The Centennial of a Cataclysm: One Life, One Family
“To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields,” 1915
One hundred summers ago, one of history’s greatest calamities commenced in Europe. On June 28, 1914, in the city of Sarajevo, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated. Their murders, in the back of an open touring car which had made a wrong turn, lit a torch that set off an inglorious chain of events that would come to include almost every country on that continent and well beyond. The conflagration set Europe aflame for the next four years and changed Western society irrevocably, in a way not seen since the Reformation.
The cataclysm that became known as World War I led to what one poet and literary critic aptly called “the suicide of Europe.” Theodore Dalrymple evocatively wrote that World War I “smashed up European civilization and sapped Europe’s belief in itself: For if the wages of its civilization was such a war, bloody and muddy carnage on so unimaginable a scale, what price its civilization?” The shock of the brutality of the war, replete with the first use of tanks, poison gas, and guns that could kill on an unprecedented scale, is almost beyond our imagination now.
In all of the centennial reflections of World War I, I wonder how many will actually focus on the most personal impact of that brutal implosion: its impact on the families who had to endure the deaths and maiming of their loved ones on a nearly matchless trajectory? In all the reams and tomes written about what became known as the Great War, why is such comparatively little attention paid to the average mother and father, brother and sister, grandparent, aunt and uncle, niece and nephew, and how they responded, coping or failing to cope with the acute sense of loss and despair that is war’s aide de camp?
The biography of one of the most important young poets to emerge during the war, Wilfred Owen, shows the destruction at this distinctly personal scale. Born in 1893 in Wales to a lower-middle-class family—his father was a train stationmaster—Owen spent his boyhood in three towns: Liverpool, Shrewsbury, and Oswestry, the latter a small town surrounded by low mountains. Like many great poets, he was preternaturally shy despite impressive literary gifts that emerged early in life. He was educated at the undistinguished University of Reading.
Like many children of middle-class backgrounds, Owen’s parents had great aspirations for their talented son and tirelessly nourished his abilities. His father was an amateur but lustrous operatic tenor and his mother, too, had an artistic bent. Owen was taken to art galleries and museums to deepen his love of beautiful things, and their attentive parenting seems to have been effective. Those who knew Owen best said he had an obvious love of life. He once wrote of himself that “you would not know me for the poet of sorrows.”
His artistic ability was paired with an equally powerful sense of duty. His parents taught their son that attainment without responsibility was hollow and lacking depth; that character trumped intellectual achievement. He took this set of principles with him to the battlefields of France and ultimately to his grave.
Parental support for his natural joie de vivre paid off. In 1915, just before he joined the army, Owen wrote: “I know I have lived more than my twenty-one years, many more; and so have a start of most lives”—a remarkably self-reflective comment for a young man. This was not a statement of bravado but rather one of appreciation and confidence—precisely the traits his Welsh upbringing trained him to embody. His life was not unlike that of John Keats, another revered British poet whom Owen read with alacrity, devotion, and verve.
Yet unlike Keats, Owen willingly enlisted in what would lead to his death. He proved to be a talented Army officer, widely admired, and his lyrical flair and probity helps convey to us, all these years later, the sheer horror of that war and its impact on one life and one family.
Written on station near “No Man’s Land”—those barren, desolate parcels of bombed-out ground between the trenches of the British and the French on one side and the Germans on the other—Owen’s poems and letters resonate across the years with brokenness and desperation and an otherworldly, almost phantasmagoric sense of the futility of modern war.
He wrote from France: “I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language, and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.”
He served for two long years, a period marked by selflessness, service, sorrow, achievement, disaster, and death. Owen was among those mercilessly bombarded near the French town of Saint Quentin in early 1917 and sent home with shell-shock. Almost inexplicably, he returned to France where he engaged in yet another brutal hand-to-hand battle near the town of Joncourt, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. Finally, on November 4, 1918, he was killed by the unceasing bombardment while leading his company through the Ors Canal to shelter.
It is difficult now to read Owen’s prose without weeping and feeling a kind of leaden sorrow for the promise of life cut short, his and millions of others.
In the midst of one battle, he wrote to his mother: “All one day we could not move from a small trench, though hour by hour the wounded were groaning just outside. Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one by one. I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers, the agile Welshmen of the mountains, I scrambled out myself and felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover. After the shells we had been through, and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven.”
What, then, to think of the conflagration of emotions that must have stirred the souls of his parents when, on the very day that the war’s armistice was declared, as the bells in their small village were tolling, they learned by telegram that their twenty-five-year-old son, their eldest child, had lost his life?
Owen died at the same age as Keats. In one of his most powerful poems, Owen wrote of the World War I generation:
What passing-bells for those who
Die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
As the centennial of the Great War approaches—the conflict President Woodrow Wilson said was a “war to end all wars”—it is easy to be overwhelmed with sheer impersonal, empirical data: 65 million men worldwide served in that war; 8 million lost their lives; 21 million were wounded. Five million Americans served and a hundred thousand died in the trenches, hospitals, and shell holes of Europe. And it was a war that would be only a prologue to a much longer, deadlier one on the same continent just a few years later.
We have a moral obligation, it seems to me, not to lose sight of the fact that, giant numbers though those are, each tallies a unique person made in the image of God—someone’s son, husband, grandson, nephew, friend.
A century hence, through the mists of time, we must never forget who they were or what they did. Each of them; every soul.
Tim Goeglein is a vice president at Focus on the Family.
Posted: May 26, 2014 in Essays.