The Poetry of War: Remembering America's 100th Anniversary of the Great War

There is a certain poetry that comes out of war. Both the horrible beauty of a scene, a scene mixed with the horror of carnage and the beauty of valor, but also a clearer view and deeper understanding of such things as patriotism and folly, victory and grief, courage and cowardice. So many extremes at the same time. Poetry in actions, poetry in words.

Some of the greatest writers have received inspiration from their own war experiences: Ernest Hemingway, an ambulance driver in Italy during World War One; Leo Tolstoy, a Russian soldier who watched absolute desolation at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War; and one of my favorites, but probably not the most famous, H.C. McNeile (Bulldog Drummond) a Sapper/Engineer in World War One. There are numerous others.  

I got on this train of thought after realizing that today marks the 100th anniversary of America's entrance into World War One. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. It was a great and horrific war. But it was not the war to end all wars. I believe, however, that out of this war have come some of the most desperately beautiful works of poetry and art ever written, poetry that describes the anguishing soul of a nation. 

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Excerpt from: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon (1914)

This is a well known one. I'd heard it many times before, but the first time it rang most true for me was when I was standing in the Polish War Cemetery in Normandy a few years ago, with a dozen or so true Englishmen; some of them veterans of WWII, a few from more recent conflicts, and then some who were just patriots that loved their country. With a husky voice or a moist eye, they were not there to remember their own, but to remember their gallant Polish Allies of World War Two, who, without a country, had fought bravely, against odds uncounted.

A line out of this touching poem, The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke, can be found on the grave of at least one Englishman in nearly every English cemetery:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
     Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
     In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke died shortly after writing this poem, on April 23, 1915, but he left behind a deeply stirring and patriotic work of art. Replace England with the name of your country or state, and it would be a beautiful tribute for any gravestone of a fallen serviceman.

As moving as the above poems are, knowing what we know now about World War One, some of them are down right depressing. Not so much because they are gloomy, but because of the false sense of patriotism they gave, proclaiming the cause to be a just and noble one when the truth was quite the opposite. 

Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by. 
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to calvary.

Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
Gives somewhere back the thoughts of England given;
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave

With souls unpurged and and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death
And for each one, far off, apart, 
Seven swords have rent a woman's heart

The Marching Men, by Marjorie Pickthall,


Millions killed worldwide, it was in truth one of the greatest disasters and wholesale slaughters of an entire generation of young men. Young men who died for old men's wars, says "Requiem for a Soldier." We know this now, but how hard must it have been for the soldiers who returned from France, missing limbs, suffering burns from poisonous gas, or asking the age-old question, "Why them and not me?" surmounted by the even greater question, "For what cause?"

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Hamilton Sorley

Two German soldiers, a donkey, and their gas-masks. 1917

Two German soldiers, a donkey, and their gas-masks. 1917

I don't pretend to be anything near a scholar of poetry, especially World War One poetry. But even as a layperson, I cannot help but be moved by the works of art written in times of war. Everything about war is a superlative. The hardest questions that can be asked are laid before man. Questions of right and wrong. What is the difference between murder and protecting your homeland? To sacrifice a small group of soldiers in exchange for a great victory? Is this moral? What makes the enemy wrong? Is he not fighting for the same reasons you are? What are we fighting for? These are questions that each of the poets of World War One asked. Looking back at history, we think we know the answers to them all. But do we really?

But putting aside the controversy, the truth is that some of the most inspiring poetry of devotion and love for country was written in World War One. Penned in the trenches, hospitals, and staff-offices, the words of Owen, Binyon, Brooke, and Sassoon are with us today (whether we realize it or not), in our writings, speeches, and on the graves of countless English and American servicemen as a lasting epitaph for their sacrifice. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Field by John McCrae

"Where were you on December 7?"

