Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Today, 11 November, is called La Fete de l'Armistice in France.  While in the U.S., we tend to use today to focus on all veterans, France uses it more to remember WWI in particular- La Guerre, as it is still referred to today- The War, as if there was never any other.  And, I think it really seemed like that to the French for a very long time.  WWI-- it decimated almost the entire male population of the country.  It wiped out a whole generation.  Statistics put military deaths in France during the war at 1.4 million.  Combined with civilian casualties, a total of 1.7 million people lost their lives during those four years.  Needless to say,  it left an indelible mark on France and its people.

Which is why today's observance of the Armistice was quite unique.  For the first time in the 91 years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front, a German leader joined in France's ceremony of remembrance.  Chancellor Angela Merkel stood with President Sarkozy at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider underneath the Arc de Triomphe.  She even helped him lay the wreath on the tomb. 

Image via L'Express

And today's observance was unique for another reason, too.  It was the first time since the ceremony began that a WWI veteran was not present.  Les Poilus (The Hairy Ones) as the French affectionately called them are all gone-- France's last living veteran of the war, Lazar Ponticelli, died last year at 110.

Image via ABC Australia

I suppose it's time for that, however.  England too lost it's last WWI veteran this year- Harry Patch (great name, no?)  In fact, with Patch's death, the world lost the last survivor of the trenches, as he was the only one left to have fought in that "Brutal Hell," and at Paaschendaele no less.  All that is really left for us now is to remember.

To that end, I thought it might be nice to look at some of the poems from that epoch.  I have to admit that the poetry of the WWI Trenches, from the men who are often referred to today as the "Lost Poets,"
is some of my favorite 20th century literature.  I really can't read an Owen Wilson poem without tearing up.  I have a hard time thinking about John McCrae and his Flanders Fields without a tightness in my chest.  And there will always be the Rilke poem, read in front of a classroom full of 15 year-olds, that made me cry.  Looking up, I saw the look on one of my student's faces, a girl, and I knew she was done for-- she started crying to.  And she told me a few years later that moment changed her life- it was then that she learned that a poem could make her feel.  How can I not be bittersweetly enamoured of these works?

So here are three of my  favorite WWI poems (it was very hard to choose)- all written by soldiers, two of whom did not survive the Trenches:

 ~ In Flanders Fields ~
John McCrae, Canadian, Died on the Front in 1918
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

~ Futility ~
Wilfred Owen, British, Died at the Front in 1918

Move him into the sun
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning, and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know. 

Think how it wakes the seed -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?
~ The Last Evening ~
Rainer Maria Rilke, German, Died 1926 
 And night and distant rumbling; now the army's
carrier-train was moving out, to war.
He looked up from the harpsichord, and as
he went on playing, he looked across at her

almost as one might gaze into a mirror:
so deeply was her every feature filled
with his young features, which bore his pain and were
more beautiful and seductive with each sound.

Then, suddenly, the image broke apart.
She stood, as though distracted, near the window
and felt the violent drum-beats of her heart.

His playing stopped. From outside, a fresh wind blew.
And strangely alien on the mirror-table
stood the black shako with its ivory skull.


  1. oh geeze. are you trying to make me cry AGAIN? I don't know what's more depressing, the poems or the face that there are no WWI vets left. breaks my heart. it is so sad and so beautiful.

  2. Your most beautiful post yet. Thank you.