Publikshed in Soildarity 350, 21 January 2015:
During the 1914-18 war, well over 2,000 people wrote published poetry in the UK. Most of them were not soldiers writing from the trenches.
The “soldier poets” such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spoke eloquently of the suffering in the trenches to a British public still being told of the war’s glory by their rulers. Rightly, their poetry is getting plenty of attention in the centenary of that war.
But what of the poets on the home front? Many also speak eloquently, of the harsh realities of the war for those back home.
This poem articulates the anguish of women whose sons went to war to die. It is not just a cry of fear and bereavement, though, but a political dissection of those who sent them and what they stood for.
O Liberty, we have given up our sons!
Let it not be in vain!
They in their lovely youth by steel and guns
Are miserably slain.
We who approve it not have given to war
That which was born of passion and long pain;
O Liberty, we ask than this no more
That it be not in vain!
O Liberty, men use thy name for death,
Blindly blaspheming thee:
Each nation shouts thy glory in a breath,
But we, unfrenzied we,
Whose passion burns in sorrow, watch and wait,
And by deep grief’s remorseless vision see
Truth, undisguised by fear’s distorting hate,
Naked, and stern, and free.
O Liberty, have all men loved thy name
In days of peace gone by?
Have not some put thy prophets to foul shame
who for thy sake did cry
For freedom’s justice: those who bawl now “Slay
The threatening Fiend!” … and send our sons to die
And kill the innocent? what shall these pay
Whose offence stinks most high?
O Liberty, for all our crucified,
We pray the overthrow
Of greed, oppression, lust, fat-bellied pride;
These stalk the world with woe!
We do believe that men shall see the face
At last, by hell’s glare, of their common foe!
We do believe by love’s compassionate grace
Another world shall grow!
Therefore, O Liberty, though we now weep,
We deem it not in vain!
The precipice of death is dark and steep,
Yet from our darling slain
We see at last a resurrected God, and cry
“Their death shall be new life! Immortal gain!
O, innocent, but not in vain they die!
It cannot be in vain!”
Irene Rutherford McLeod. Published in The Woman’s Dreadnought, Christmas 1916