By Father N.J.A. Humphrey
“Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori”
All Souls/Armistice Day Remembrance Sunday
11 November 2018
Last year at Saint Clement’s Church, Philadelphia, a bastion of the Anglo-Catholic movement in America, Harvard professor and retired Ambassador Nicholas Burns gave a remarkable address on the Great War, as World War One was known a century ago.1 I am greatly indebted to it in this homily.
Over the course of four short years, more than eighteen million men, women, and children died in this conflict—up to that time the greatest number of dead in any event in history, and exceeded since then only by the Second World War and the Holocaust.
“The Great War,” Burns said, “was utterly transformative. It saw the…invention of the tank. It saw the first use of combat aircraft…The Great War saw the first bombing of troops and civilians, cities and villages from above. It set in train the evolution of destruction from the heavens that has terrorized our history since,” from the Nazis Blitzkrieg to the Allied firebombing of Dresden and Leipzig, to our own responsibility for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Four empires collapsed in the course of the Great War: the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, the German, and the Ottoman empires. It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that every war death in Europe, Russia, or the Middle East over the past century has its origin in the Great War. And war deaths in later conflicts, particularly in former European colonies such Vietnam (also known as French Indochina), elsewhere in Asia, and in Africa are largely the collateral damage from the collapse of those four empires along with the dismantling over time of the British Empire. The genealogy of the Pol Pot regime and its “killing fields” finds its kissing cousin in the fields of the Somme, where over a million men died over the course of a single campaign. As World War One poet Wilfred Owen so hauntingly wrote, “Red lips are not so red/As the stained stones kissed by the English dead.”
Over the course of the war, Wilfred Owen wrote poems that conveyed the ugliness of war so beautifully that his words have come to describe all wars. Tragically, Owen was killed just one week before the war’s end. His mother “received the notice of his death on Armistice Day as the bells in her village were ringing joyously to mark the end of fighting. One of Owen’s poems describes a gas attack on a line of British soldiers on the Western Front. Here are some of Owen’s final lines as he paints a picture of a young man dying of mustard gas in his lungs:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs Bitter as the cud,
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori.
That last line, “Dulce et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori” is from the Roman poet Horace, and means, “sweet and fitting it is, to die for one’s fatherland.” These words, in fact, are inscribed without any apparent irony on the World War One memorial here in Newport, situated right in front of City Hall. Every time I pass by it, I think of this poem. Wilfred Owens’ poem is a warning not to glorify war, and it is as true today as it was a century ago.
And so this Requiem is offered on behalf of all the war dead and all the departed, not in glorification of violence, but in the somber recognition that we live in a violent world. The duty of the living is to testify to the sacrifices of the dead, and to work while we yet have breath within us for that peace which the world cannot give, but which is found only in the hope of resurrection life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
May they rest in peace.