dulce et decorum est…

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud(12)
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest(13)
To children ardent(14) for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

From “Dulce et decorum est”
by Wilfred Owen (1918)

i am indebted to M, who responded to my post on poppy-wearing by reminding us all that behind the habit is real respect owed to the mostly young men who gave everything for a cause: that the real argument is with those in power, who risk little – yet are swift to glorify the most awful of enterprises behind a veneer of rhetoric about gallantry.

But they choose soldiering! Maybe. Though as i discovered many years back, touring the West Country on behalf of the Young Liberals, the realities of local unemployment mean that in many places, young males face a stark choice: army or dole.

I was, still am to some extent, a military geek. That means i have studied military history, which in turn gives me a slightly more jaded academic take on so many encounters billed by later generations as “heroic”.

Because the mark of a good general, always, has always been the “sure bet”. Command, Control, Communication – all with one single aim in mind: to achieve local overwhelming superiority of force, so that battles are not chance encounters, but as one-sided as possible.

Heroic slaughter

I could weep with the sheer pity of WWI.

Take, f’rinstance, the first day…the first hour…of the 1916 Somme offensive. Billed as the Allies big push, they got it wrong. Generals gave the order to advance. Hundreds of thousands of young men got up to go forward – and the best part of 60,000 never made it out from their trench. That’s a Hiroshima or Dresden scale happening…presumably less
remarked by later generations because it was carnage brought about by hundreds of machine guns and not one spectacular bomb.

Now rewind. The same part of France, several centuries earlier: the 100 years war gave us at least one memorable bit of Shakespeare – Henry’s address to his troops before Agincourt – following which a small bedraggled force of Brits took on and defeated the flower of French chivalry.

“Heroic”? No.

French knights travelled slow: English archers fired their deadly volleys at a pace of between 10 and 12 arrows a minute. Assuming they didn’t run out of ammunition, then in the time it took a few thousand French knights to narrow the gap between them, they were clobbered with a solid wall of iron: perhaps half a million arrows slamming into them at full pelt.

Stop. Think. Imagine. Then ask how different that was from 20th century slaughter on the Somme.

Rorke’s drift: a handful of Brits holding off thousands of savages. Conveniently, our modern day myth makers forget to explain the difference made by repeating rifles. Or, in other “heroic” colonial conflicts, the advantage of a gatling gun.

The vast majority of heroic victories were anything but. For the most part, they were simple butchery, carried out after overwhelming superoirity had been achieved.

Noble suicide

The few exceptions, wherein a small force holding off the massively superior aggressor – the Alamo, Thermopylae, the stand of the Swiss Guard – are troubling, too, in their own way. For whilst we in the West are utterly scathing of young male suicide bombers, we still seem to have a soft spot for young men who took a stand that was inevitably fatal.

Heroism – or just a fancier form of suicide?

No. In case anyone didn’t quite get it: i have no issue whatsoever with remembering those who gave their lives. I do have immense probs with those, of all stripes, who seek to politicise the simple, humble act of poppy-wearing for selfish purposes.



2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Shirley Anne said,

    The Charge Of The Light Brigade

    by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

    Memorializing Events in the Battle of Balaclava, October 25, 1854
    Written 1854

    Half a league half a league,
    Half a league onward,
    All in the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred:
    ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
    Charge for the guns’ he said:
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    ‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
    Was there a man dismay’d ?
    Not tho’ the soldier knew
    Some one had blunder’d:
    Theirs not to make reply,
    Theirs not to reason why,
    Theirs but to do & die,
    Into the valley of Death
    Rode the six hundred.

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
    Volley’d & thunder’d;
    Storm’d at with shot and shell,
    Boldly they rode and well,
    Into the jaws of Death,
    Into the mouth of Hell
    Rode the six hundred.

    Flash’d all their sabres bare,
    Flash’d as they turn’d in air
    Sabring the gunners there,
    Charging an army while
    All the world wonder’d:
    Plunged in the battery-smoke
    Right thro’ the line they broke;
    Cossack & Russian
    Reel’d from the sabre-stroke,
    Shatter’d & sunder’d.
    Then they rode back, but not
    Not the six hundred.

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon behind them
    Volley’d and thunder’d;
    Storm’d at with shot and shell,
    While horse & hero fell,
    They that had fought so well
    Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
    Back from the mouth of Hell,
    All that was left of them,
    Left of six hundred.

    When can their glory fade?
    O the wild charge they made!
    All the world wonder’d.
    Honour the charge they made!
    Honour the Light Brigade,
    Noble six hundred!

    Another waste of life by those in command. I agree with you that it is so sad that all those (young) men lost their lives because of the stupidity of war and in many cases the stupidity of their commanders. I am a pacifist and a Christian and as such I don’t think it is right to place ones’self at the mercy of others, to have others dictate what we should be doing, allowing someone to take control of our situations as those in the military do. If we place ourselves in such a position we have to expect that the worse might happen. In this respect I am saddened for the loss of lives.

    Shirley Anne xxx

  2. 2

    bobette said,

    I’m with you on that, the poppies surely symbolise the blood on the fields of Flanders and the futility of the ‘war to end wars’.

    Yes, sometimes we must fight, my father was a pacifist who signed up in 1939 and found himself at Dunkrk, but let’s never forget that war is best celebrated only by the victors.

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