In the House of Commons, this day, one hundred years ago, the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, said,
“Last week I stated that we were working for peace not only for this country, but to preserve the peace of Europe. Today events move so rapidly that it is exceedingly difficult to state with technical accuracy the actual state of affairs, but it is clear that the peace of Europe cannot be preserved. Russia and Germany, at any rate, have declared war upon each other.
He went on to say,
“We have consistently worked with a single mind, with all the earnestness in our power, to preserve peace. The House may be satisfied on that point. We have always done it.….In the present crisis it has not been possible to secure the peace of Europe: because there has been little time, and there has been a disposition — at any rate in some quarters on which I will not dwell — to force things rapidly to an issue, at any rate to the great risk of peace, and, as we now know, the result of that is that the policy of peace as far as the great powers generally are concerned is in danger. I do not want to dwell on that, and to comment on it, and to say where the blame seems to us lie, which powers were most in favour of peace, which were most disposed to risk war or endanger peace, because I would like the House to approach this crisis in which we are now from the point of view of British interests, British honour, and British obligations, free from all passion as to why peace has not yet been preserved…”
I believe that this was a speech made by a sensitive man and no warmonger. He expresses the tension and gravity of the situation. Grey’s speech describes the pros and cons of the imminent war in Europe and whether Britain should intervene. Later in the day Grey reported to the House of Commons concerning a note he had received from Belgian Legation in London, about an ultimatum they had received from Germany. Belgium could not accept the German proposal as to do so would be to sacrifice the honour of their nation. Belgium’s neutrality had been guaranteed by Great Britain as far back as 1839 and so, on August 4th 1914, we declared war on Germany.
For me the First World War is a sequence of dates, of battles and campaigns. But I also have the advantage of my mother’s memory, particularly of childhood, who remembers two soldiers from a Scottish regiment being billeted at her home in Norwich, one a chaplain. Neither returned from the front, which was very distressing for her family, especially her father. I also have the Distinguished Service Medal awarded to an uncle as a result of his bravery in naval action on the River Tigris in present day Iraq. Of course there is much else to guide our understanding. We have archives of film, art and writings documenting the shocking magnitude of the maiming and the slaughter and we have the memorials of the former battlefields to constantly remind us of the pity of war.
At the time however, the majority in Britain were unaware of the true conditions and scale of the war. It was only when the casualty lists started appearing in the newspapers that the horror of what was happening across the Channel and elsewhere became clear. Telegrams, letters and postcards were the principal means of communication from the Front. Diaries were forbidden but some kept a secret journal. Many expressed their feelings in poetry. There are many distinguished WWI poets, but one less well-known is Charles Sorley, born in Aberdeen.
Anne Powell has collected poems and letters of sixty-six published poets in a book ‘A Deep Cry’. Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley of ‘D’ Company, 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment is one of them. He was born on 19 May 1895 in Aberdeen. His father was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Aberdeen University and later transferred to Cambridge University, which is why Charles was educated at King’s College Choir School and Marlborough College. Charles won a scholarship to University College, Oxford in 1913 but in his gap year went to Germany and for a short time was a student at the University of Jena. He developed a deep affection for Germany so his immediate reaction was fiercely critical of the intensifying war-fever. At the outbreak of war he returned home and said this,
…But isn’t all this bloody? I am full of mute and burning rage and annoyance and sulkiness about it…..And ‘serving one’s country is so unpicturesque and unheroic when it comes to the point….
But then his mood changed after he was commissioned in the 7th Battalion Suffolk Regiment,
…So it seems to me that Germany’s only fault…is a lack of real insight and sympathy with those who differ from her. We are not fighting a bully, but a bigot… [ then he says] In training to fight for England, I am training to fight for that deliberate hypocrisy, that terrible middle-class sloth of outlook and appalling ‘imaginative indolence’ that has marked us out from generation to generation. Goliath and Caiaphas – the Philistine and the Pharisee – pound these together and there you have Suburbia and Westminster and Fleet Street.
In March 1915, he wrote to his mother,
…After all, war in this century is inexcusable: and all parties engaged in it must take equal share in the blame of its occurrence….I do wish also that people would not deceive themselves by talk of a just war. There is no such thing as a just war. What we are doing is casting out Satan by Satan…
In June he wrote again,
We have taken over a new lot of trenches and have been having a busy time this past week; our exertions have been those of navvy rather than those of the soldier. And – without at all ‘fraternizing’ – we refrain from interfering with Bother Bosch seventy yards away, as long as he is kind to us…..Our chief enemy is nettles and mosquitoes.
On 12 October the Battalion went into the front line trenches near the Hohenzollern Redoubt and during heavy machine-gun fire Sorley was shot in the head and died instantly.
This sonnet was found in his kit and is believed to be the last poem he wrote,
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the overcrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all this for evermore.
To me this poem presents one of the most powerful critiques of those who were the living at the time, the society that promoted such mis-guided zeal in sending millions to their death. It describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed, suggesting that we should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the war-dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation. There is bleak despair in this poem, a nightmare vision of powerlessness on both sides of the conversation.
It is said that a soldier on the Western Front turned to one of his mates in the hell of their rat-infested muddy trench, with shells exploding around them, and said, “We were not made for this”. The same is true when ugliness keeps the full glory of God in creation from being revealed, whether that is the heap of ash that was once a Malaysian aeroplane, or the contorted body of a child who had been playing football on a Gaza beach, or the mass graves of innumerable scenes of genocide worldwide.
We were not made for this.