Sunday, 11 November 2012

Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori?


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.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918

Wilfred Owen was just 25 when he died, in November 1918, within days of the end of the first World War. He joined up voluntarily in 1915, and went to the front line at the end of the following year. He was then invalided back to the UK in 1918 with concussion and shell-shock, before being passed as fit and returning to the Front in September 1918. Just a month later he won the Military Cross by seizing a German Machine-gun and using it to kill a number of enemy soldiers.  He was killed on November 4th 1918, and even as the news of his death reached his parents, the bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice on the 11th November.

Owen's war poetry is generally haunting, evocative, but none more so to my family that the one above. My great Grandfather, John Henry Stanley, served in France with the Devonshire Regiment in the Great War, and was also awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry, Coincidentally also in October 1918. An account of the action in which his was won appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The British Campaign in France & Flanders - Jul. - Nov. 1918". 

John Henry (known to the family as Jack) was born in 1892, to Mary & Henry Stanley. War broke out when he was 22, and like many others he had no hesitation in leaving his employment as a Wood Working Machinist with a Cabinet maker, joining the army and going off to fight. In June 1918 he married my Great Grandmother Priscilla, they were married by special licence while he was on leave - she must have been terrified for those final few months of fighting that he would not return. Jack would have identified all too clearly with many of the references in the poem - not least the aspect of being caught up in a gas attack. Reading through, we can hardly begin to imagine the terror, the confusion, and the panic to which Owen refers - particularly perhaps for those in charge, knowing that responsibility rested with them to ensure the safety of their men. The helplessness of seeing one of your friends dying in front of your very eyes - "He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning" tells all too clearly what the effects of gas would have been like - a truly terrible death, both to suffer and to witness. Owen also touches on how much seeing these events haunted them - referring to re-living these deaths in his dreams. I wonder whether Jack suffered the same thing?

Following the end of the war Jack returned to his family in Walthamstow, North East London - my Nan, Dorothy, was born in 1919, Great Uncle Kenneth in 1925, and their family was completed with the arrival of my Great Auntie Dee (Full name not given as she is still very much alive and would choose not to have her name plastered on the internet!)  in 1928. Sadly he was never fit enough to return to his old employment, and instead became an Insurance Agent.

Jack died in February 1932 aged just 39, directly as a result of the effects of a gas attack during World War 1. 

Lest We Forget....

Robyn - 11th November 2012.

In memory of 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Stanley MC  - Dec. 1892 - Feb 1932.


Pat Machin said...

Thank you.

Singlegirl said...

Lovely post. And a very powerful poem.

Robyn said...

Thank you both. I felt very proud of Jack standing at the parade this morning.

Sue said...

A powerful post.

Sue xx

Wittgenstein's Watering Can said...

Beautiful words - both the poem and yours x

Robyn said...

Thank you so much everyone - it's lovely to know that other people have enjoyed reading it too!