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“A little useful weeding”

March 8, 2012

How views change

A revealing quote in the recent biography of HG Wells, Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne. It’s 1914, and Wells has written The War That Will End War, the first of a series of articles that would later cause him embarrassment. Sherborne reminds us he was not alone in his naivety.

Another writer, working as a language teacher in France, had written to his mother at the same time about the effect of the war on the working classes;

“The guns will effect a little useful weeding.”*

Four years later the same writer composed his most famous poem.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen wrote Anthem for Doomed Youth while in hospital in Edinburgh after being wounded. A few months later he returned to the front where he was killed one week before the armistice.

Wells and Owen’s pre-war views were not unusual. Many regarded Edwardian Britain as ripe for some selective culling – until they saw what it involved.

Jim Thornton

* Quoted in Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen: The War Poems (London 1994), p. xxiv

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