August 4th, 2014 was the centennial of the first day of battle of World War One.
Although war had been declared a week earlier (28 July 1914), the 4th of August was the day on which troops clashed and men died. Millions more would die before the war ground to a halt four years later.
It was not only the start of The Great War. It was the end of the Old Regime in Europe, of a way of life. The beginning of a modern era of endless war in which more than 50 million people have died on battlefields, in death camps, of starvation, and disease. And of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rupert Chawner Brooke was born 3 August 1887 and died 23 April 1915. He was an English poet known for his sonnets — mostly written during the First World War, in particular “The Soldier”, which follows. He was well-known for his good looks, which were said to have prompted William Butler Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.” He died before his good-looks had time to fade.
1914 V: The Soldier
by Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Rupert Brooke never came back from the war. He was one of an entire generation of men who died in that war. The male population had barely begun to return to normal when War II began. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 37 million. It included tens of thousands of Americans, and millions of English, Australian, Canadians, French, German, Belgian, Austrian, Russians and many others.
Civilian casualties out-numbered military casualties.
We are marking the hundredth birthday of “the war to end all wars.” It was merely the opening salvo of a century of endless war which still continues. Maybe some day it will be over. I hope I live to see it.
As for what lesson we learned from this war? A war that achieved nothing except slaughter and destruction? We learned nothing.