Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Ultimate War Poem of Sacrifice and Remembrance

England's Saints
1914 – 1917

Who shall name them, this numberless army? we  know not their number or name. 
But we know from the sign on their foreheads through great tribulation they came; 
No calendar blazons their triumph with service of vigil or feast, 
And he that was greatest among them is even as he that was least;
They were men in the might of their manhood, or boys in the beauty of youth, 
But they held ail as dust in the balance to battling for freedom and truth. 

We shall see them no more to our sorrow, they are rapt from the sphere of our pain. 
And the sword and the fire and the bullet shall sear not nor slay them again; 
Priest and poet, clerk, scholar and craftsman, sea-toilers or sons of the sod — 
From earth, air, and ocean up-gathered, they rest in the garden of God. 

Their shrines stand in city and highway, whose lamps of remembrance abide 
Fed with love from the heart-springs of England, and lit from the torch of her pride; 
Upon hill-slope, by hamlet or homestead, they shine through the darkness undimmed, 
Morn and eve, 'neath the Christ bowed above them, the glimmering cressets are trimmed 
By their angels, who pass unbeholden — so close hangs the curtain between 
Veiling heaven ; for the things that we see not are more than the things that are seen. 

  Now, Lord, for the nation's uplifting — since this is the noblest we know, 
In Thy name to the help of the helpless, through death and through darkness to go — 
For our country who spared not her children, for mother, love, sister, and wife, 
Who endured what is deeper than death-wound, who gave what was dearer than life, 
For the pure and the wise and the godlike, who flocked to Thy banner unfurled, 
For the sinful — Thy saints in the making — we deemed but the waste of the world, 
For the builders of wood, hay and stubble — the foolish, the faithless, the cold. 
Whose dross Thou hast purged in the furnace, and touched them, and turned them to gold, 
For the fearless of heart, and the fearful who trembled but came at Thy call. 
We bless Thee, we thank Thee, we laud Thee, we love Thee, O Father of all! 

James Rhoades

James Rhoades (1841–1923), a schoolmaster by training, was labelled "a conventional poet who wrote of imperial war in a conservative idiom and a grandiloquent style" in a recent work on World War I poetry. However, if you are looking for an antidote to the more highly praised late war poems of  futility and betrayal "England's Saints" certainly fits the bill.


  1. A lovely poem, but I'll nominate Joshua Henry Jones "The Heart of the World" as a strong contender for the "Ultimate War Poem of Sacrifice and Remembrance."

  2. My response to this poem is less sympathetic than the two preceding ones: I think these verses are a travesty of the reality experienced in WWI. It is sanitised beyond belief, and designed for consumption in those gentile Edwardian drawing rooms where truth-saying was regarded as the ultimate in bad taste. No combatant would identify with this maudlin pap once they'd spent a week or two in the trenches.

    Well, I'm glad I got that off my chest ...

  3. I'm with Brian on this one. Funny how the Germans believed exactly the same thing about their soldiers: "Mitt Gott und Vaterland" on all their buckles and badges. Perhaps God was hedging his bets. As for using war to purge from the dross of sin, that is pretty much what Isis believe. To be fair, the British government and senior officers never claimed to be fighting God's war.

  4. ... for our family, it will always be the poppies In Flanders Fields...

  5. Crossties and Lines: October 1918

    Shrewsbury, Hadnall, Yorton, Clive, Wem,

    Prees, Whitchurch, Wrenbury, Nantwich, Crewe

    Backed against the oaks, the cattle gather

    Minding the din of the clattering train -

    Milking is late tonight as the farm lights flicker

    And loco smoke and steam meet soaking rain.

    On the line, the gangers slack and chatter

    And twist a wad twixt palm and thumb

    As clanging trucks rough couplings batter

    And drive wheels rumble on to kingdom come.

    ‘Wer’rup’ the cowman calls - the black dog sets -

    The sullen charges bunt and frisk in show,

    Mocking the winter’s edge, the day’s regrets

    They trudge through sleet that threatens snow.

    The foreman mutters and bites his lip

    ‘Hey up Will - shift back young mon -

    The ballast can slip and the rails can trip -

    Tamping is done ‘til the tender’s gone’.

    Buttercup, rush, sedge, thistle and nettle

    The year’s-end grassland thin between -

    Muddy hocks and hooves at gate halt settle

    Awaiting the latch to lift and keen.

    But those who wager still in careless gift

    As the yawping steel grinds hard

    Won’t stand in the cess as the bogies shift,

    And the wheel of fortune deals its card.

    On the Western Marches lines are broken

    Iron has taken its mass and press to heart,

    And clag and blemish and blood give token

    Where switch and point new journeys start.

    Bellinglise, Magny-la-Fosse, Riqueval,

    La Baraque, Ramicourt, Joncourt, Oors.

    [In Memory of Wilfred Owen]