It’s widely acknowledged amongst fans of the TV comedy Blackadder that the 4th series, Blackadder Goes Forth, was the most brilliant. My favourite line belongs to the manic flying ace Lord Flashheart, when he confesses to Captain Blackadder that he too is
. . . sick of this war: the blood, the noise, the endless poetry.
War poetry has been around as long as war has been around, which means pretty much forever. Wilfred Owen. Siegfried Sassoon. Names you will know well.
What is rather less well-known is poetry that is rooted in the Second World War. A Welsh poet, Iolo Lewis, was serving with the British 11th Armoured Division, and found himself, towards the end of the war, in the by-then liberated concentration camp at Belsen. He wrote an extraordinary poem called ‘Belsen Silence’ –it includes these lines
Listen then, can’t you hear, The silence here around, Telling us of terror, And ancient bestial fear; How real is this silence, That permeates from underground?
The poem ends
Listen to the silence still, And lift your head on high, Are you waiting for a question, Or an answer, and a void to fill? Quicken then the pulse, breathe deeper still, Answer the silence to question, why?
Like Owen, Sassoon and their contemporaries, Lewis had seen the realities of war, and found that poetry was a way of making sense of that reality. Poetry uses words to paint a picture; it enables us to assess something which can be beyond our comprehension in a different way. That’s why, to get our heads round war, we need poetry to paint the pictures for us.
Lewis’ poem invites us to use the silence of this commemoration to do something particular – not just to remember, but to ask a question. Why? Why are human beings so rubbish at sharing a planet that the ultimate thing they can devise to solve their problems is to wage war?
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote a famous poem called The Charge of the Light Brigade. It includes three famous lines describing the dutiful, suicidal, obedience of the soldiers who rode to their deaths
Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die.
Tennyson was wrong.
In this season of Remembrance, the best way of honouring those who have gone before us to their deaths is to use our reason, our intelligence, our wisdom, to ask why those deaths were necessary. Such a question is not dishonourable, except to those who fear the truth. What greater honour for those who gave their lives for our freedom, to know that we, in our generation, had the sense to ask why – and to learn that war is no longer the answer?