The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face”
“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
This poem was written in 1917 by an English writer named Siegfried Sassoon. He was among a group of poets who chronicled, with graphic urgency, the plight of soldiers living, dying and sometimes surviving in the battle trenches of that long-ago war–which, the more you study it, the more you can find comparisons to the current Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts in which our country is now engaged.
There is an interesting backstory to these World War I poems and their authors.
Sassoon grew up a “leisured Edwardian gentleman” and graduated from Cambridge, according to my Norton Anthology of Poetry.”At the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted and went to the front. By 1917, disillusioned with the war, he publicly protested that it was being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” His actions landed him in the Craiglockhart War Hospital. Authorities claimed he was suffering from “shell shock,” what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. There he befriended the young poet Wilfred Owen (who was killed one year later in action, one week before the signing of the armistice).
Sassoon was influenced by fellow poet soldier and Craiglockhart inmate Robert Graves, and produced poetry with “an immediacy untouched by his contemporaries’ work. He not only expressed the horrors of trench warfare but also castigated those at home who blithely send a generation of young men to die.”