War and Hell


Francis LedwidgeToday is the centenary of one of the worst battles–which is saying a lot–of WWI, the Battle of Passchendaele. In some quarters it is known as the Third Battle of Ypres, and you know it’s bad when a battle has multiple identities. According to Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory, the geniuses of the British High Command pulverized No-Man’s-Land with two solid weeks of day and night shelling, and then it bucketed rain for three days. When the British soldiers went over the top, men and horses drowned in the mud. 


Among those who died on day one was the Anglo-Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who was then anticipating a second volume of poetry. He was on a road-building detail, actually on a tea break from work, when an enemy shell landed in the trench he and five others were sitting in, and all were instantly killed. Ledwidge has become a favorite touchstone for Irish poets attempting to work out a tricky relationship with English and Irish influences. In “In Memory of Francis Ledwidge,” Seamus Heaney quotes the earlier poet’s lines, “To be called a British soldier while my country / Has no place among nations,” noting that he was killed six weeks later. He had already been at the Battle of Gallipoli where he suffered from rheumatism, then injured his back during a hard march through Serbia, was busted down from Lance Corporal and restored to rank more than once. His military career proved that war is no picnic, a mix of horrors and absurdity. How else could it have ended other than being blown to bits while drinking tea?