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Remembering World War I

One hundred years ago this November, World War I ended, but not before millions of young men died in what many historians consider the first conflict to take full advantage of improvements in mechanized warfare. But the human element had its say in this war, producing poets whose verse, reflecting the horror and trauma of trench and aerial warfare, defined a literary generation. One of the best known of these War Poets, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) survived the war (unlike is close friend and fellow poet Wilfred Owen) but struggled to survive the peace. He could never forget the ordeal and spent his life writing poems and fiction about his experiences. Born in Kent, England, to a Jewish father and Anglican mother, Sassoon converted to Catholicism late in life. His poem “Aftermath” seems to anticipate in its own way what he was to later celebrate each November through his faith—the importance of remembering the dead and keeping their memory alive in prayer. In honor and to the memory of the 40 million casualties (20 million dead and 21 million wounded) of World War I, Adoremus presents Sassoon’s poem to our readers.

Aftermath

By Siegfried Sassoon

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same—and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.