Posted by: brigid benson | November 23, 2018

The Pity of War

Window honouring the war poet Wilfred Owen, Birkenhead Library

November 2018 has marked 100 years of remembrance since the end of World War 1, which raged from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Much of the despair and brutality of battle rings out in the words of war poet Wilfred Owen who attended school in Birkenhead. And in the local library, a poignant window shows the experience of war. Helpless men, blinded by gas, lead each other into the unknown.

The artwork honours the courageous truth of the poet soldier who pulled no punches when it came to describing the experience of the front line.

The tragic beauty is the work of artist David Hillhouse. More recently, another visual telling of the Wilfred Owen story is The Burying Party, an international award winning crowd funded film.

I attended a screening of the film where the director, Richard Weston, described how the experience of seeing war memorials in small Scottish villages impacted him deeply. The wartime loss of many men ravaged rural communities especially.

The fishing township of Lochinver celebrates those who gave their lives for their country. The war memorial is in a seafront position, overlooking the bay from where boats steam to hunt in fishing grounds for many weeks at a time.

Lochinver war memorial


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Many of those who left this remote landscape for fierce battle came from small and peaceful family crofts, like this one.

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For many, there was no recounting the experience of war. Yet Wilfred Owen, much encouraged by fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, treads fearlessly in his verse. ‘My subject is war and the pity of war.‘ he wrote. ‘The poetry is in the pity.’

A deeply moving new statue in Hamilton Square, Birkenhead, expresses that pity.  A despairing World War One soldier is lost in futility and despair.

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Might he have been one of the boys who attended school with Owen? One of those whose names are listed on the shiny memorial in the library where the Owen window dominates the staircase?

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Close by the library is one of the Owen family homes. Here Wilfred lived with siblings Harold, Colin and Mary. His father worked on the railways, which caused the family to move several times, and his devoted mother was deeply protective of her children. Tragically, the news of Wilfred’s death reached his parents on Armistice Day 1918.

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Birkenhead Institute was Wilfred’s school and The Visor, a history of the the establishment and pupils, recalls with pride the poetic boy who went to war. Dulce et decorum est.

This comes from one Owen’s most famous poems, the title is inspired by a line from the Roman poet Horace. The translation: ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’

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Dulce et Decorum Est

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.

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