envelope for its possible return; but Punch knew better than to return it, and swiftly after its appearance there it flashed like a running fire across the world; was reprinted in innumerable papers, recited from platforms and at recruiting meetings; and became 'the poem of the army' in Flanders, where the soldiers soon had it by heart. It was a cry from the dead that reached the hearts of men and everywhere stiffened the determination not to break faith with those who had died but to take up the torch they had dropped and carry it, at all costs, through the long night into the day of victory. Not a great poem, yet no poem of the war made a more poignant or more powerful appeal to the minds and imaginations of the British and American peoples.
But even when the prolonged stress had told upon him at last, and he was weary and seemed despondent, McCrae did not despair nor doubt of the ultimate issue; behind his settled sadness was the dogged will and calm confidence that breathes through 'The Anxious Dead,' which he wrote in 1917, less than a year before his health was irrevocably shattered and he laid down his life:
O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone).
O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Cæsar, that we still make war.
Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.
Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.
His hope has been realised, but he was not to witness its fulfilment; he died of pneumonia on the 28th January 1918, and is buried at Wimereux.
William Hamilton was a South African who, like the Australian Geoffrey Wall, came over to enlist in England. He was a Lecturer in Philosophy at University College, Cape Town, and while training here, in 1916, for the Machine Gun Guards, in which he took a commission, he collected for publication the verses that are bound up in his Modern Poems. A preface dated from Victoria Barracks, Windsor, mentions that most of the poems 'were written in barracks in the intervals between parades.' There is less of the martial strain in his verse, perhaps, than in that of any other poet-soldier of the British overseas dominions, but not less of the patriotic and humanitarian ardour that drew us and our scattered kindred together into the great struggle. His attitude towards war is essentially the modern attitude:
God! It is inconceivable that man,
Made in Thine image, should thus desecrate
The Temple Thou hast built,
is the recurring burden of his series of war sonnets. Looking on the sleepy hills and the peace of the wide landscape, he feels
It is incredible that this should be
Ploughed by the lethal weapons of the Hun:
Sown with the bodies of the sons of men—
The sons of England—and that Liberty
Is still so ill-defined by thinkers' pen
That it must yet be bought by battles won!
We could not sacrifice honour and rest in peace, is his cry, but he has faith in the conception of a larger Patriotism when the nations shall be one brotherhood:
It is for England that we take up arms
And, with the name of England on our lips,
Go forth in serried multitudes to die,
yet, though he freely offers up his life on that altar, he cannot but marvel that in these days of enlightenment such a wasteful sacrifice should be necessary, and thinking how
Our history is luminous with names
Of those who might have found some other path
Is there no way but this to settle claims
That rise when nations climb to high estate?
and far from hoping that War can end War sees that 'the end of War is War' again. He is no pessimist, but, not afraid to face the stern truth, has no inclination to deceive himself with pleasant illusions. He can believe that a new and wiser spirit will enter into all mankind, putting an end to the foolish, crude injustices and barbarities that shame our civilisation and
Turning the world all golden like the sun
—to borrow a phrase from one of his peace poems, 'The Amateur'—but that time is not now, and, meanwhile, he faces the facts as he finds them. This facing of facts leads him to an almost brutal frankness in his treatment of the girl and her man whom he sees dining together in a cheap restaurant and sketches with a merciless, bizarre realism in 'Apollo in Soho'; but there is tenderness as well as truth in 'Retrospect' and 'The Parting,' and there is the love and longing a man has for the home he has left in 'The Song of an Exile,' written while he was in England:
I have seen the Cliffs of Dover,
And the White Horse on the Hill;
I have walked the lanes, a rover;
I have dreamed beside the rill;
I have known the fields awaking
To the gentle touch of Spring,
The joy of morning breaking,
And the peace your twilights bring.
But I long for a sight of the pines, and the blue shadows under;
For the sweet-smelling gums, and the throbbing of African air;
For the sun and the sand, and the sound of the surf's ceaseless thunder,
The height, and the breadth, and the depth, and the nakedness there....
I have listened in the gloaming
To your poets' tales of old;
I know when I am roaming
That I walk on hallowed mould.
I have lived and fought beside you,
And I trow your hearts are steel;
That the nations who deride you
Shall, like dogs, be brought to heel.
But I pine for the roar of the lion on the edge of the clearing;
The rustle of grass snake; the bird's flashing wing in the heath;
For the sun-shrivelled peaks of the mountains to blue heaven rearing;
The limitless outlook, the space, and the freedom beneath.
His book was not published till after he had gone to the front, and a copy of it reached him only a few days before he was killed in action there, in France.
Maybe because they both saw the truth of war too starkly to idealise it at all, I find myself linking William Hamilton in my mind with our English soldier poet Henry Simpson; and setting down the records in this chapter of one South African soldier, of a few from Canada, Australia, America, and inevitably leaving so many unnamed, one's thoughts turn involuntarily to some lines from one of Simpson's poems, 'If It Should Chance——,' that might have been written for so many of the unremembered thousands who have fallen in battle:
If it should chance that I be cleansed and crowned
With sacrifice and agony and blood,
And reach the quiet haven of Death's arms,
Nobly companioned of that brotherhood
Of common men who died and laughed the while,
And so made shine a flame that cannot die,
But flares a glorious beacon down the years—
If it should happen thus, some one may come
And, poring over dusty lists, may light
Upon my long-forgotten name and, musing,
May say a little sadly—even now
Almost forgetting why he should be sad—
May say, 'And he died young,' and then forget....
And because that must be true of the vast majority, one is the happier that these at least will be held longer in remembrance who could give words to their thoughts and emotions, which were the thoughts and emotions also of their comrades who died and made no sign, and have put their hearts and minds into songs that are not so perishable as the singer.