Irony at its best.
Second favourite war poem (to Disabled), the imagery still hits me hard. Somehow this always reminds me of my grandfather, although he didn’t serve until the Second.
What does it all mean?
Stop glorifying war. See our reality. Experience what we go through. Then tell me it is worth it.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Strong young men transformed by the horrors of war into old, thin men in shabby uniforms, probably ribs protruding in lack of sufficient food. Doubled over from marching, poor sleeping posture, maybe lack of nutrition.
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Knees locked? Knocking together? Coughing up a lung, probable continuous chest infections and the like. Cursing, complaining, moaning through the mud – and who could blame them? Painted in this grimmest of scenes, wouldn’t you?
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
Flares are a type of rocket, usually a bright colour, used to identify men or targets. Does he mean they stopped using them (‘turned our backs’) or that they were finished with that part of the mission? Can you imagine, by flarelight, the ‘haunting’ scenes that might have greeted these men?
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
They are marching…home? To base? Slowly, to a target that feels forever away?
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Men were so tired and maybe so traumatised that they marched half-stumbling half-sleeping. Seemingly without even adequate footwear, only ‘shod’ in their own blood. Lame, weak from the experience, blind…because of what they have seen? Lack of natural light? Injury? All?
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
You know that stumble you do when you are so tired you appear to others as drunk? I have it on occasion due to chronic insomnia and still don’t think I can empathise, since I’ve never witnessed such horrors. So tired they are oblivious to the ‘soft’ noise of the dropping of shells all around. A problem, since these shells contained poisonous gases.
I remember reading this in English literature in school and being told it was likely mustard gas and I guess that’s a possibility, however. Reading later lines it is more likely to be chlorine.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
And suddenly they are aware. Can you imagine the horror? No idea what gas to expect and no thought other than trying to get into your clumsy, fiddly gas mask in time. The line ‘ecstasy of fumbling’ has stuck with me since I first read this, a slow motion image of soldiers frantically trying to protect themselves.
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. . .
Someone wasn’t quick enough! My heart sinks. Every single time I read this. Floundering, flopping around like a man up in flames or covered in lime, which eats live tissue.
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
Through his dirtied gasmask and the green of the gas around them as he watches.
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
He watches him drown in his own lungs – probably chlorine gas then. Imagine that image if you will.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
The dying man is stumbling around, reaching out for help, choking, gurgling, suffering. Both in reality and the soldier’s nightmares.
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;
The beginning of an ironic, bitter statement from the writer, asking you to experience what he has witnessed.
The other soldiers put the dying man on the back of the wagon, one final act of kindness and the only one they can show – taking him off his feet. His eyes are rolling back in his head, his face a picture of agony and terror, he looks paralysed, like he’s having a stroke (‘hanging face’) and his appearance is devil like – the stuff of nightmares.
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,
The writer can still hear the blood gurgling with every bump in the road; the dying soldier is taking an age to die. His language here creates a horrid and disturbing image of what the dying man is going through, it is unimaginable. ‘Obscene as cancer’ – you can merely watch. ‘Cud’ is probably the green stuff churning up from the man’s throat. Sores and welts are raising up on the soldier and the writer refers to him as innocent; weren’t they all young, innocent men at the start of this war?
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.
The final statement. If you knew the horrors we have witnessed, you would not be glorifying war, telling ‘children’ – probably teenage boys – of the wonders of war. You wouldn’t tell them it was an honour to die for your country – Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori – ‘it is sweet and right to die for your country.’
Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
One long stanza of 28 lines following the story of a gas attack from initial shelling to a man’s eventual death.
Empathetic; this writer was there, and through his eyes we see the true atrocity that is war.
Suggested rhyme scheme
Similes and metaphors
It’s pretty graphic and yes, some similes and metaphors, but the horror described is harsh enough without any further interpretations.
Author’s relationship with their subject
Complete empathy. He witnessed this.
Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Wilfred Owen is yet another beloved war poet; what must they have seen and known for them to write with such powerful imagery that they can bring their nightmares to life for us?
The horror of war. How many times have you heard that in your lifetime? Probably more than you realise, and probably in a million different ways. War is horrible. It also seems inevitable. It is going on, constantly, in some way, somewhere in the world. Currently it feels like there’s a thousand wars all raging at once. I can’t say I’ll ever understand war, but I do have respect for soldiers who choose to defend their countries, defend the helpless, defend those in need. I know I have not the guts to do so myself.
Imagine, if you will, this poem again. Imagine the squelching mud beneath your feet, the cold that is bone deep, the hunger that lurks in your stomach and never seems to leave. The fatigue, the fear of sleeping for all the nightmares that will surface. And then the marching, endless marching. The fighting. The constant fear. The gas attack. How would you ever sleep again?
War might have changed in some ways, but the fundamental things still stay. Suffering. Death. Duty.
Thankfully PTSD is now a recognised illness and today’s soldiers are not at risk of being shot for ‘defecting’ through shellshock. There is care and support – never enough – but at least there’s an understanding or at least an attempt to understand.
I’d still like to believe that there are better, less destructive ways of resolving differences than fighting one another but it seems the world disagrees. Personally I can’t think of a more insulting way to repay our war dead by continuing to find reasons to fight each other and not try and broker our differences in other ways but… I am naive. I think better of people. Or not naive. Perhaps hopeful.
When I read this I think of the song… Masters of War*
*…. Yes…. I am aware this is a Bob Dylan cover. This song is so timeless and has been covered by so many, as relevant today as it always has been.