In the Trenches

‘When did it end?’

My students examine their copies of The Norton Anthology of Poetry while, outside, a snowplow rumbles up the street and then beeps as it backs up. I let it do another lap before I say anything.

‘What do we know about World War I?’

A student in the back, the one who wears a wool cap to hide his bedhead, raises his hand and mentions the name Franz Ferdinand. ‘He was the archduke who got shot in Sarajevo. That’s why the war started, right?’

Later in the semester I’ll learn that a popular band has named itself after this historical personality, but for now I’m nodding with enthusiasm. I’m delighted that one of them knows something-anything-about World War I. This war shaped the 20th century. It introduced us to flame-throwers, the tank, aerial combat, and more skeletons than the heart will ever allow us to count. It almost single-handedly made modernism the prevailing artistic movement of the day. And yet, in the United States, we don’t think about this war, perhaps because we are drawn to sequels that promise something that is bigger and better than the original. Maybe it has something to do with our late entry into the war or with how little American blood was shed in the trenches? Whatever the reason, as a story, it doesn’t hold us captive like World War II. I suspect that for most of my students the Great War is nothing more than Snoopy flying into battle on top of his doghouse, his guns blazing away at the Red Baron. That isn’t necessarily their fault, though, because, as a nation, we don’t care about the Great War. After all, it was only a warm-up for the real show against Nazi Germany.

The trenches were so gruesome that it took more than two years to exhume the dead from no-man’s-land and bury them in rows. Even today, farmers in Belgium and France unearth femurs and ribs and chunks of skull. Mixed among the stray bones in these battlefields are so many bullets, helmets, and belt buckles that the smell of rust hangs permanently on the morning dew.

The psychological wounds caused in the trenches took everyone by surprise. Many young men returned home safely, often without any marks on their bodies, yet they stared into the distance. Their limbs jerked for no apparent reason. They would lose their tempers and weep uncontrollably. In England they called this strange disease ‘ shell shock’ or ‘soldier’s heart’; some psychologists called it ‘anxiety neurosis,’ while others simply referred to it as ‘war strain.’ For those who couldn’t purge the demons, a lifetime of depression awaited.

The restorative power of words helped others to control their nightmares. The names of these writers are familiar to anyone who has tried to make sense of the Great War: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, Arthur Graeme West. And of course there is Wilfred Owen, that slight lieutenant from Shropshire who was killed only seven days before the industrialized slaughter finally, mercifully, came to an end in November 1918. He was only 25 when he was cut down at the Sambre-Oise Canal.

His most famous poem is easy to understand once you know something about trench life, mustard gas, and the utter weight of exhaustion the men had to endure. There is also the seductive charm of the Latin phrase that makes the final stanza click like a loaded gun. I’ve overheard my upperclassmen use this phrase in coffeehouse conversations as they discuss the current war in Iraq. Their eyes squint with irony. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (Loosely translated: It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.)

At nine in the morning, however, fueled only by Pop-Tarts and Mountain Dew, my first-year students are generally more interested in what’s happening on The Price Is Right. So we start with the basics. I mention how soldiers like Wilfred Owen were living in open graves and that the dead were scattered about in such fearsome quantities that protruding limbs were often used to hang rifles and jackets upon. One of my female students, a biology major ringed by a group of baseball players, makes a face. ‘Why didn’t they bury the dead? Weren’t they afraid of disease?’

A tall young man who makes sly jokes whenever possible raises his hand. His voice is serious. ‘How come they’re living in trenches anyway? I don’t get that.’

Those are all good questions, so I explain the stalemate on the Western front, how these great armies ground to a halt and were forced to dig in. Then I go out of my way to explain just how hideous the trenches were. Latrines often overflowed into sleeping dugouts, bathing was a luxury, and lice burrowed into everything: blankets, shirts, boots, underwear, armpits. The word ‘lousy’ was created in the trenches to describe anything that was flawed or useless.

‘Gas was something new and terrible,’ I add, coming around to the front of the podium. ‘It had a greenish-yellow color and smelled of garlic. If you were lucky, it blinded you for a week. If you were unlucky, it liquefied your lungs and then you died very slowly.’

