Can Europe Make It?

The poetry in the pity

War remembrance is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of art in the western tradition. Our literary culture begins with the legacy of how to remember and commemorate a war to end all wars.

Nicolas de Warren
15 December 2014
Austrian tombstone showing Achilles with the dead Hector.

Austrian tombstone showing Achilles with the dead Hector. Johann Jaritz/ Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever? - The Iliad

I don’t think these shell-shocked poems will move our grandchildren greatly—there’s nothing fundamental or final about them. - Sir Henry Newbolt

The last of those whose voice could still speak to us directly about the war to end all wars died on May 5, 2011. With the death of Claude Choules, who enlisted with the Royal Navy in 1915 at age 14, the final combat veteran of the First World War has been laid to rest in peace.

We thus stand alone to shoulder even more vigilantly the cause of remembrance and commemoration against the ebbing of the First World War into oblivion or obsolescence, now that the living voices of those who were there are all irrevocably silent.

As human beings whose existence is marked and marred by time, our relation to the past is variable, yet it turns on the fundamental challenge of how the past can still be present for us. Historical remembrance is as much a question of how the living speak of the dead as it is a question of how the dead speak to the living as it is a question of how the living can speak for the dead.

If every society chooses its dead, as with the decision of societies to wage war, it is perhaps the only saving grace of history that no society can ever be done with how the dead—its dead—will come to speak for the living. With the First World War, this communion between the living and the dead was especially fraught from the beginning with an impending sense of impossibility.

As the writer Henry James grasped in 1915: “The plunge of civilization into this abyss of blood and darkness […] is too tragic for any words.” Bereft of words, how are we to remember? Without remembrance, how are we to speak?

Of the many grim creations produced during the First World War, its most revealing was the forging of a word that has since become synonymous with the war itself. Although the phenomenon that came to be known as “shell shock” extends through the history of warfare (known under various names as estar roto, maladie du pays, Heimweh and Da Costa’s Symdrome) and circulated during the First World War with other designations (war psychosis, battle fatigue, neurasthenia, and nervous shock), the term “shell shock” immediately communicates images of the hopeless gaze of men turned to stone, the incontrollable spasms of damaged bodies (as preserved in a British Pathé film of patients from Seale Hayne Hospital) and the disfigured souls of the aftermath (as portrayed in the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz).  

The term was first coined in 1915 by a British Medical Officer, Captain Charles Myers, who, in an article for the journal The Lancet, recorded a variety of physical and mental disturbances among three soldiers exposed to artillery fire. The term quickly came to embrace a wider range of cases: soldiers exhibited shell shock who were not direct casualties of an explosion or did not even witness actual combat (as was probably the case with the poet Antonin Artaud). In its broadest extension, “shell shock” (in English) became a compelling metaphor for the deeper cultural and wider social imprint of the trauma of the war.

Every trauma, as Freud extensively reflected upon, has two times that separate and complicate the relation between an original shock, or catastrophe, and its enduring affect, or unbearable aftermath; the traumatic is a disjointed time, a time out of joint. There is the time of the shock without affect—“the Horror,” whose truth, in the form of its affect and effect, is displaced and deferred.

Then there is the time of the affect without shock, an echo that precedes the resonance of the thunder. Traumatic affects (anxiety, aggression, etc.) and effects (psychological disturbances, loss of sleep, etc.) seem to operate in a context of their own, at once masking and revealing their origin in an experience that eternally insists on returning.

The traumatic past remains ever-present as if frozen in time by the force of its own shock, and yet its after-effects have been ejected from the past into another present that cannot be fully lived on its own. Once the thousand ships have launched, war never ends; for none who have sailed ever come home again as who they once were.

It is therefore no wonder that the term itself was charged with so much ambiguity. The profusion of symptoms associated with shell shock gave rise to much confusion and consternation during the war, much of which still persists today with the challenge of properly recognizing and caring for what has since the 1980s been designated as PTSD among veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The term “shell shock” (and its cognates) oscillated between medical diagnosis, moral judgment, and metaphysical meaning. In the British army, soldiers who suffered physical wounds with shell-shock were marked with a “W”—thus earning them a “wound stripe”—whereas soldiers without visible physical injury were marked, as with a Scarlet Letter, with an “S.” Treatment of shell shock was as varied, ranging from electro-shock sessions, body massages, “talk-therapy,” and hypnosis.

Many of the 306 British soldiers executed for “desertion” and “cowardice” during the war (the same was prevalent in other armies) most likely suffered from undiagnosed or unaccepted shell shock (in 2006, the British government pardoned all 306). As the French General Mireau declares in Stanley Kubrick’s 1958 film Paths of Glory (not allowed to be shown in Germany until 1960, in France until 1975, and in Spain until 1986): “There is no such thing as shell shock!”


Guillaume Apollinaire, soldier, in spring 1916 after his shrapnel wound to the temple.