"The Punchbowl Cemetery" (National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) in Hawaii

Everyone my age knows where they were when the Twin Towers were attacked. Pretty much everyone my parents' age can remember what they were doing when President Reagan was shot. And if you ask anyone over the age of 75, they will no doubt be able to tell you where they were when they heard Pearl Harbor was bombed. This is a favorite question of mine to ask. The answers are as diverse as they are interesting. The last couple of days I have made a few phone calls to veterans around the country to ask them where they were on December 7, 1941.

One Marine told me that at the time his family was living in the Panama Canal zone where his father worked as a civilian contractor on the American base there. Coming out of church Sunday morning, they were disturbed to hear every siren, bell, horn, and whistle in the Canal zone going off. As the Military personnel dashed to their respective places, he spotted a Marine in brilliant dress blues run by. Only age 15 at the time, he determined he would enlist in the Marine Corps and wear that uniform. He never got the uniform, but he did join the Marines and go on to fight at Iwo Jima. 

One Korean War vet told me he was 11 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Like many others, he’d never heard of the place before, so for the rest of the war, he closely followed the fighting in the Pacific and European theatres on a large map of the world.

Another friend didn’t find out until the Monday afterward. He was working in his family’s fields when a neighbor came over to tell them the news. They didn’t have a radio in the house, so they piled into their little car to hear the latest bulletins on the car radio. 

There are countless other stories like these. Of course, the stories from the Pearl Harbor survivors themselves are some of the most interesting. Hearing why they had joined up in the first place to serve in peace time, what they were doing the days prior to the infamous bombing, and what happened to them next. 

Tomorrow, we remember the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So tonight, the girls and I are driving up to Dallas so we can spend the day hearing many more accounts like these at a Pearl Harbor memorial event. We look forward to sharing some of the stories with you afterward. 

June 6, 1944

On this day every year our thoughts and hearts are full as we think of the brave lads who took part in the invasion of Normandy. We have many friends who landed on the beaches, scaled the cliffs, or were dropped in by C-47 all in the early hours of June 6, 1944 and are now here to tell the tales of bravery and sacrifice of their comrades. 

But we also have many friends who did not make it. Some of them went through months of hard training only to be killed moments after landing. They are now buried in the beautiful yet somber cemetery off of Omaha Beach. This may seem strange to say since we are separated by 72 years, a full lifetime. But reading of their stories, learning about their lives growing up on the farms out west or in the emigrant-crammed cities of the east we feel like we know them; that they are our friends. When we talk to the men that were right beside them as they took the bullet that would put a gold star in a mother's window, we feel like we have lost a childhood friend. 

Tears come to our eyes as we realize the only son of an emigrant family won't come back to carry on the family name in the land of opportunity that his parents dreamed about all their lives. Handsome Frank Draper, brothers Bedford and Raymond Hoback, and 17 other friends from the same small town in Virginia, all killed in the early hours of DDay. They never knew us, but we know them. They were our friends, and we will never forget them because their names are etched in our minds. 

D-DAY is a solemn day, but also a joyous day. Because of the sacrifices made that day, giving the allies a foothold in France, the hope and freedom of all of Europe was secured.

Frank Buckles: America's Last Doughboy

Near the end of January, 2011, I was sitting in one of my Dad's annual business and planning meetings. It had been an interesting but long day. To pass the last hour or so, I decided to read some of the headlines in the news. One of them stuck out particularly to me. I read that America's last WWI doughboy was about to turn 110. His name was Frank Buckles. Wow. How incredible. Just putting aside the shear remarkable health he was in at 110, he was also a veteran of the Great War. The so called "War to End All Wars." Right then and there I decided to meet him. I had to. 

The next few weeks I researched him, his life, his military career, etc. I also prepared a letter to send to him, asking for permission to visit. 

Dear Mr. Buckles,

My name is Liberty Phillips. I am 14 years old... I live in San Antonio, Texas with my seven brothers and sisters. Joshua, Justice, Jubilee, Faith, Honor, Providence, and Virginia Hope. All of my life, my father and mother have brought me and my siblings up on a great love for history and its impact on the modern culture around us. 

