One of the things I miss about the UK is its sense of history, which you don’t get in a much younger USA. The gap between the two becomes particularly glaring around Remembrance Day.
In the weeks leading up to November 11 everyone in the UK wears plastic red poppies in their lapels which are sold by The Royal British Legion to raise money for war veterans, both young and old. In London I used to buy them on regular basis as I could never walk past a former soldier selling poppies without making a donation. In New York I have had to do it online.
It was always incredibly moving to watch the wreath laying at the Cenotaph by the Queen and members of the Commonwealth and to visit the The Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey which is full of crosses and crescents, each with a personal message from a member of the public, to commemorate those who have died in conflict since 1914. The BBC has a wonderful gallery of photos of Armistice Day around the world.
War poetry was discussed on the last Broadcasting House podcast by UK poet Simon Armitage and Iraq war veteran and US poet Brian Turner – what happened after Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and who are their contemporary equivalents.
On this day it seems appropriate to re-read Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est. I can still remember the impact this had on me when we first read the poem in school and it led to both my discovery of other war poets and my love of poetry:
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.