Wednesday, 16 December 2015 11:40

The Centennial of a Cataclysm: One Life, One Family

Written by
Rate this item
(0 votes)

The Centennial of a Cataclysm: One Life, One Family

Timothy S. Goeglein

Tim Goeglein is Vice President, External Relations, of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at
To you from failing hands we throw
The Torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. -John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields," 1915

One hundred summers ago, one of the greatest calamities in all of history commenced in Europe.

On June 28, 1914, in the Balkan city of Sarajevo, now located in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, were assassinated. Their murders, in the back of an open touring car which had made a wrong turn, lit a torch that set off an inglorious chain of events which would come to include almost every country on that continent and well beyond.

The ineffable cataclysm that became World War I would lead to what one poet and literary critic would aptly call "the suicide of Europe."

The worldwide conflagration set off by those two killings would set Europe aflame for the next four years.

The writer Theodore Dalrymple evocatively wrote of World War I:

The war smashed up European civilization and sapped Europe's belief in itself: For if the wages of its civilization was such a war, bloody and muddy carnage on so unimaginable a scale, what price its civilization?

The brutality of the war, replete with the first use of tanks, poison gas, and guns that could kill on an unprecedented scale, is almost beyond our imagination now.

In all of the centennial reflections of World War I, I wonder how many will actually focus on the most personal impact of that brutal implosion: The impact it had on the families who had to endure the deaths and maiming of their loved ones on a nearly matchless trajectory? In all the reams and tomes ever written about what became known as "The Great War," why is there comparatively such little attention paid to the average mother and father, brother and sister, grandparent, aunt and uncle, niece and nephew, and how they reacted, responded, and indeed coped with the deeply acute sense of loss and despair that is always war's aide-de-camp?

This all came to mind when I read an important review in The Wall Street Journal of a biography on one of the most important young poets to emerge during the war, Wilfred Owen. Born in 1893 in Wales to a lower-middle class family - his father was a train stationmaster - he spent his boyhood in three towns: Liverpool, Shrewsbury, and little Oswestry surrounded by low mountains. Like so many great poets, he was preternaturally shy despite impressive literary gifts which emerged early in his young life. He attended not one of the great British universities, like Oxford or Cambridge, but rather Reading, which was mostly undistinguished and without an international reputation.

Like many children of middle class backgrounds, Owen's parents had great aspirations for their talented son, and his parents nourished these abilities tirelessly and from the start. His father was an amateur but lustrous operatic tenor, and his mother had an artistic bent, taking her young son with her to art galleries and museums to deepen his love of beautiful things. Their attentive parenting had an impact. Those who knew Owen best said he had an obvious love of life, what the French call a joie de vivre. He once wrote of himself "you would not know me for the poet of sorrows."

Embedded deeply with this artistic ability was an equally powerful sense of duty. His parents taught their son that attainment without responsibility was hollow and lacking depth; that character trumped intellectual achievement. It was a set of principles he would take with him to the battlefields of France and ultimately to his grave.

This constant parental nourishing of this natural joy of life paid off. In 1915, just before he joined the army, Owen wrote: "I know I have lived more than my twenty-one years, many more; and so have a start of most lives." What a remarkably self-reflective comment for a young man. This was not a statement of bravado but rather one of appreciation and confidence - precisely the traits he was trained to embody in his Welsh upbringing. His life was not unlike that of another famous British poet whom Owen revered and read with alacrity, devotion, and verve, John Keats.

Yet unlike Keats, Owen willingly enlisted for what would become his death knell, proving to be a widely admired and talented Army officer, but with a literary lan. His lyrical flair and probity, all these years later, helps convey to us, in our own era, the sheer horror and catastrophe of war and its impact on one life and one family.

While stationed near what became known as "No Man's Land" - those barren, desolate pieces of bombed-out ground between the trenches of the British and the French on one side and their enemies the Germans on the other - Owen's poems and letters resonate across the years a brokenness, desperation, and an otherworldly almost phantasmagoric futility of war.

He wrote from France:

I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language, and nothing but foul, even from one's own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.

He served for two long years, a period of time alternately defined by selflessness, service, sorrow, achievement, disaster, and then death. Those 24 months witnessed Owen being mercilessly bombarded near the French town of Saint Quentin in early 1917 and sent home with shellshock. Then, almost inexplicably, he returned to France where he was engaged in yet another brutal hand-to-hand battle near the town of Joncourt, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. Finally, on November 4, 1918, he met his denouement - he was killed while leading his company through the Ors Canal despite the ceaseless shelling and gunfire that accompanied his and his men's heroic struggle forward to shelter.

It is nearly impossible now to read Owen's prose without weeping and feeling a kind of leaden sorrow for the promise of life cut short.

In the midst of battle, he wrote to his mother:

All one day we could not move from a small trench, though hour-by-hour the wounded were groaning just outside. Three stretcher-bearers who got up were hit, one by one. I had to order no one to show himself after that, but remembering my own duty, and remembering also my forefathers the agile Welshmen of the mountains I scrambled out myself and felt an exhilaration in baffling the Machine Guns by quick bounds from cover to cover. After the shells we had been through, and the gas, bullets were like the gentle rain from heaven.

What, then, to think of the conflagration of emotions that must have stirred the soul of his parents when, on the very day that the war's armistice was declared, and as the bells in their small Welsh village were tolling, they learned by telegram that their 25-year-old son, their eldest child, had lost his life? Owen was the same age as Keats.

In one of his most solemn, powerful poems, Owen wrote of the World War I generation:

What passing-bells for those who
Die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of
The guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

As the centennial of "The Great War" approaches - the conflict President Woodrow Wilson said was a "war to end all wars" - it is easy to be overwhelmed with the sheer impersonal, empirical data of it all: 65 million men worldwide served in that war; 8 million lost their lives; 21 million were wounded. Five million Americans served and 100,000 died in the trenches, hospitals, and shell holes of Europe. It was an implosive war that would be only a prologue to a much longer, deadlier one on the same continent just a few years later.

We have a moral obligation, it seems to me, not to lose sight of the fact that, giant numbers though those are, each was a unique person made in the very image of God - someone's son, husband, grandson, nephew, friend.

A famous Quaker once presciently observed: "You do not have a soul; you are a soul. You have a body."

A century hence, through the mists of time, we must never forget who they were or what they did. Each of them; every soul. *

Read 3946 times Last modified on Saturday, 10 December 2016 19:18
Timothy S. Goeglein

Timothy S. Goeglein is Vice President of External Relations for Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to “Helping Families Thrive.” Its web site is at
Login to post comments