I sit down in a chair and loosen my tie. Let’s forget about the academic stuff for a moment, I say. Imagine what it would be like to live in a trench, bullets zipping over your head. You’re scared, you’re hungry, you miss your family, you’ve seen your friends die in awful and surprising ways. We sometimes forget that history happens to real people, and that poetry is an emotional response to history. Do you see what I mean?

I’m no longer lecturing now, I’m talking to them, inviting their questions. In the give-and-take of our conversation I tell them about night duties that took the men into the pocked moonscape of no-man’s-land, and I mention just how bone-weary and ragged these soldiers were. Think about the last time that you were so tired you couldn’t think straight. That’s what these men had to deal with.

Then I mention how their advancing rows fell before machine guns as if they were snowflakes hitting the ground. I do this because I want my students to understand that these young men had lives similar to their own but, due to historical circumstance, found themselves marching into spurts of lead.

When I mention that Wilfred Owen was against the war because he viewed it as an unforgivable political mess, a thoughtful girl in the back-the one wearing a high school football jersey, the one who told me her boyfriend had just been deployed to Iraq-stares into my eyes. She doesn’t blink. It’s hard for me to tell if she’s angry at what I’ve just said or just agreeing with the sad repetition of history.

‘Let’s read this poem out loud,’ I say, opening my book. ‘Poetry needs to be heard.’ I point to the young man who makes sly jokes. ‘Would you mind reading this for us?’

Most of my students are hungry for experiences beyond the borders of South Dakota. These are smart kids who graduated at the top of their high school classes, and many of them have a robust curiosity about the world. We may be the 16th-largest state in the union, but there are fewer than a million residents here. This means that many of my students come from farming communities and almost all of them know someone in the military. During the Cold War it was here, amid prairie grass and herds of buffalo, that a field of Minuteman missiles bristled beneath the ground. On sunny days I can almost see their smoky trails arching toward the Kremlin.

I suppose you could say that Wilfred Owen’s poem isn’t a traditional war poem at all. This is not about an epic battle or bayonet charges into a volley of fire. No, we never actually see the enemy; we only see what the enemy is capable of doing to human bodies.

The poem begins with British soldiers, exhausted from their time at the front, moving to the rear for some rest. The Germans lob over a canister of mustard gas and, while most of the men manage to get their gas masks on in time, one soldier breathes in the poison and falls down, choking violently. The image of this man’s contorted face and the acidic disintegration of his lungs makes me catch my own breath every time I read it. The poem just haunts me. It’s as if Wilfred Owen has shown me a vision of hell, something that not even Dante or Milton could have come up with on their best day of writing.

After we discuss the plot of the poem I sit back in my chair. ‘Let’s dig a bit deeper. I’m interested to know what you think. Why did Owen write something like this anyway?’

They begin to talk quickly, and although no one specifically mentions Iraq the subtext is there, lurking beneath the surface, just like those Minuteman missiles. The girl bordered by baseball players wants to know if Owen is a coward. Others join in. I ask them to use lines from the poem to support their arguments. Soon, poetry fills the room and they begin to challenge and dispute and agree with each other.

‘Remember,’ I say during a lull, ‘the soldier in this poem has not died from a gas attack. He’s forever in the process of dying from a gas attack. Why do you think Owen wrote it this way?’

The young man with a laptop-he’s dressed in camouflage this morning-says that Owen wants us to know what war is really like, that it’s not glamorous or fun.

He’s right, of course. War continues long after peace treaties are signed. The dead get buried, the wounded get patched up, and nightmares get chained to the survivors. All wars are like this. It’s the one thing they have in common. I want my students to understand that wars never finish, not really. Memories have a long afterburn, and they pursue us into the future.

I mention that no one was prepared for the number of wounded men who came home from the war. They came home blind. They came home missing arms and legs. When cars backfired or when airplanes droned overhead, these men were instantly back in France.

I’m in the zone now, and I mention that the worst cases were shut away in hospital wards. They were called les gueules cassees-the smashed faces.

‘Their faces were deformed and gouged. These men had been turned into monsters. This is what Owen wants us to understand about war. Not the patriotic stuff. He wants us to be disgusted with the old lie; he wants to discomfort us.’

I look at the clock and realize we’re out of time.

‘One final thought,’ I say. ‘Going to war is easy. Coming back from war to a society that doesn’t understand what you’ve witnessed is much, much harder. Any questions?’

