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War and Poetry


Talk by Willie Anderson 27th. October 2010


The October meeting of the Society opened on a very sad note with Society Chairman, Mrs. Marianne Morrison saying a few words in memory of her predecessor as Chairman Mr. Bill Longmuir who had died a few days earlier and members marking their respect by standing in silent remembrance.

The solemn mood created by this sad passing, coincidental too with the proximity of Armistice Day was perhaps not inappropriate for the subject matter of the evening namely a talk entitled “War and Poetry” most ably delivered by Mr. Willie Anderson formerly principal teacher of History at Berwickshire High School.

To link war and poetry was he suggested to link Mars with Venus and as a nation we had been more successful than most in both fields.

Mr. Anderson commenced his talk by recalling the high days of Empire and read two poems of the period, ‘ Vitae Lampada’ by Henry Newbolt and ‘ 'The Soldier’ by Rupert Brook as well as a popular ditty of the day 'Your King and Country Want You' all to an extent, if not extolling war, stressing such virtues as honour and duty. However, fine poems as these were, they were not written by poets who had experienced the horrors of war at first hand.

The mood changed with the slaughter of so many during the first World War particularly perhaps the Battle of the Somme when over 60,000 men died on the first day.

A new breed of poet emerged coming from very different backgrounds and Mr. Anderson when on to read  'Aftermath’ and ‘The General’ by Siegfried Sassoon, and 'Dulce et decorum est’ (how sweet and noble it is….to die for one’s country) by Wilfred Owen,  'Breakfast’ by W.W. Gibson and ‘ My Boy Jack’ by Rudyard Kipling These poems were not of gallantry and heroism but of death, horror and the futility of war.

While perhaps not of the same poetically high standard poems of the same genre also emerged from the Second World War and Mr. Anderson read various poems including ‘High Flight’ by John Magee (lines from which were quoted by President Reagan at the time of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster) and ‘ In Auschwitz’  (Buna) by Primo Levi a survivor of the Death Camp.

By the1950s though an anti war mood was emerging and Mr. Anderson looked at and considered the words of the popular poem/song of the day by Peter Seeger and Jose Hickerson ” "Where have all the flowers gone?” taking time to consider and stress its power and its pathos.

Winifred Owen in Mr. Anderson’s opinion the greatest war poet of all wrote

"The poetry is in the pity.
All the poet can do is warn”

Where wondered Mr. Anderson does one find pity and hence the poetry of war?

Pity lies in the great monumental arch commemorating the fallen of WW1 at the Menin Gate.
Pity lies in the vast expanse of WW1 graves in Flanders Picardy and the Somme
. In the Second World War cemeteries of Arnhem, Bayeux and Normandy.
Pity lies in the apocalyptic fire storms of London, Coventry, Hamburg and Dresden.
In the agony and endurance of besieged Leningrad and Stalingrad.
In the unmarked graves of the merchant seaman on Atlantic and Murmansk Convoys.
In the Atomic Holocaust that was Hiroshima and Nagasaki
and in the compassion of the townsfolk of Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire.

To name the wars of the troubled last century is like the tolling of a passing bell, rung for the souls of the dead; Flanders, Normandy, Burma, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan.

To the speaker this all comes together in the annual service of remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall when after the ritual pomp and ceremony there is the silent remorseless fall of poppies from the dome, showering the participants now standing motionless beneath.

To quote again Pete Seeger “When will WE ever learn?

A very moving talk but there was one more poem, one written from the heart by the speaker himself on the Afghanistan Conflict and entitled;



They died on foot in no-man’s land
In subtle ambush by the Taliband
The annals of the old brigade of Guards
Will one day tell how, young recruit laid low
Blood spilled on the wastes of Lashkar Gah
His C.O. braveheart leader of his men.
In vain gave life that ebbing life to save.

Swift to our screens their brief memorials
Tell of their valour, constancy and youth.
(name, rank and unit; families informed)
Decorum est pro patria mori

They’ll rest together under Union flags
In the great silver bird that bears them home
From Afghan’s burning tracts to kindlier shores
Where native soil will grant them requiem

Mark how the flowers bestrew each bier,
Flowers that rain down, rain softly where they pass,
Pass in all measured pomp and reverence,
Pass on their way through this sad English town.


Appreciative and emotional applause immediately broke out - a truly memorable and thought provoking evening.