This year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest conflagrations in human history in which more than a million men were killed or wounded. One of the lucky survivors was J.R.R. Tolkien, who described the battle as being an “animal horror.” Bearing the psychological scars of this horror for the rest of his life, Tolkien hated modern warfare with its weapons of mass destruction. In The Hobbit he wrote that it was “not unlikely” that goblins had “invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.” In 1945, Tolkien described the Second World War as “the first War of the Machines,” a description that would more correctly apply to the technology-driven bloodlust of the First World War in which he had fought. The Somme offensive saw the first deployment of tanks, adding a new deadly weapon to the armory of heavy artillery, airplanes, and poison gas with which the combatants were already butchering each other.
Like his good friend C.S. Lewis, Tolkien survived the war. Had he and Lewis shared the fate of many of their closest friends, spilling their blood and their lives in a sacrilegious sacrifice to the Machine of modern warfare, the world would never have known the goodness, truth, and beauty of Narnia or Middle-earth. Yet how many writers perished before their talents could be used for the benefit of mankind? How many great men and great lives were poured out as an infernal oblation into the fathomless abyss? One is reminded of the words of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre …
Some village Hampden that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
How many hearts “pregnant with celestial fire” were never able to give birth to great works of beauty? How many hands were never able to awaken to ecstasy the living lyre of the Muses’ gifts? How many great poets and writers, the equal of Milton in the gifts they had received, were doomed to remain mute and inglorious in some “neglected spot” in Flanders? Conversely, would Adolf Hitler have been “guiltless of his country’s blood,” had he not been merely wounded at the battle of the Somme but had died of his wounds?
Perhaps it could be argued that these questions are moot points and should, therefore, remain mute points, unasked because they are inherently unanswerable. It is, however, an inescapable fact that the real absence of so many people, the flower of Europe, from the forging of Europe’s destiny has changed the course of history in a devastating fashion. It could equally be argued, and has been argued, that the deaths of so many in the trenches of the First World War sowed the seeds of Europe’s destruction, the bitter fruits of which are all too evident a century later.
In commemoration of the centenary of the debauchery of the Somme, I’d like to pay tribute and homage to those literary figures who fought and died in that fratricidal conflict, many of whom are today tragically neglected or forgotten. On the roll of honour are Rupert Brooke, English poet (1887-1915); Reinhard Sorge, German dramatist and poet, killed at the Battle of the Somme (1892-1916); Ellis H. Evans, Welsh poet (1887-1917); Francis Ledwidge, Irish poet (1887-1917); Geza Gyoni, Hungarian poet (1884-1917); Wilfred Owen, English poet (1893-1918);and, last but indubitably not least, Joyce Kilmer, American poet (1886-1918). I’d also like to remember and pay tribute to a couple of true heroes, one English, the other French, who fought courageously in the War and survived to tell the tale: Siegfried Sassoon, one of the finest poets of the past century (1886-1967), and Léon Bourjade, fighter pilot and priest (1889-1924).
It is customary to end any commemoration of the dead of World War One with “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian poet, John McCrae (1872-1918). In this case, however, I am going to break with custom by ending with some lines from Hilaire Belloc, who would lose his eldest son Louis in the First World War and his youngest son Peter in the Second.
He does not die that can bequeath
Some influence to the land he knows,
Or dares, persistent, interwreath
Love permanent with the wild hedgerows;
He does not die but still remains
Substantiate with his darling plains.
The spring’s superb adventure calls
His dust athwart the woods to flame;
His boundary river’s secret falls
Perpetuate and repeat his name.
He rides his loud October sky:
He does not die. He does not die.
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