No one raises a hand, so I excuse them and they funnel out of the room, murmuring. I feel good because I know that I’ve made some kind of impact. An ember of pride warms itself deep inside me. Humility and modesty evaporate. This morning I have earned my right to call myself a teacher because my students have learned how to analyze a poem and how to place it into historical context. As I pick up my book bag the world seems crisp. The knowledge in my head shines into the darkness. Today, I am the wise man on the hill.

That’s when I notice the girl wearing the football jersey. She’s still there, reading the poem. Her lips intone those Latin words as she fingers her jersey. When she looks up at me her eyes are full of anger.

Outside, the snowplow rumbles up and down the parking lot. I sit at a desk and want to open up my heart to her. I want to reach out and touch her hand. ‘Are you OK, Rachel?’

‘How does this poem help me?’ she finally asks. ‘I’m already afraid for him. What good does this do me?’

I search for ways to answer her question. I grope for some scrap of knowledge that might offer reassurance, but instead I think of Wilfred Owen’s mother learning of her son’s death on the same day that peace was declared. As church bells swung and bonged from every steeple in England, as pints were raised in pubs, her son was dead on the banks of an insignificant river. And somewhere this evening, somewhere near the snowy headlands of Maine, flag-draped coffins are landing at secret airports. Somewhere in an Army hospital, mangled limbs and scorched skin are being plucked apart. My student is right. What are any of us supposed to do with a poem like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’? How are we to respond to its raw emotion? Perhaps this is why we, as a nation, don’t care about the narrative of the Great War. Maybe we don’t want to know about its dark horrors. Maybe we only want war stories that make us feel better about ourselves.

At a loss for an answer to her question, I do the same shameful thing that Europe did when millions of men just like Wilfred Owen failed to come home. I look at this young woman’s pain and I feel my shoulders, almost involuntarily, begin to shrug.

Patrick Hicks teaches creative writing at Augustana College in South Dakota. His latest book is The Kiss That Saved My Life (Red Dragonfly, 2007). Reprinted from the Florida Review (Spring 2007). Subscriptions: $15/yr. (2 issues) from Box 161346, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL 32816;

Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross designed and sewed the first American flag.

Ross ran an upholstery shop and sewed ships’ flags for the state of Pennsylvania, but there is no credible evidence that supports the flag story, which is based on a widely discredited account.

Germany ushered in the age of chemical warfare by using chlorine and mustard gases in World War I.

The world’s chemical arsenals have ancient origins. Peloponnesian warriors used sulfur-laden smoke to attack the city of Plataea, napalm-like ‘Greek Fire’ fended off Byzantium’s enemies, and toxic gases kept invaders at bay in China.

Slaves built Egypt’s Great Pyramids.

Pharaohs hired villagers to help their personal staffs haul the pyramid’s massive limestone blocks into position.

Salem ‘witches’ were burned at the stake.

The men and women found guilty of witchcraft were carted to a gallows and hanged. Death by fire was common in Europe’s witch hunts, but not in Salem’s.

The Dutch bought Manhattan from Indians for $24 worth of beads.

The Dutch may have given supplies-but no beads-to the Canarsie Indians and may have, in exchange, been promised rights
to Manhattan. But the Canarsies had no rights to Manhattan. The Weckquaesgeeks owned most of it, and warred with the Dutch for years until the Dutch exterminated most of them.

The famous Iwo Jima photograph and the sculpture it inspired show the moment when U.S. Marines first raised the U.S. flag on the Pacific island after defeating the Japanese in World War II.

The event captured in the iconic image was in fact the second flag raising. The first U.S. flag had been raised by a different group of Marines hours before

Many soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat on by peace activists.

Extensive research has turned up no confirmed accounts of soldiers being spat on. Although it can’t be disproved that such incidents occurred, the evidence casts strong doubt on any contention that they were common.

To read ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen, go to

Want more? Read the rest of Utne Reader‘s September / October package on history:

  • History Lessons
    What we’re taught and what’s ignored
    by Keith Goetzman
  • Can We Handle the Truth?
    America’s selective memory and massacres long since forgotten
    by Howard Zinn, from the book A Power Governments Cannot Suppress
  • Forgetting Hitler
    A growing number of young German Muslims lash out against Holocaust studies
    by Stacy Perman, from Guilt & Pleasure
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