Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Licence to Kill




Written last year for Yarm Writers on War or Peace - to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the start of WWII. As Remembrance Day is coming closer, I thought it appropriate to air it again.

Licence To Kill

He described war as ‘a licence to kill’ and in his last years Harry Patch used his experience at Paschendale to promote peace and reconciliation. He reminded us that WWI was eventually settled over an office table and wondered why the politicians and generals couldn’t have done that before millions of lives had been destroyed. That war has been described as ‘The war to end all wars.’ It has turned out to be anything but that.
The guns fell silent on 11 November 1918 after four years of unrelenting slaughter. For those that survived, peace opened up a world of uncertainties. It was a case of ‘what do we do next?’ 1919 saw Spanish flu claim millions of men who had returned from the trenches. One story tells of a soldier with symptoms of flu whose treatment became ‘fill him up with rum, and let him take his chance.’
Prior to WWII attempts to talk proved pointless. Chamberlain’s infamous piece of paper, proclaimed as heralding ‘Peace in our time,’ brought about nothing of the sort. Many WWI veterans were to see service in the Home Guard or as volunteers in the Fire Service. More lives were lost in bombing raids, before one bomb ended it all by killing 100,000 in Japan.
Why is it then that wars have continued in places like Korea, Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan? Will we never learn?
WWI saw poetry from Brooke, Sassoon and Owen that still serves as a reminder of the futility of war. In poetry you can find verses that amuse, shock or stir.
In your collection you might choose Chesterman’s William the Conquerer:
William the Conqueror, 1066,
Said to his captains, 'I mean to affix
England to Normandy. Go out and borrow
Some bows and some arrows, we're starting tomorrow.'
So William went conquering hither and thither
'Til Angles and Saxons were all of a dither
He conquered so quickly you couldn't keep count
Of the counties he conquered, I think they amount
To ten, or a dozen, or even a score,
And I haven't a doubt he'd have conquered some more,
So full and so proud of his conquering tricks
Was William the Conqueror, 1066.
But death put an end to the tactics, thank Heaven,
Of William the Conqueror, 1087.

A Shakespeare fan might recite from Henry V, a verse to precede a fight:
Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger...
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot!
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,
Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint George!

Perhaps you can be wiser after the event as Tennyson proclaimed:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Some one had blundered:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Maybe though it was Wilfred Owen who hit the spot when he described the effect of poisoned gas and exposed:
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Even today the politicians decree that those lost and maimed in Afghanistan have not served in vain. Perhaps they should read ‘A Soldier Died Today’ by A Lawrence Vaincourt:
He was getting old and paunchy and his hair was falling fast,
And he sat around the Legion, telling stories of the past.
Of a war that he had fought in and the deeds that he had done,
In his exploits with his buddies; they were heroes, every one.

And tho' sometimes, to his neighbors, his tales became a joke,
All his Legion buddies listened, for they knew whereof he spoke.
But we'll hear his tales no longer for old Bill has passed away,
And the world's a little poorer, for a soldier died today.

He will not be mourned by many, just his children and his wife,
For he lived an ordinary and quite uneventful life.
Held a job and raised a family, quietly going his own way,
And the world won't note his passing, though a soldier died today.

When politicians leave this earth, their bodies lie in state,
While thousands note their passing and proclaim that they were great.
Papers tell their whole life stories, from the time that they were young,
But the passing of a soldier goes unnoticed and unsung.

Is the greatest contribution to the welfare of our land
A guy who breaks his promises and cons his fellow man?
Or the ordinary fellow who, in times of war and strife,
Goes off to serve his Country and offers up his life?

A politician's stipend and the style in which he lives
Are sometimes disproportionate to the service that he gives.
While the ordinary soldier, who offered up his all,
Is paid off with a medal and perhaps, a pension small.

It's so easy to forget them for it was so long ago,
That the old Bills of our Country went to battle, but we know
It was not the politicians, with their compromise and ploys,
Who won for us the freedom that our Country now enjoys.

Should you find yourself in danger, with your enemies at hand,
Would you want a politician with his ever-shifting stand?
Or would you prefer a soldier, who has sworn to defend
His home, his kin and Country and would fight until the end?

He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin,
But his presence should remind us we may need his like again.
For when countries are in conflict, then we find the soldier's part
Is to clean up all the troubles that the politicians start.

If we cannot do him honor while he's here to hear the praise,
Then at least let's give him homage at the ending of his days.
Perhaps just a simple headline in a paper that would say,
Our Country is in mourning, for a soldier died today.

What else can be said as they unload the coffins from the Hercules at RAF Lyneham to pass through Wootton Bassett again.

1 comment:

Paul S said...

That's a very moving and very relevant post Bob, thanks for sharing it with us.