‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

NOTES

This is a reply to Hausman’s poem previous. It maintains that the BEF were “professional murderers”. It is a political poem that takes an uncompromising communist stance on the events of 1914.

Hugh MacDiarmid: The pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve. MacDiarmid was a Scots communist who was disgusted by British participation in the First World War, which he saw as driven by nationalism and imperialism. He wrote this poem many years after the end of the war, in 1935.

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries: This is plainly a counter-argument to Housman’s poem concerning the BEF.

“It is a God-damned lie…”: This poem is defined by its sense of anger, towards the ‘mercenaries’ of the BEF.

“…knew, anything worth any man’s pride.”: MacDiarmid’s point of view is black-and-white, morally absolutist. He sees those who take money to fight as mercenaries (even though the B.E.F., whom this poem attacks, was the British army in 1914), and is utterly dismissive of the kind of men who served before the war. As a communist, he believed that to willingly fight for the capitalist state was to enslave yourself.

“professional murderers”: an extreme and troubling remark. MacDiarmid proposes that those who joined up willingly before the war were ‘professional murderers”. As Professor Tim Kendall asks on his excellent website, is this any better than being an ‘amateur murderer’, like the conscripts who came later? MacDiarmid seems to be making a distinction between the ‘principled’ fighter and the unprincipled soldier. This distinction is politically made: to MacDiarmid, the soldiers of the B.E.F. would have been willing policemen of the British Imperial State, and therefore worthy of contempt. It is a swingeing, absolutist view, and he does not mourn those who took “impious [unholy] risks and died”.

“some elements of worth / With difficulty persist here and there on Earth”: A grim view of Western civilization. MacDiarmid argues that these “elements of worth” are few and far between, and seems to be referring favourably those who share his political outlook. The creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 precipitated Russia’s exit from the war. MacDiarmid, a Stalinist, allies himself with communism and the communist state against “their kind”: the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the pre-war British Army.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: An interesting balancing point to Housman’s poem, Stallworthy seems to be ensuring that a radical critique of British culpability for the First World War is included in his anthology. Unusually for this collection, this poem looks back on the events of the First World War from some years after. It has the flavour of thirties political poetry- the kind of explicitly political poetry later written by the likes of John Cornford, though its bitter, angry tone about events decades past sets it apart even from much of this kind of political verse. This was when the world was being polarised by the competing ideologies of Nazism, Communism and Western Democracy. A year after this poem was written, the Spanish Civil War began and the battle between Fascism and its opponents began in earnest.]

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