Guillaume Apollinaire, soldier, spring 1916, after shrapnel wound to the temple. Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.It is arguably in the arts that the phenomenon of shell shock found its most far-sighted expression. A list of poets, writers, and artists who suffered shell-shock (Guillaume Apollinaire, Antonin Artaud, Georg Trakl, Blaise Cendrars, Oskar Kokoschka and others) would reach across the entire spectrum of aesthetic modernism. In Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Survivor, shell shock is evoked with his characteristic irony as a three-fold trauma of language, the body, and remembrance: “stammering, disconnected” speech, disjointed bodily movements, and the recurrence of traumatic memories that foreclose the genuine possibility of a future as a presence other than the past.

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and train

Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.

Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’ –

These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.

They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed

Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died.


War remembrance is one of the oldest and most enduring forms of art in the western tradition. Our basic conception of ourselves as a literary culture begins with the legacy of how to remember and commemorate a war to end all wars. In Homer’s The Iliad, the muses sing of the great deeds of warriors, of the rage of Achilles in particular, and of the epic struggle between the Achaeans and the Trojans. Its war music is an anthem for doomed youth in which language, the body, and remembrance are central to its commemoration. Even as it gives voice to the great deeds of heroic warriors, The Iliad brings forth a wide cast of characters, great and small, and not only the warriors whose struggles are vividly evoked, but also the fathers, mothers, and wives drawn into the apocalypse of war. Aside from its principal heroes, The Iliad paints a portrait of a vast killing field of ordinary men, with no less than 252 individual descriptions of combat fatalities, each death given in sharp profile (speared in the nose, sword in the gut, speared through the head …).

Such precise accounts crystallize the carnal brutality of war around the name—and hence face—of each individual (Echepolus, Leucus, Peirous … ). The Iliad, however, does not just preserve the names of those who, from the opening of the poem’s narrative, are going to have died (to appropriate here Geoff Dyer’s fine expression); it equally preserves the lives of those who have gone to die, thus redeeming the death of each from anonymity and oblivion. With every death, something irreplaceable of the world perishes.

Meriones in turn killed Phereklos, son of Harmonides,
the smith, who understood how to make with his hand all intricate
things, since above all others Pallas Athene had loved him.

Commemorating the lives of those who have died is inseparable from a proper consecration of the body to remembrance. In Homeric-Greek mythology, without a proper funeral for the body, a fallen warrior cannot be united with his departed soul in Hades and is thus condemned to the oblivion of namelessness. When Priam—the King of Troy and father of Hector—beseeches Achilles to return his son’s corpse for a proper burial after its brutal desecration, Achilles is seized by a pity that announces his own mortality while at the same time it reveals the true subject of war to be the pity of war.

As the British poet Wilfred Owen would echo in the unfinished preface to his own war poems, written just before his death in 1918: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.”

Even as The Iliad opens as song about the Rage of Achilles, it closes with the Pity of Achilles. Homer’s poetry evokes heroes, deeds, lands, and glory, but what we discover in its poetry is the pity of Achilles for Priam, and more inclusively, the grief of Priam for his son, of Andromache for her husband, of a nation for their dead. In this commemoration for the dead, there is neither victory nor defeat, neither us nor them, but a common consecration and silent communion between the living and the dead in which both the Achaeans and Trojans participate.

Now the sun of a new day struck on the ploughlands, rising
out of the quiet water and the deep stream of the ocean
to climb the sky. The Trojans assembled together. They found
it hard to recognize each individual dead man;
but with water they washed away the blood that was on them
and as they wept warm tears they lifted them on to the wagons.
But great Priam would not let them cry out; and in silence
they piled the bodies upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow,
and burned them upon the fire, and went back to sacred Ilion.
In the same way on the other side the strong-greaved Achaians
piled their own slain upon the pyre, with their hearts in sorrow,
and burned them upon the fire, and went-back to their hollow vessels. 

The Anzac war cemetery on Gallipoli was built with stone from a Turkish quarry that, as legend has it, was of the same kind as those stones that built the mighty walls of Troy, and—one may freely wonder—whatever stone monuments or plinths were erected for their dead, but which stand no more.

These stones are gone, long washed away to other shores, yet the monument of its poetry endures. If the true subject of war is pity, then the true subject of The Iliad is also remembrance. Its remembrance and commemoration give voice to silence through a continuous oral tradition of performance (extended in the act of reading) and hence collective memory.

This performance of remembrance is reflected within The Iliad in the figure of the warrior-poet Achilles, who himself sings in commemoration and remembrance for his fallen brother in arms and lover, Patroclus. Achilles’ lament mirrors Andromache’s lament for her husband Hector, establishing a communion in grief that cuts across any division between us and them, past and future. Indeed, in the elegies of both, as with the elegies of all poets who are truthful to war, we hear a single song against what Wilfred Owen identified as war’s most pervasive and pernicious consequence: Insensitivity.  

By choice they made themselves immune

To pity and whatever moans in man

Before the last sea and the hapless stars;

Whatever moans when many leave these shores;

Whatever shares

The eternal reciprocity of tears.

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