Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries – A. E. Housman

‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.


This is a poem in praise of the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914— the professional British army that existed before the advent of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ of volunteers. The BEF was sent to France at the end of that year to fight against the Germans.

AE Housman: Housman was a famous late Victorian poet, who wrote the renowned pastoral collection, ‘A Shropshire Lad’. He wrote this poem in 1917.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries: Epitaphs are lines written on a grave, intended to commemorate the dead. ‘Mercenaries’ is a deliberately provocative word: these are the most despised sort of soldier, men who fight for money rather than country or honour. Housman utilises this word ironically, to subvert the language of German propaganda about the British army.

“…when heaven was falling”: An apocalyptic image: the end of the world. A description of the beginning of the war.

“followed their mercenary calling”: At the beginning of the war, Britain had a small army made up of those paid to fight, rather than the massive armies of conscripts that made up the German, French and Russian armies. This meant that on the outbreak of war, the average member of the BEF was a better soldier than his opposite (famously, at the Battle of Mons, the retreating BEF’s rifle firing rate was so fast that German troops thought they were facing machine guns); but he was also massively outnumbered. German propaganda called the professionals of the British Army mercenaries as an obvious insult: Housman takes up the insult ironically.

“…took their wages and they are dead”: a literal statement. The 120,000 BEF soldiers were more or less wiped out by 1916. ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ was published in The Times in 1917, three years after the First Battle of Ypres, where so many of the BEF were killed. The lines recall the Biblical axiom “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

“Their shoulders held the sky suspended”: the soldiers are compared to Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek legend. Note the sibilance here, found throughout the poem.

“They stood, and earth’s foundations stay”: the BEF stood their ground, and thus saved Britain. Indeed, the German failure to press home their advantage against the BEF was even credited after the war by one German general for helping to halt their advance towards Paris.

“What God abandoned, these defended”: In a Godless world, the soldiers- the ‘mercenaries’- were those who defended the nation.

“And saved the sum of things for pay.”: it was for pay that the ‘mercenaries’ of the BEF saved the country as a whole (‘the sum of things’). Housman returns to the metaphor of wages and payment, reminding us that the British soldiers’ ultimate payment, or wages, was death.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that directly addresses one of the earliest British actions of the war. Stallworthy introduces here a poem that reflects on the bloody passage of the early months of the war, and the sacrifices made by the BEF.]

15 thoughts on “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries – A. E. Housman”

  1. I personally like this poem a lot; I love the ambiguity and irony used in the title, ‘Epitaph on an army of mercenaries’. I like that fact that one way you could take the poem would be that the mercenaries would take what they did (murdering people) to their grave with them.The use of apocalyptic imagery in the first line gives the audience an insight into what the war was like.

  2. I disagree with Toni here. I think the irony and ambiguity makes the poem very confusing to the reader and could be read in many ways.

  3. I think that the confusion that some people may find from reading the poem is what makes the poem so enjoyable, the confusion and mysteriousness of the irony makes the reader not have a clear answer so there will always be that other opionion so like a ‘what if’ personally i think this makes the poem even more exhilirating.

  4. I disagree again I find that the confusion makes the poem less literal. It could be argued that literal poems are more simplistic and simpleness is a quality A.E. Housman lacks in this poem. I think a more literal and simplistic take on the poem would have been a better option. I think @Toni is more of a modernist which is fine but not a good take on a world war one poem.

  5. I wonder how many of those who criticise this poem have actually faced an enemy in battle.
    I am reminded of Kipling’s lines, “It’s Tommy this and Tommy that and kick him out the brute, But it’s saviour of his country when the guns begin to shoot”
    If it’s true to say that the hired soldier who fights for pay is the most despised of all then where do other professionals stand? Accountants, lawyers and doctors are well respected because of their professions and they are also highly paid.
    I have an advantage; I have been a soldier, I have faced enemy fire and not been able to shoot back.

  6. No soldier who knows the story of this poem finds it in any way ambiguous – or in any way a criticism of the BEF or the military.

  7. This poem is illustrative of how without knowledge of historical context a poem can be completely misread. Some late twentieth-century interpretors, ignorant of the context, have found in it a condemnation of the British Army, and – since today sincerity of this sort is so rare unless it masks some irony – interpreted along lines congenial to our current literary sensibility. This is called bad interpretation. This poem was published in a newspaper in response to claims by German propagandists, also published in newspapers, that the British Army was composed of mercenaries. There is irony in it of course – but the target of the irony is not the British – who are called mercenaries, but the German who make that claim. The poem demonstrates the absurdity of calling them mercenaries – look at this line: ‘And took their wages and are dead.’ – In a way, even if they were mercenaries, some of them, this poem glorifies them: it states that, regardless of their motives, no recompense can equal the ultimate price they were willing to pay.

  8. Knowing that irony is in effect the opposite of what is actually said, the irony in this poem stems mainly from the connotations that the word “mercenaries” evokes. Disloyal and cruel are two of the first words that jump to my mind when I hear the term. Taking the opposite of these terms, the poem shows irony through the loyal-even-unto-death men who, with their sacrifice and selflessness, took the weight of the world on themselves and saved the humanity. The Germans were using the connotation to bad-mouth these men and the Brits. The Germans understood the power of word choices and knew how to persuade people. Housman took the term and reminded people of the denotative meaning. Housman forced people to reconsider their opinions of what a mercenary was. He has sure made me rethink my understanding of it.

  9. I see it more in terms of Housman’s Classical themes: the fœderati of the later days of the Western Empire, who defended the Empire against other ‘Barbarians’; or perhaps the Varangian Guard in the East.

    1. mmgilchrist – Thank you for this. Of course, Britain should never have entered the war – especially on the shallow, flawed premise of “honour”. These men took the king’s shilling, but their success at helping stop the German army in 1914 led to the fall of the British Empire, and the deaths of 1.7 million British and Empire men over the next 31 years.

      That is what makes the tragedy of the “Old Contemptibles” so sad: it paved the way for a catastrophic loss of men to no purpose, save that of political hubris.

      Hochschild wrote, of the aftermath of the Great War:

      ” A stunned world had never experienced anything like this. In some countries for years afterward, on November 11th, traffic, assembly lines, even underground mining machinery came to a halt at 11 a.m. for two minutes of silence, a silence often broken, witnesses from the 1920s reported, by the sound of women sobbing.”


      For those who wish to understand what happened to Britain in that time, one could do worse than read “To End All Wars”, by Adam Hochschild.

  10. This is an epitaph. Nil nisi bonum. In the end, what do you do for money? These men stood, fought, and died true to their salt and duty for pay. That they were poorly used by the high command, derided by the people they fought for, and died in a brutal war does not matter. “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night”

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