Mark 12: 38-44
By Sharyn Hall
About this time last year, I discovered a book of poetry on a sale table in a large bookstore. It is a volume of poetry written by soldiers during the first world war. We all are familiar with the poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, written by Lt .Col. John McCrae. Lt. Col. McCrae served in the first world war as a surgeon at the battle front and at a hospital in Boulogne, where he died of pneumonia. He is one of the few Canadians in this book. There are 30 soldier/poets presented in this collection of poetry, most were born in Britain, all died in World War I. A few of these soldiers had never written a verse before the war. Many died without seeing their work in print, likely never thought of themselves as poets, but their poetry survives as testaments to the realities of war.
Over seventy collections of English language poetry, each the work of a single fallen soldier, appeared during the war and in the months that followed. Most of those poetry collections went out of print soon after they were published. With a few exceptions like John McCrae, the poetic voices of these soldiers were silenced. So this slim volume of war poems allows those voices to be heard again. Some of the poems describe the horrors of war, the appalling conditions, the terrible injuries and the deaths of so many young men.
In a poem entitled, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Wilfrid Owen describes the terrible loss of those too young.
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 now 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.
Wilfrid Owen was born in Shropshire, England. He enlisted in 1915 at the age of 22. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion, and sent home to England to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On November 4, seven days before the Armistice, he was killed by enemy machine-gun fire. Many believe that Wilfrid Owen could have become one of the great English poets of his generation.
Also in November 1918, when the war was ending, a collection of poems entitled, ‘A Canadian Twilight and other Poems of War and Peace, was published. The author was Bernard Freeman Trotter, who was born in Toronto but spent much of his youth in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He enlisted and set sail for Europe in 1916. A little over a year later, he was killed by a shell while serving as a Transport Officer at the Front. One of his poems ironically is entitled, ‘Ici Repose’, saying in French, ‘Here I rest’, and that is where he is buried.
A little cross of weather-silvered wood,
Hung with a garish wreath of tinselled wire,
And on it carved a legend – thus it runs:
‘Ici Repose’ – Add that name you will
And multiply by thousands: in the fields,
Along the roads, beneath the trees – one here,
A dozen there, to each its simple tale
Of one more jewel threaded star-like on
The sacrificial rosary of France.
What do we understand as sacrifice?
The word, ‘sacrifice’, is defined in the dictionary as giving up something of value for the sake of something else more important or worthy. Our story from the gospel of Mark is about sacrifice. The poor widow gave a sacrificial offering to the temple treasury. The widow’s sacrifice is not really about money. It was a small amount of money, but it was sacrificial because it was all she had. She did not keep money back for her own security or comfort. By giving all she had, she placed herself in God’s hands. If there was no-one to care for her, no family or compassionate friends, she could die as a beggar in the street. She gave up what little she had of value for the sake of something more worthy, for the sake of honouring her God. All that she had and all that she was belonged to God.
Today we honour those who sacrificed all that they had and all that they were for the worthy cause of peace, and we believe that they belong to God. We remember those who endured the war, suffered in the war, and died in the war. We remember not only soldiers, sailors and airmen who were combatants, but we also remember nurses, doctors and transport drivers who worked in terrible conditions to care for the wounded and the dying. We remember civilian populations who suffered bombings, deprivations, persecutions and in some places, occupation by enemy forces. During wartime, sacrifice is a way of life. We speak of the ultimate sacrifice of those who died, but sacrifice in war is pervasive into the hearts and minds of all people. People sacrifice health and happiness, hopes and aspirations, love and loved ones.
These thirty poets who died as soldiers are a small representation of the loss to humanity of people who could have contributed to literature, or art, or medicine, or commerce, or science or international diplomacy. Can we find people who have seen war and yet speak peace? Can we find people who have seen war and work for reconciliation among enemies? Can we find people who can see the suffering of their enemy and sacrifice their hurt and anger to help others?
Charles Hamilton Sorley was born in Aberdeen, Scotland. He enlisted in 1914 at the age of 19. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a captain, and in the same year was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. In one of his poems entitled, ‘To Germany’, Captain Sorley recognized that all people suffer in war, and despite his youth, he had the vision to see that reconciliation must come after the war is ended if peace is to be possible.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form,
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
After WWI, there was another war with Germany and Italy and Japan, then wars in Korea and the Middle East and now Afghanistan. There is terrorism and oppression in many countries, so peace seems as elusive as ever.
Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote in a poem entitled, ‘The Anxious Dead’:
Bid [the Dead] be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.
For more information on Bernard Trotter see: