Sunday, 8 November 2009
Poem for Remembrance Day.
The great ones of the earth,
Approve, with smiles and bland salutes, the rage
And monstrous tyranny they have brought to birth.
The great ones of the earth
Are much concerned about the wars they wage,
And quite aware of what those wars are worth.
* * *
You Marshals, gilt and red,
You Ministers and Princes, and Great Men,
Why can’t you keep your mouthings for the dead?
Go round the simple Cemeteries; and then
Talk of our noble sacrifice and losses
To the wooden crosses.
Siegfried Sassoon, WW1 Officer and Poet
Sassoon's bitter but moving poem, "Great Men", sums up so much of what I feel at this time of year. I have mixed feeling about Remembrance Sunday, perhaps because of memories of the day having such a high profile when I was growing up ( my dad was a British Forces Padre stationed in a military garrison in Germany.) I am far from being a pacifist but I have deep reservations about so many recent conflicts, in particular the war with Iraq and the current conflict in Afghanistan.
Sassoon has little time in this poem for posturing or war mongering and knew from his own experiences that those in power can be willing to sacrifice lives for political expediency. You can hear his bitter contempt for the "Marshalls, gilt and red", a reference to the uniforms but also the literal "guilt" and red of the blood on their hands. Yet this poem moves from anger to pity, profound respect and his sense of solidarity with the common soldier. His tribute to the true "great men", the unacknowledged soldiers who lie in "simple" cemeteries with only "wooden crosses", is very moving and, to me, is what any act of remembrance should be about.