Pro patria mori (to die for one’s country)

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, completed in March 1919Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, completed in March 1919

The Battle of Passchendaele in northern Belgium (31 July to 10 November 1917) was one of the bloodiest of the First World War. To mark the centenary, Nick Dobson will be exploring Great War poets and artists at Wanstead Library this month

In July 1918 Wilfred Owen wrote a preface for the book of poetry he was planning to publish: "Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity."

None of the soldier poets and soldier artists who experienced the Western Front at first hand could help but be moved by the pity of war. The horror is the overriding theme of their work. For some, war presented them with a subject for their greatest work. The poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, for example, never reached such heights of passion in either his pre-war or post-war poems.

For many, the Great War affected more than just their work. Some never returned from the conflict, such as the poet and artist Isaac Rosenberg, the British female artist Nina Baird – who died of typhoid on active service in North Africa – the poet Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen himself, who was killed in action just one week before the bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice.

Others lived with both the physical and mental scars inflicted during the war and some couldn't cope. The poet and composer Ivor Gurney spent most of the rest of his life in mental institutions until his death in 1937 aged just 47. The great British surrealist painter Paul Nash struggled with bouts of depression due to his experiences.

Even those lightly touched by war could never forget the horror or block out the nightmares. Examples include the poet Edmund Blunden, who served as an officer in France from August 1915 until the end without a scratch, and the great American artist John Singer Sargent, who was briefly commissioned as an official war artist. All were concerned with the pity of war.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. —
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

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,
Obscene as cancer, 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.

Nick's presentation will take place at Wanstead Library on 25 July from 6.30pm to 8pm (tickets: £3). For more information, call 020 8708 2409

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