Thursday, 7 November 2013

In praise of … the wisdom of Harry Patch

The above headline is taken from an editorial published in The Guardian on

The great contest to define the Great War's legacy ahead of this year's remembrance, and next year's centenary, is getting going, as we report. Roadshows will reveal untold tales of home front heroics, competing with battlefield art at the Imperial War Museum, and – no doubt – new editions of the warrior poets of the age, exposing bloody futility. But it is not necessary to dig so deeply into the trenches of time to grasp the real lesson; one need only listen to the Last Fighting Tommy, Harry Patch, who was with us until 2009. In his 2007 book of that name, Mr Patch (born 1898) did what he had never felt able to do until he reached 100, and looked back in anger. The "politicians who took us to war", he argued, "should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder". Who better to nail "The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est. Pro patria mori"?

And if you are wondering where the last line came from, it's from the poem Dulce et Decorum Est written by Wilfred Owen. The text is below, together with a reading by Sam West (who, incidentally, has signed the No Glory in War petition I've previously mentioned - here) included in a BBC programme on the War Poets in the mid-1990s.

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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.
And here's a biography of the short life of Wilfred Owen, taken from a BBC Education website:
Owen was born in Oswestry, Shropshire in 1893. Failing to win a scholarship to university, he took an unpaid post as a lay assistant to a vicar near Reading. His interest in the Church would wane, but the language of the Bible would live on in his poetry. He was in France when war broke out, working as an English tutor, and came back to enlist in 1915. After being trapped underground while fighting at the Somme, in 1917 Owen was invalided back to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, suffering shellshock. There he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon who showed Owen how to channel his nightmarish battlefield flashbacks into his poetry. Their meeting has inspired many books including Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy. Under Sassoon's influence, the romantic poetry Owen had been writing since his boyhood in imitation of John Keats was transformed. His poems now were vivid with flesh and blood detail, and peppered with explosive fragments of direct speech.
Although he could have avoided a return to the front, Owen felt a pressing duty to record the experiences of his comrades. "All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful," he wrote. Owen was killed in action a week before the war ended, in November 1918. The telegram of his death reached his parents as the bells were ringing out to announce the Armistice. 

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