As a small boy I remember being taken by my mother to a cupboard where she took out a large bronze plaque and carefully polished it. “Today is the eleventh of November,” she said. “It was on this day at the eleventh hour that the Great War came to an end. This plaque was sent to us after my brother was killed at Delville Wood.”
Today 61 years ago the Armistice was signed and the battlefields grew eerily silent. German, Brit and French met and wondered what it had all been about. The scale of the fighting that took place is too much for the imagination. It was a war of attrition in the trenches, where the capture of a hundred metres with the loss of 50 000 men was hailed as a great victory. In the battle of Verdun alone there were 500 000 killed, 800 000 mutilated and a 100 000 ground into the soil.
It was a war where poisonous gas was used for the first time. Mustard gas drifted in clouds, seeping into dugouts and choking men to death. It is a war that has become symbolized by a single flower, the Flanders poppy. It is this red and lovely flower that grew in shell holes, abandoned trenches and muddy fields where friend and foe lay within touching distance under the earth. It grows today amongst the sea of white crosses in the war cemeteries of Europe and is immortalised by the words of John McCrae: “We shall not sleep though poppies grow, in Flanders fields.”
It is strange and ironic that out of the horror and carnage of this war came some of the loveliest poetry in the English language. The beauty of the words of Sassoon, Grenfell, Owen, Auden and Rupert Brooke will live as long as there is human memory. Of all the poets it was Rupert Brooke who wrote the most compelling poetry. He was known as the handsomest young man in England. To have him at a party was the dream of every hostess, and to have him as a lover the dream of every girl.
In 1915 the Dean of St Paul’s read a war sonnet of Rupert Brooke and he was famous overnight. He was en route to the great battle of Gallipoli when he contracted septicaemia and died. Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and he sent a signal to his brother, Major John Churchill: “Endeavour if your duties allow, to attend Rupert Brooke’s funeral on my behalf. We shall not see the likes of him again.”
Rupert Brooke was buried on the island of Cyprus. A companion wrote: “We buried him the same evening he died, in the olive grove, one of the loveliest places on this earth, with grey green olives round him, one weeping above his head, the ground covered with flowering sage, bluish grey and smelling more delicious than any other flower I know. No more fitting place for a poet could be found than this small grave.” The nation that mourned the passing of Rupert Brooke knew he was the symbol of his generation.
I read recently what that wise old man C. G. Jung had to say in 1934 about the 19141918 war. It is as pertinent today as it was then. “It is the psyche of man that makes wars. Not his consciousness. His consciousness is afraid, but his unconscious, which contains the inherited savagery as well as the spiritual strivings of the race, say to him, ‘Now is the time to make war. Now is the time to kill and destroy.’ And he does it.