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In remembrance of times, and wars, past

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At the Cenotaph
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
’Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.’
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

From Siegfried Sassoon’s small collection The Road to Ruin, published 90 years ago this month.

The Road to Ruin was not one of Sassoon’s best works. For a poet universally lauded for his war poetry, the language in Road to Ruin was too arch, too melodramatic, a bit of trying too hard for effect. But it was based on a miserable feeling, a foreboding of events racing in from the horizon.

After what Sassoon and thousands upon thousands of young men had endured and died in, could there be such madness in the world to march into another war? It was too bleak a proposition to contemplate. Sassoon detached himself from world events. It was not that he didn’t care deeply for his countrymen and women, and humanity, and as he learnt during the second conflagration what was happening to the Jews, but his muse was worn down by war. This was the awarded serviceman who had written to The Times excoriating those who were prolonging the First World War. But now he and his muse needed fresher fields. He moved into fictionalised biography.

The Road to Ruin was published in 1933, 15 years after the war to end all wars had taken the lives of more than eight million soldiers and 13 million civilians. That January Adolf Hitler, a corporal in that war, had become chancellor of Germany. Only a decade earlier, on November 9, 1923, Hitler had led the ‘beer hall putsch’ in Munich to try to seize control of government. He failed and was convicted of high treason and sentenced to five years in jail, but only served two. Inside, he wrote Mein Kampf.

Six years after Road to Ruin, Hitler took the world catastrophically down a road to ruin that by 1945, had strewn along its path 15 million military deaths and 45 million civilians. And the world was haunted by a new name for annihilation: the Holocaust, in which 6 million died.

But a generation before there was cause for hope. At 11am on November 11, 1918, hostilities had ceased. Birds could return to the killing fields. Poppies could, and would, bloom where once the earth had been scarred and ravaged. The day became known as Armistice Day, changing to Remembrance Day after World War II.


'And like the poppies in Flanders fields, the lists of names of men killed in action continues to grow... If history is our teacher, then we are very poor students.'


This November 11, for many at ceremonies around the nation, the clocks will stop, the breath will pause for a minute to remember the dead and injured of war. But the passing parade of veterans is fading into the horizon. My father is part of that passing parade. He served in the Korean War. He saw ground zero at Hiroshima. Time and memory are on a slow waltz.

Surely never again will we see such numbers as that from the world wars. What is a surety though is that we will never see young men whistling and singing their way towards a great adventure called war. Still, such mercies are not armour.

On November 17, 1913, for instance, The Melbourne Argus reported on militia preparations in what is now the Macedon Ranges in response to the faint drums of war thousands of kilometres away.

‘Until long after 11 o’clock last night the hills and valleys … echoed the tramp, tramp of almost three thousand pairs of young feet, and the usually placid stillness of the mountains was broken by stirring quick steps, the blare of bugles, the rattle of kettle drums, snatches of song, and enthusiastic cheers. The town was gay with bunting and Japanese lanterns, while eucalyptus boughs festooned every shopfront as though Christmas had arrived.’

Thus their journey on a road to ruin was about to start. The cenotaphs would be waiting for them on their ghost-ridden return.

And like the poppies in Flanders fields, the lists of names of men killed in action continues to grow: in Africa, in Europe and Asia. If history is our teacher, then we are very poor students.

The Peace Research Institute in Oslo last June reported on conflict-related deaths in 2022. There were almost 240,000, with the war in Ukraine and Ethiopia being the main contributors. it was the most deaths since 1994. A few months after that report came Hamas.

Perhaps at 11 o’clock this spring morning, as the gathered crowds remember sacrifice and loss, the air might fill with the words of war poet Wilfred Owen, himself a casualty of WWI. Sassoon ended his collection Road to Ruin with the title of Owen’s most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est. The poem ends:

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The phrase is from the Latin poet Horace:  ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.’

The old lie indeed.




Warwick McFadyen is an award-winning journalist. He has won two Walkley Awards and four Quill Awards. He has published several books of poetry. The latest is 21+4 Poems. His prose and poems have also appeared in Quadrant, Overland and Dissent.

Main image: Percy Wyndham Lewis, ‘A Battery Shelled’ (1919) (IWM)

Topic tags: Warwick McFadyen, Armistice, Remembrance, War, Sassoon, Peace



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Existing comments

Yes, Warwick - between the two of them Sassoon and Owen turned Brooke's seductively elegant sonnet, "The Soldier", on its head.

John RD | 15 November 2023  

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