2. A War of Nerves – a poem

Does Somerset recall how few in Britain could resist
Huge social pressure, saw war as sordid from the start?
The gullible and the obedient mindlessly rallied round
To vilify and ostracize those daring to hold different views.

Bigots lapped up the strident posters shouting “GO!”,
The streets of Khaki uniforms, the drilling in the parks,
And any man not seen in military colours was verbally
Abused for cowardice by women with white feathers.

It is not always easy to resist the urge to follow suit,
Condemning those, eager to hand out condemnation,
Spurred by the dark side of their loss, and desperate
For tawdry glamour, to cloak the brutal maw of war.

Only a minority was out of sympathy with sweeping
Hysteria, a wide-spread wave of hate against all things
Of German origin, even pianos, Beethoven re-assigned
To being Belgian, Händel of course already British.

Somerset, too, was not immune to histrionic outbursts,
Outrage reported locally at special treatment rumoured
For German officers held prisoner at Sandhill Park,
The West Somerset Free Press an honourable exception.

It calmly countered wild-eyed reports about a German count,
Whose house near Croydon Hill was raided by policemen,
When he had left ahead of war, where they found nothing
To prove attempted sabotage or spying allegations.

While both sides accuse each other of bayonetting babies,
More thoughtful minds lack the enthusiasm of the mob
For peddling stories of atrocities and images of wanton
Destructiveness, always committed by barbaric foreigners.

After Diana’s death, how can we still congratulate ourselves
On our tolerance and tight control of feelings as a nation,
Believing that the panics of hate-filled, headless chickens,
Hysteria and histrionics, belong alone to foreign minds?

Disclaimer: The sequence of poems articulates purely personal views, which remain the sole responsibility of their author. They are not shared or endorsed by the Somerset Heritage Service. Wilf Deckner (Taunton, August 2013 – July 2014).

1. Warfare for Beginners – a poem

When Somerset commemorates with some solemnity
The hundredth anniversary of war being declared,
Remember it never looks the same to those caught up
In the excitement of their time, not knowing just
How many deaths will come, or only when it is too late.

In Germany, a youthful poet like Ernst Stadler, working
For friendship with the French poets of his day, signs up
To fight, and dies at Ypres three months into the war.
What is it that overthrows the better sense of individuals,
Their terrifying eagerness to heed war’s siren call?

Did Somerset foresee the public’s boastful talk of war
‘All over by this Christmas’ by January was true
For one million servicemen, who had been killed,
While others, having survived four years of war,
Were absent voters still, when new elections came?

Does Somerset remember its own recruitment drives?
With cheering crowds, with brass bands and applause,
War treated as a harvest shoot for bagging Huns
Instead of rabbits. No wonder fifteen hundred lads
Signed up each day, their courage born of ignorance.

In uniform, they marched in step singing of roses,
Quite unprepared for what they found in Picardy,
The rapid victory, bought with a glorious death,
Revealed as a delusion, a future dominated
By bloody slaughter and the inglorious mud.

When bells rang for rushed weddings, none knew
Who would return to muffled bells for funerals.
When men all disappeared, women would fill the breach,
Not knowing just how fast the growing rolls of honour
Were to be fed by corpses all over No Man’s Land.

Whatever Somerset remembers, it’s time to go beyond
The casual dismissal, “they know not what they do” –
To our shame our confidence, after the Falklands and Iraq,
May be misplaced, we wouldn’t fool ourselves like that:
With hindsight of a hundred years, we know not what we do!

Disclaimer: The sequence of poems articulates purely personal views, which remain the sole responsibility of their author. They are not shared or endorsed by the Somerset Heritage Service. Wilf Deckner (Taunton, August 2013 – July 2014).

1914 centenary – a personal response

Wilf Deckner was born in 1952 in Northern Germany. He came to the UK over 40 years ago and was educated at the universities of Manchester and Oxford. For the past twenty-odd years he has worked in the Somerset Library Service and now works as an assistant at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

Having serious misgivings over the apparent direction and tone of the coming World War One commemorations, almost a year ago he started writing a sequence of poems, entitled ‘What Somerset Remembers, What Somerset Forgets’.

Each of these pieces deals with an individual aspect of the war, employing a mix of narrative, lament and polemic to raise questions concerning the gap between reality and remembrance, between critical reflection and unthinking partisanship, in order to clarify his own position with regard to these issues, and in the hope that others, too, might find them of use in this respect, even if only in opposition to what they say.

What Somerset Remembers, What Somerset Forgets
Dedicated to the memory of Isaac Rosenberg (Bristol, November 1890 – April 1918, Fampoux/Arras)

“And some there be, which have no memorial”
(Apocrypha: Ecclesiasticus 44:9)

Prologue: Beyond Time and Place

In August 2014, when Somerset puts on display
Its documents and memorabilia, does Somerset
Remember what they’re not: merely exciting objects,
A sad and sobering sight instead, reeking of death,
A country’s headlong rush into collective madness
One hundred years ago? Does Somerset remember
To challenge us through an unflinching scrutiny,
Not smother painful insights with easy consolation?

In August 2014, does Somerset remember neither
Our reverence nor patriotism are enough
To grasp the consequences of war still felt today?
Does Somerset remember, assembling information
Becomes a pointless exercise, without an over-arching
Context to integrate these facts into a whole,
Whereas centenary events that don’t discomfort
Reduce remembrance to a worthless game?

In August 2014, does Somerset remember nothing
Beyond its boundaries, mistaking Tolstoy’s maxim,
“For true universality, speak of your village”,
To mean its memories make sense in isolation?
Does Somerset remember, its tragic local
Losses are mirrored in the senseless waste
Of human life on all sides of the conflict?

Does Somerset remember the war as a grim time
For Somerset, but worse for Europe’s nations,
On whose terrain the war was fought, enduring
Far heavier losses even amongst aggressors?
Or are we fated to begin this century
Just as disastrously as we began the last,
The memory of Europe’s tragedy again
Dishonoured in the telling, in August 2014?

Disclaimer: The sequence of poems articulates purely personal views, which remain the sole responsibility of their author. They are not shared or endorsed by the Somerset Heritage Service. Wilf Deckner (Taunton, August 2013 – July 2014).