Remembering the end of The Great War

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, November 8th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Remembering the Great War. This month marks 100 years since the end of World War 1.

EICHER: Journalism is well suited for the telling of the war story: troop movements, battle strategies, and descriptive statistics. But war correspondents often struggle for words to capture both the horrors they witness in war and the nobility of a soldier’s sacrifice.

REICHARD: During World War 1, a band of English soldier-poets emerged, many writing verse from the front lines with staggering realism. Some tell of life and death in the trenches. Others of families back home awaiting news. Many question the righteousness of the cause…

EICHER: The poetry of World War 1 reveals this human side of the conflict, so easily overlooked in casualty statistics and battle maps. As we commemorate the conclusion of the Great War, World Radio’s Paul Butler helps us hear from those who witnessed it first hand.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: The War to End All Wars began on July 28th, 1914, between Austria-Hungary and Serbia. Soon after, Germany declared war on Russia. And on August 4th, Great Britain entered the war when the German army invaded Belgium.

In England, poetry was a powerful patriotic force. The opening stanza of Wake Up England by hymn writer and poet Robert Bridges.

BRIDGES: Thou careless, awake! / Thou peacemaker, fight! / Stand, England, for honour / and God guard the right!

Many of the early war poets echoed this patriotic zeal, appealing to the literary traditions of chivalry and honor. Optimism was a common theme, even in the face of battle. Charlotte Mew penned these words in 1915…

MEW: Let us remember spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the wounded trees
Wait with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun, and even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please…

But as the war progressed, the poetry reflected great heartache. After Rudyard Kipling’s son died on the fields of France, he wrote this moving poem about sacrifice:

KIPLING: “Have you news of my boy Jack?” / Not this tide. / “When d’you think that he’ll come back?” / Not with this wind blowing, and this tide. / “Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?” / None this tide / Nor any tide / Except he did not shame his kind — / Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide. / Then hold your head up all the more, / This tide / And every tide / Because he was the son you bore / And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

The waves of war swept on for four long years. Eventually some 100 countries became involved in some way. It not only redrew national boundaries, it changed warfare itself—including many advances in munition technology. Wilfred Owen, a British officer, described one such new horror in Dulce et Decorum Est.

OWEN: 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.—
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning…

World War 1 was also a war of trenches. Some 25-thousand miles of winding, man-made channels stretched along the front lines. They offered earthen protection against enemy fire, but often turned into muddy graves as enemy lines advanced, or shells did their deadly work. Wilfrid Gibson, an English war clerk wrote “The Messages” in 1917.

GIBSON: “I cannot quite remember…. There were five
Dropt dead beside me in the trench—and three
Whispered their dying messages to me….”

“Their friends are waiting, wondering how they thrive—
Waiting a word in silence patiently….
But what they said, or who their friends may be

“I cannot quite remember…. There were five
Dropt dead beside me in the trench—and three
Whispered their dying messages to me….”

Nearly 9 million soldiers died in the conflict. More than 20 million returned home wounded, many with Shell Shock or PTSD and other trauma.

On November 11th, 1918, the war machines finally fell silent, as the Allies and Germany signed an armistice in Picardy, France. The war was over. Siegfried Sassoon, an English gentlemen decorated for his bravery, captured the mood in “Everyone Sang.”

SASSOON: Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on – and out of sight.

But the elation was short-lived. Cynicism and disillusionment grew in the aftermath of the conflict. The rise of fascism, and communism, genocides and world-wide epidemics, led to a severe crisis of faith. Poetry and other literary arts took a dark, and hopeless turn.

But two storytellers who survived the Great War came together at Oxford. And together, J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis produced some of the most significant works of the 20th century: resurrecting myth, beauty in the face of evil, and a renewed faith in God’s work in the world.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

REICHARD: Paul will be back in a couple weeks to explore how the trenches of France brought forth Narnia and Middle Earth.

Our voice actor today was Chicago stage actor Michael Rogalski and the poems came from the Oxford University Press: Poetry of the First World War, an Anthology.


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