The Great War

Detail from the Hart House Memorial, University of Toronto

Detail from the Hart House Memorial, University of Toronto

 

The Great War

Ninety years since the last bullet

Killed the last of us, a Canadian

Very soon time will bury the last survivor

Enlisted as a child

Who lied about his age

There were many lies, that one

The least and most easily forgiven

A lie that offered a life

Instead of taking many

 

You call it World War One;

To us, it was the Great War.

 

Ninety years since the eleventh hour

The eleventh day, the eleventh month

The macabre symmetry that did not end what was started

in those green fields now blasted to chalk.

 

I met a woman today, ninety-one,

Remembering the father killed at Passchendaele

taken from light before

she first saw it.

Bereft of father before birth, grief leather-framed,

memories of his ending

brought home by an older brother

who lied about his age to go, but returned

to live forever scarred

replacing the father he could not save or protect.

 

I knew a man who fought there, too, badly wounded as a teenager

Unable sixty years later to describe it

Words choked

Such hell still unspeakable

Even the survivors did not really survive

Bodies scarred,

lives and minds broken into a scream

that only resolute denial could silence.

 

You call it World War One;

To us, it was the Great War.

 

It was Great because unimaginable,

The engines of industry burned night into day

and day into darkest night

Great for its destruction, the numbers barely counted,

tallied to keep score in a game no victor would see.

 

Ignored while we lived, now dead our stories fill headlines;

Private moments trumpeted

Our banalities a romance we did not understand, it seems,

As pencil stubs in the mud of trenches carved our memorial in letters home.

 

Yet there is more romance in a Great War

than in but one among many,

more nobility in a death to end war

than anonymously in its continuation.

 

For us it was great, not just the first in an indefinite series,

painting a landscape of pain that never ended,

lives unrubbled, perhaps, but just as shattered

On a perpetual horizon

Repeated by generations that have not remembered

because for them it is new.

 

You call it World War One;

To us, it was the Great War.

 

For the lives never lived

For the children never born

For the poems never written

For the songs never sung

We grieve

Not the pain uninflicted

Not the evil left undone

Not the curses left unsaid

Not the cacophony of bitterness unuttered

For in that there is no loss

 

But for those who surrender life

or have it stripped by inches from their bones,

there are no greater or lesser wars,

no meaning in numbers,

no explanation that fills the looming void,

just a silence that stretches beyond that landscape of pain.

 

I wish in those thoughtful accounts about our lives,

the edits and annotations of our letters

pencilled by candlelight or between sorties,

sometimes beneath a tree behind the lines

waiting for whatever had not yet arrived

I wish there was some recognition of that long silence

Not just inarticulate representation

by those who affect not to know

what it was like.

Pain and death, hate and horror,

Are novelties to no generation, whatever our pretence

to not understand

our capacity to inflict suffering

on those we caricature into targets and victims

The enemy whose existence justifies our justice

As it spews from the mouth of death

gaping and jeering

over and over again.

 

You call it World War One;

To us, it was the Great War.

 

 By: Peter H. Denton

Written after the Remembrance Day Service in the Regency Retirement Residence,

Port Credit, Ontario

November 11, 2008