The Great War

from Lest We Forget, an electronic edition



On that long day when England held her breath,

Suddenly gripped at heart

And called to choose her part

Between her loyal soul and luring sophistries,

We watched the wide, green-bosomed land beneath

Driven and tumultuous skies;

We watched the volley of white shower after shower

Desolate with fierce drops the fallen flower;

And still the rain's retreat

Drew glory on its track,

And still, when all was darkness and defeat,

Upon dissolving cloud the bow of peace shone back.

So in our hearts was alternating beat,

With every dread elate;

And Earth dyed all her day in colours of our fate.


But, oh, how faint the image we foretold

In fancies of our fear

Now that the truth is here

And we awake from dream, yet think it still a dream.

It bursts our thoughts with more than thought can hold;

And more than human seem

These agonies of conflict; Elements

At war! yet not with vast indifference

Casually crushing; nay,

It is as if were hurled

Lightnings that murdered, seeking out their prey;

As if an earthquake shook to chaos half the world,

Equal in purpose as in power to slay;

And thunder stunned our ears

Streaming in rain of blood on torrents that are tears.


Around a planet rolls the drum's alarm.

Far where the summer smiles

Upon the utmost isles,

Danger is treading silent as a fever-breath.

Now in the North the secret waters arm;

Under the wave is Death:

They fight in the very air, the virgin air,

Hovering on fierce wings to the onset there

Nations to battle stream;

Earth smokes and cities burn;

Heaven thickens in a storm of shells that scream;

The long lines shattering break, turn and again return;

And still across a continent they teem,

Moving in myriads; more

Than ranks of flesh and blood, but soul with soul at war!


All the hells are awake: the old serpents hiss

From dungeons of the mind;

Fury of hate born blind,

Madness and lust, despairs and treacheries unclean;

They shudder up from man's most dark abyss.

But there are heavens serene

That answer strength with strength; they stand secure;

They arm us from within, and we endure.

Now are the brave more brave,

Now is the cause more dear,

The more the tempests of the darkness rave,

As, when the sun goes down, the shining stars are clear.

Radiant the spirit rushes to the grave.

Glorious it is to live

In such an hour, but life is lovelier yet to give.


Alas! what comfort for the uncomforted,

Who knew no cause, nor sought

Glory or gain? they are taught,

Homeless in homes that burn, what human hearts can bear.

The children stumble over their dear dead,

Wandering they know not where.

And there is one who simply fights, obeys,

Tramps, till he loses count of nights and days,

Tired, mired in dust and sweat,

Far from his own hearthstone;

A common man of common earth, and yet

The battle-winner he, a man of no renown,

Where food for cannon pays a nation's debt.

This is Earth's hero, whom

The pride of Empire tosses careless to his doom.


Now will we speak, while we have eyes for tears

And fibres to be wrung

And in our mouths a tongue.

We will bear wrongs untold, but will not only bear;

Not only bear, but build through striving years

The answer of our prayer,

That whosoever has the noble name

Of man shall not be yoked to alien shame;

That life shall be indeed

Life, not permitted breath

Of spirits wrenched and forced to other's need,

Robbed of their nature's joy and free alone in death.

The world shall travail in that cause, shall bleed;

But deep in hope it dwells

Until the morning break which the long night foretells.


O children, filled with your own airy glee,

Or with a grief that comes

So swift, so strange, it numbs,

If on your growing youth this page of terror bite,

Harden not then your senses, feel and be

The promise of the light.

O heirs of Man, keep in your hearts not less

The divine torrents of his tenderness!

'Tis ever war; but rust

Grows on the sword; the tale

Of earth is strewn with empires heaped in dust

Because they dreamed that force should punish and prevail.

The will to kindness lives beyond their lust;

Their grandeurs are undone:

Deep, deep within man's soul are all his victories won.