"They": a timeless poem about the tragedy of war and the challenges faced by returning veterans


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.”

7 thoughts on “"They": a timeless poem about the tragedy of war and the challenges faced by returning veterans

  1. I can never forget the poem “The Man He Killed”, which ends like this:

    “Yes; quaint and curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat if met where any bar is,
    Or help to half-a-crown.”

    — Thomas Hardy.


  2. Wow, gave me goosebumps, SM.

    War such a demonstrable tragedy in just about every way you can think of: human, animal, environmental, etc. Sadly, it's often NOT an immediate economic tragedy, and thus this can be a perverse incentive. Also, ideologies are also a huge problem.

    Anyway, thanks for shedding light on the personal / societal tragedy that is war. I truly is terrible all the mostly unnecessary suffering it creates. Too bad the human races is such a primitive species.


  3. Readers,
    Isn't this an amazing poem? Sassoon wrote others, so did Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, who was also killed in the war.

    And thanks, for the Thomas Hardy poem. Didn't Hardy want to be better known as a poet than a novelist? Well, I love both his novels and his poems.

    I wish I had more time to study the literature, art, and ideas springing forth around this time in Western history. Empires fell, the communist won in Russia, and this was the war to end all wars. And “the Great War” as they called it inspired writers of all generations and classes.


  4. The literature of returned veterans goes back even further than that: an article in last week's Sunday NY Times talked about how Odysseus struggled to reintegrate with Greek society after the Trojan War in ways very similar to what veterans experience today. I can't find the link, but it was interesting.


  5. The loss of the living memories of WWI, however inevitable, is a greater loss than we really appreciate. That carnage should have given more pause to the generations that followed.

    “They” is really powerful. I also find Wilfred Owen's work haunting. Here are the last three lines from his “Anthem for Doomed Youth”

    “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.”

    BTW: “In the Fields Where They Lay,” a new film about the Christmas Truce that may have occurred in various places on the WWI front lines, is being shown in NY Dec. 11-Jan 2. Don't know of any showings around here.


  6. Speaking of the 1914 Christmas Truce, there was this 2005 film, Joyeux Noel, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. I saw it a couple years ago, and it was pretty moving.

    Another great World War I movie is Stanley Kubrick's “Paths of Glory.” From IMDB about Paths of Glory (1957): “The futility and irony of the war in the trenches in WWI is shown as a unit commander in the French army must deal with the mutiny of his men and a glory-seeking general after part of his force falls back under fire in an impossible attack.”

    The film opens with battle scenes, shows the generals back in their chateau, drinking champagne, and plotting strategy, far from the front lines, and then turns into a military courtroom drama. It is a spare, fast-moving, thoughtful film.


  7. And my favorite from Arthur Rimbaud from 1870, that ends with:

    Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

    trans: two red holes in his right side.

    Thanks to my high school French teacher for this enduring memory.


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