by Chris Murphy
How lucky is the American lot?
“Lest we forget,” those “Over there” who fought.
No lasting footprint in the Southwest states.
Telegram intercepted, its sender traced.
In 1917, British intelligence intercepted and decoded what is now remembered as the Zimmermann Telegram—a communication from the Germans to Mexico, which aimed to encourage Mexico to invade the United States and reclaim its former lands—particularly Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. And more importantly for the Germans, the plan would keep the Americans occupied at home and out of the war in Europe.
How different would our history look if, instead of joining into the fighting on the side of Britain, France, and Russia, Americans instead remembered The Great War as the defense of the Southwest?
I raise this question here not to offer some revisionist history, rather to highlight how one seemingly innocuous act—the sending of a letter—can change the entire course of history. But I also highlight this moment to show the historical distance that modern American students feel they must travel to understand the complexity of the war that happened, for the most part, “Over There.” (Click here to watch clips from the silent film Wings (1927) set to Arthur Fields’ rendition of “Over There.”)
For Americans, there is no Pearl Harbor moment that sparked almost unanimous, unequivocal support for American involvement beyond the Zimmermann Telegram. (The Lusitania, a civilian cruiser—which was carrying arms to Britain—was attacked by German U-boats off the coast of Ireland, but that event happened almost two years before to the U.S. officially entered the war.) And with the passing of the last U.S. veteran to serve in the war, Frank Buckles, in February 2011, The Great War has seemingly begun to fade from our national consciousness, overshadowed by more recent wars (or military operations) like World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and campaigns in Middle East.
Nevertheless, the reverberations of The Great War ripple across an eternally vast lake. In Europe, especially, national lines were altered, empires were toppled, an entire generation of people was lost, civilian unrest was provoked, fields were filled with the buried dead, the conditions that sparked the World War II were created, and some incredible poetry was written about the misery caused by this hellish conflict.
And a newly published collection, 1914: Poetry Remembers (Faber and Faber, 2013), edited by British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, aims to show how the poetry of the war echoes into present day. Duffy invited contemporary poets to select a poem they found personally influential from World War I poets, and respond to that poem with one of their own.
One of the poems commissioned for Duffy’s project is by Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and Nobel laureate (1995), whose death on August 30, 2013, was as sudden as it was shocking and unexpected.
Heaney’s poem, “In a Field,” to date, is the last known work completed by the poet (though, according to The Guardian, Heaney has left behind a wealth of unsorted documents). His poetic response is to Edward Thomas’ poem, “As the Team’s Head-Brass,” in which Thomas writes of a conversation between a farmer, who is plowing a field, and a soldier resting on a fallen tree. The two briefly chat about the war, people (and limbs) lost, a past blizzard, and together, the two imagine a “different world.”
Edward Thomas, a skilled essayist and journalist, was Anglo-Welsh (of Welsh ancestry, born in London, England), and entered into the realm
of writing poetry only at the request of his American friend, Robert Frost. And unlike many other World War I poets, Thomas was starkly different from many his fellow soldier—Thomas entered the war at the age of 37, leaving behind a wife and three (possibly four) children after he died at the Battle of Arras in France in 1917.
On October 25, 2013, shortly after Heaney’s death, Heaney’s response, “In a Field,” was authorized for publication in The Guardian newspaper. The poem itself returns to a similar farm scene as Edward Thomas’ poem.
Yet here, the speaker (possibly a child) investigates the freshly cut “furrows” (agricultural trenches) in the field, seeing them as a “boundary” to mark off the farm land—an act that seemingly connects this farm with the trenches that would serve as boundaries between armies throughout the war.
The speaker notices footprints which are “Bruising” the freshly ploughed farmland—the opened up earth and mud that would be so prescient in the memories of poets who served on the battlefields. It is then that an “unfamiliar” and demobilized (“de-mobbed”) soldier, still in uniform, arrives seemingly “from nowhere” in “khaki and buffed army boots.” The soldier takes the speaker by hand and leads him through the “old gate,” “where everyone has suddenly appeared / All standing waiting.”
And while this poem seems to offer a hopeful image of return—the soldier possibly being a father, brother, or relative unrecognizable to the child, after he returned from the war after a period of time—a reader must also consider the somber, more chilling thought that this poem might, too, echo in another world.
Does entering that “old gate” lead them home—or to a heavenly afterlife?