One hundred years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, church bells were rung throughout the land to mark the end of the First World War. Back then, the bells pealed to celebrate victory. One hundred years later, in all the former combatant countries, bells are tolling to acknowledge the war’s terrible loss of life.
It is estimated that the total number of military and civilian casualties in this, the Great War, was about 40 million. The estimates range from 15 to 19 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
At the end of the war every city, town and village in Britain would raise a monument to its fallen. And because units were filled with volunteers, often recruited from the same locale, a village or shire might lose more than half of its young men.
By the time this War ended in 1918, only death seemed to have won.
The poem featured in our newsletter today revolves around the Battle of the Somme, the offensive in 1916 that proved to be one of the war’s deadliest. It was written to a young British officer by Mary Borden who had an affair with him while she was running a field hospital in France. In the run-up to today’s 100th anniversary of the Armistice, the poem has formed the basis of a choral work accompanying a light show that has been filling the Tower of London moat for the past week.
Mary Borden was the second of three children born in Chicago, USA to William Borden who had made a fortune in Colorado silver mining. When the War broke out she was married to a Scottish missionary with three children. In 1915, a year after the war began and at the age of 29, she persuaded the French army to let her fund and run a field hospital as close to the battlefront as possible. She was determined, she said, ‘to create a counter-wave of life’ against such an overwhelming tide of suffering and death. Her hospital treated 25,000 soldiers in its first six weeks and went on to have one of the best recovery records on the Western Front.
A year later, in 1916, she met the young British officer Louis Spears at the battlefront. She later wrote of this encounter: “My apron is stained with mud and blood; I am too tired to take it off. My feet are burning lumps as I hobble to open the door. A young officer stands there. He too is splattered with mud; his face is haggard.”
In the poem Sonnet III from Sonnets to a Soldier she simultaneously expresses her admiration for her lover’s battlefield courage while also giving voice to her natural fear of being left behind if he should be killed.
Sonnet III, from Sonnets to a Soldier
If you this very night should ride to death
Straight from the piteous passion of my arms;
If you still breathing in the sobbing breath
Of my desire, still faint with my alarms
Should come upon the vast immensity
Of nothingness, my last poor trembling kiss
Upon your lips, should face eternity
And gaze full conscious into the abyss;
You would not falter at the last my friend
Nor put to shame your clear courageous mind
Under the menace of the desolate end;
But with one lighted look for me, behind,
You’d take the leap, with a last challenge, cry
That there is no beyond, and thus superbly, die—
This and Borden’s other love sonnets are spontaneous, passionate and intimate; with her other writings they examples of what she saw and did in truly horrific circumstances. The poems caused a scandal when they were discovered and her husband divorced her. She and Spears went on to marry and he became an MP and a General in the Second World War. During that conflict Borden set up and ran a mobile ambulance unit that operated across France, North Africa and the Middle East. Mary Borden died 50 years ago, in 1968. Her biographer, Paul O’Prey, has described her as “the great forgotten voice of the war – the outstanding female voice of the first world war”.
The Readings for our Mass today resonate with this tragic conflict. They speak about widows and in the Psalm orphans are mentioned as well. It is estimated that one third of the soldiers killed or declared missing during the Great War left behind a widow. There are no First World War widows left alive now but many of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren survive them, including members of this congregation today.
With thanksgiving and sorrow we remember today the heroism of those who took part in this War and other conflicts. However, the courage and generosity of widows – like the one in the First Reading who put the welfare of Elijah before her own and her son’s, and the widow in the Gospel who gave away everything she had – deserve equal recognition. And so too do women like Mary Borden and women like her who cared for the wounded and the dying. Together, in their various ways, they made a significant contribution to the peace we enjoy today.
Holy Name, Jesmond
11 November 2018