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Dona Nobis Pacem

My Blog Blast for Peace posts always seem to say as much about war as about peace. I’ll blame it on the research I’ve done for my writing. The more I learn about the tragic loss of human potential that is war, the more I feel that there is no better argument for peace.

Most of my research has been on the Great War. It will soon be a hundred years since Europe erupted in the most catastrophic conflict the world had ever known. There are memorials to the fallen in nearly every city, town and village here in Canada and overseas, but a century later, these tributes are all we have. The men themselves have passed from living memory – except for the few who left more than their names, who left something to remind us of what they might have become had they lived. Those few send a powerful message through time: “Never again.”

Early this summer, I discovered one of those rare soldiers. Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson was English, a member of the 9th Devon regiment. He enlisted when the war began in 1914. Already an accomplished writer, he was a regular contributor to a weekly newspaper, the New Witness, during his war service. His poetry poignantly expressed the feelings and reactions of a generation of young men who were forced to endure the unendurable.

Lieutenant Hodgson acquitted himself well in battle. By the spring of 1916, he’d been mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross for bravery on the battlefield. Meanwhile he continued to write, to leave a legacy for future generations.

In late June of 1916, the 9th Devons were entrenched near Mametz, France, where they spent nine days waiting to be sent over the top against German machine guns in the Battle of the Somme. Heavy casualties were inevitable. On one of those summer evenings Lieutenant Hodgson penned a poem he called Before Action, and arranged for it to be posted back to England. On July 1st, in the opening hours of the offensive, he was killed instantly by a bullet to the neck. He was 23.

BEFORE ACTION

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.

Legend has it that Hodgson wrote the poem on the last night of his life, but there is no proof of that. Help me to die. A premonition, or the natural fear and longing of a young man about to go into battle against heavy odds? We’ll never know, but the words still ring true. They speak for peace as only a soldier could. I discovered Before Action back in June by following a Twitter link, and after reading it I knew I had to use it for this year’s peace post.

Lucy Maud Montgomery said through the character of Walter Blythe, a budding poet killed in the Great War:  “I will never write the poems I would have written – but someone else will.”  Perhaps, but I can’t help wishing that William Noel Hodgson had lived to write his poems himself.

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