‘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.

NOTES

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.]