Sunday, 23 August 2009

Americans Honour The Dead of the Great War

Watch CBS Videos Online

Click on the video above for an affecting piece from CBS about the graves of American servicemen who were killed fighting in Belgium during the Great War. (A shame about the prefatory advert...) Lines from the Canadian poet John McCrae's 'In Flanders Fields' are heard twice.

Should the whole poem be read at commemorative events? McCrae's final stanza is an appeal from the dead for the living to keep fighting: 'Take up our quarrel with the foe'. Failure to do so would be an act of 'break[ing] faith with us who die'. That is, McCrae has recruited the dead to promote his belief that the War must be fought to the end, and that peace would constitute a betrayal of fallen colleagues. It is a brilliant piece of propaganda, lulling its audience with the rondeau's repetitions and pastoral imagery, before sneaking its strident politics into a suitably sonorous conclusion.


  1. Propaganda Tim? As one who has spent a great deal of time with soldiers in the field, and soon in theatre, I have come to learn that soldiers fight first and foremost for the brotherhood (each other), then for rifle company, battalion, battle group, Task Force, and only at the very last, for country.

    McCrae was a serving soldier. Any soldier I've met who has lost a comrade cites this loss as his number one reason to return to fight. Now that our country has announced its pulling-out date (2011), there is a sense of betrayal among some soldiers at leaving before victory (whatever that is).

    Accordingly, I fail to read 'strident politics', instead I read the intensely personal of the serving soldier.


  2. That's a fair point, Suzanne, but let me stick to my guns. I haven't encountered McCrae's sentiment in the post-Somme writings of any other poet --- not just Owen and Sassoon, who are at the opposite pole politically, but also Rosenberg, Gurney, Thomas, Graves. Owen and Sassoon return to the Front because of their loyalty to their men, but at the same time they are desperate for an early peace.

    What is, for me, most dubious about McCrae's poem is his use of prosopopoeia. He puts his own political views in the mouths of the dead ('We are the Dead', they say, in one voice) in order to give them greater authority. Hardy had done the same during the Boer War, in his poem 'A Christmas Ghost Story'. The irony is that Hardy's dead soldier wants peace. The dead can be made to say whatever you want them to say. What I've written elsewhere about Hardy is true of McCrae as well: 'He does not speak for the dead; the dead are obliged to speak for him.'

  3. Tim, just a day or two ago a young lady of about twenty uploaded herself to CNN to explain sweetly that a pull-out from Afghanistan "would mean our soldiers died for nothing." She urged President Obama to send more troops.

    Surprisingly to some, the families of dead soldiers oftentimes share a similar view.

    It's no accident that McCrae's is one of the most popular war poems in English.