(I talked about the history documentaries my dad had made on WWII and how that had influenced me to learn more.) 

...My father has often impressed upon us how little time on earth we have, and that every year more veterans from past wars die. Understanding this, when I read that it was your 110th birthday, I was reminded that when my father and brothers were on Iwo Jima, they met a WWII vet named Marvin Perrett who was a Coastie during the war. They got to know each other pretty well, and when visiting the WWII Museum in New Orleans a year ago, we looked for Marvin Perrett only to find he had died shortly before. This was a reminder for me of how fleeting life is, and since we are going to Normandy in June, I thought this would be a prime time. Maybe if this worked out, I could film you giving a message from a WWI vet to the WWII vets that my dad could show in Normandy. 

I would forever be in your gratitude if you would allow my brother and me to do this. I have met many WWII veterans, and have been so blessed by it, and would be exceedingly blessed to meet you, the last WWI veteran, before time runs out.... Forever in your gratitude for what you did for our country, Liberty Phillips

Well, to my great sadness, time did run out before there was an opportunity to meet him. On February 27, 2011, right as I was about to send my letter, Corporal Frank Buckles passed away. 

My dad later wrote about it: 

Several months ago, I discovered that my dear daughter Liberty had been secretly working with her mother on a surprise for me. Knowing her father’s passion for history and desire to cultivate a culture of honor, Liberty’s hope was to meet Frank Buckles, World War I’s last living American doughboy, to interview him, and to share his story with others.

Liberty watched me make The League of Grateful Sons, and she has stood beside me for ten years as I worked with the Faith of Our Fathers Project. She understands that the mission of this effort is to demonstrate our commitment to the Fifth Commandment in the context of showing honor to the heroic fathers of the World War II generation. Liberty has taken this vision into her heart, and she hoped to reach back one generation further and meet World War I’s last remaining U.S. veteran.

So, with the encouragement of her mother, Liberty spent weeks researching the story of Mr. Buckles. She then came to me with her surprise project of honor and asked if she could complete the mission by visiting this unusual man who was such an important link to our nation’s providential past. How encouraged I was! I gave Liberty my blessing, and she prepared to make the trip with her mother to see Mr. Buckles. But just days later, he died. My dear daughter was never able to complete her mission of honor. That broke my heart. It saddened me that she was never able to meet this veteran and to speak to him about the Lord Jesus Christ. We missed our window of opportunity with Mr. Buckles. We waited too long. . .

A few months later, when our family was preparing for our first trip to Normandy for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, I read another article in the news and sent it with this note to my dad:

Dear Dad,
It turns out I missed out on more than just meeting and interviewing Frank Buckles. Look what just came in: "
Veteran Claude Choules's death breaks last link to World War I: ...The Australian Defence Force said Mr. Choules became the last surviving WWI serviceman following the death earlier this year of American Frank Buckles."

It means even more to me now, Dad, that we are taking advantage of this opportunity to honor the WWII vets in Normandy in a few weeks. Thank you for having this vision and giving us this opportunity.  On a side note, Claude Choule was 14 when he joined and of course, as you know, I'm 14 right now. It just makes me think about life a little differently.

February 27, 2016 was the 5 year anniversary of the passing of Corporal Frank Buckles, America's last doughboy, and the veteran I came so close to meeting. A lot has happened in the last five years, but my family's drive to honor the men who served our country so well has only become more serious as time goes on and the urgency increases. You could say that the passing of Frank Buckles was my first real awakening to the brevity of life we have with our dear veterans. Though I'd met many veterans before, I'd never experienced the impermanence so personally. 

Though I missed a rare opportunity, I think that the passing of Frank Buckles prepared me and taught me to better appreciate the events we experienced that summer as we traveled with several dear WWII veterans who willingly shared stories and tears as they traveled back to their battlegrounds for the first time in 67 years. And for everything else since then.