They shall grow not old

Remembrance, as we now know it, is not as straightforward as it might first appear. What would seem to us now as natural, inevitable – the individual commemoration of each fallen soldier – was in fact quite a new idea at the start of the Great War. The fact that each serviceman should have his own grave, with a stone and a name or – if his body couldn’t be found – an inscription on one of the many memorials to the missing is largely thanks to the tireless work of one man, Fabian Ware, founder of what it now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The bugle call that is synonymous with remembrance was, in fact, merely the last of many signals that punctuated the day in camp, ensuring soldiers got to where they were required to be on time and, in the case of The Last Post, signalled that sentries had been posted and the camp was secure for the night.

And those great words by Laurence Binyon, without which no remembrance ceremony would now be complete, were written not towards the end of the Great War when the death toll mounted, nor in 1918 when the ‘intolerably nameless names’ were being remembered, but in September 1914 – within weeks of the outbreak of war, and well before the scale of the slaughter was even considered a remote – and awful – possibility.

The idea for this iconic poem came to Binyon while on holiday in Cornwall. ‘The stanza They Shall Grow Not Old,’ (Binyon explained when interviewed in 1939 on the eve of the outbreak of another war) ‘was written first and dictated the rhythmical movement of the whole poem.’ Interesting that, by then, Binyon seems to have settled on the word order ‘grow not’ rather than ‘not grow [old]’. Both exist in his early versions of the poem, but I’ve always thought ‘grow not old’ carries much more meaning, and is indeed why the verse still resonates so movingly today, and has become an icon of remembrance day.

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Poppy wreaths placed by British schoolchildren at Langemark German cemetery, Belgium, October 2013

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC, English soldier and poet, died on this day 97 years ago. Owen was killed exactly one week before the end of hostilities, taking part in the operation to cross the Sambre-Oise canal with his regiment, the 2nd Manchesters. The position was heavily defended and although the assault marked one of the last Allied victories of World War One, it came at a heavy cost.

Whether that cost includes the loss of further lasting poetry from Owen is difficult to estimate. No one is more closely associated in terms of subject matter with the war than Owen. Indeed, W.B.Yeats dismissed Owen as ‘unworthy of the poets’ corner in a county newspaper’ and excluded him (along with other war poets) from the Oxford poetry anthology he edited, claiming that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’. And Owen famously wrote that his subject was ‘war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ Without war, therefore, there may not have been more poetry anyway.

But what we have from Owen’s short life is a unique and memorable legacy. He prepared a volume of his poetry for publication shortly before returning – for the last time – to the Western Front. He was based in Ripon, and hired a room in a small cottage a short walk from Ripon south camp in order to secure some peace and privacy for the task in hand.

Wilfred Owen Blue Plaque Ripon

The proposed volume of thirty poems included all the work that was to establish Owen’s reputation – Dulce et decorum est, Strange Meeting, The Chances, Miners, and Anthem for Doomed Youth. But as he assembled the poems and put them in order, writing a preface (‘my subject is war and the pity of war…’), his recovery from the neurasthenia that had hospitalised him earlier in the war was hastening. By August 1918 he was back in Etaples. Three months later he was dead.

What kind of poet he would have become is, of course, a tantalising question. But as Harry Ricketts says in his book Strange Meetings, ‘Owen’s lost poems, of whatever kind, matter less than a cancelled future in which, had he lived, he might have been happy.’