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The Pity of War
Reflections on the Somme Commemorations

Billy Mitchell

On 28th June 1914 a young Bosnian-Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot dead archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. That fatal shot, fired in the cause of Serbian nationalism, set in train a series of events that led to four and a half years of bloody conflict in Europe, and beyond. Within months the major European powers were mobilising their armies in preparation for war.

At 5.00am on 11th November 1918 an Armistice was signed in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne. Six hours later, at 11.00am, the guns fell silent across Western Europe thus bringing to a close one of the worst bloody conflicts that the peoples of Europe had thus far endured.

Lloyd George said that the Great War was “the cruellest and most terrible war that has ever scourged mankind”. His statement must, of course, be read within the context of the nature and extent of the Great War. Unlike previous European wars the 1914-1918 conflict involved not just standing armies comprised of professional soldiers; it involved the mobilisation of whole nations. It was, to quote Vernon Bogdamor, “the first people’s war”.

Estimates vary, but it is said that some nine million combatants and five million civilians lost their lives between August 1914 and November 1918 - fourteen million people slaughtered in a war that should never have happened. When we remember - as we seldom do - that the killing continued in Eastern Europe for another four years, the list of dead and injured increases dramatically. There were more casualties between 1918 and 1922 than there were between 1914 and 1918 - some twelve million in Russia alone.

It was supposed to be a “war to end all wars” - sadly it did not. Since 1918 it appears that we have known nothing but war. Eighty-two years later we still reach for the gun in the fond belief that when politics fail, “might is right”. The philosophy that “might is right” has, since Armistice Day 1918, done nothing but add to the gruesome casualty list of that terrible conflict. Even within recent weeks at home we have seen the sad and sorrowful outcome of that philosophy.

For me, neither the Somme Commemoration nor Remembrance Day are about war. They are, to use the words of the poet, Wilfred Owen, about “the pity of war”. It is a time to reflect on the tragedy of war and to remember those, from whatever side, who lost their lives in war. Notwithstanding W.B. Yeat’s churlish dismissal of war poetry, I believe that poets, especially those who have served in war and who have experienced its horrors at first hand, help us to approach the Somme Commemoration with a sensitive attitude.

Samuel Johnston once said that the task of the poet was to reach through to the senses of his/her reader. When we turn to remember the tragedy of war we ought to do so with our senses rather than with our intellect. We ought to adopt the sensitive approach of the poet rather than the cold intellectual approach of the political analyst or historian.

When we approach the subject of war through the intellect it soon becomes clear that those who see conflict through their own particular set of political lenses will differ greatly from others. With the intellect we approach war from our own political philosophy. Thus, politically, we attempt to justify the actions of “our” side while condemning the actions of the “other” side. Very often it is a case of “our killings good, your killings bad”.

So long as we approach the Somme Commemorations through our own political lenses there can be no shared memory. It is only when we “remember” with our senses that we can approach some sort of shared memory. Friend and foe alike share common emotions and it is the poet rather than the politician or military historian who is able to tap into those emotions and help us all to find a shared approach to war.

Whether we read Wilfred Owen or Alfred Liechtenstein; Isaac Rosenberg or Guillaume Apollinaire we cannot fail to grasp the lessons they are trying to teach us about war. We find the same lessons about the “pity of war” in Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”. Both have become classics and ought to be recommended reading for every student of war and peace.

The power, cynicism and realism that characterises the poetry of Owen, Rosenberg, and Sassoon speak volumes to the heart and to the senses. As Owen himself acknowledged, they were not so much interested in writing poetry as they were in writing about war. “My subject is War”, wrote Owen, “And the Pity of War. The poetry is in the pity”. The war poets felt that their duty was to warn future generations about the tragedy of war. It is our duty to listen.

Sadly we are not all that good at it.




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Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true Poets must be truthful.
- Wilfred Owen

Index: Current Articles

28 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Pity of War

Billy Mitchell


Dispute At Dunboyne School

Wealth Before Health

Anthony McIntyre

Belfast: Political Sectarianism and the Left
Davy Carlin


23 June 2002


It Is But Institutionalised Collusion

Davy Carlin


Snarling Down Below
Eoghan O’Suillabhain

Reunion vs Six-County Independence

Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Eire Nua
Sean O Lubaigh



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