April 21st

John Gardner’s recent note sent me looking through Gilbert Frankau’s Poetical Works, and I found this grim reminder of an anniversary. It’s the sort of war poem that doesn’t usually get into the anthologies, so I thought I’d make it available here.

Poison

(21st April 1919)

(At Ypres, on April the 21st, 1915, the Huns made their first gas attack.)

Forget,and forgive them – you say
War’s bitterness passes;
Wild rose wreaths the gun-pit today,
Where the trench was, young grass is;
Forget and forgive:
Let them live.

Forgive them – you say – and forget;
Since struggle is finished,
Shake hands, be at peace, square the debt,
Let old hates be diminished;
Abandon blockade:
Let them trade.

Fools! Shall the pard trade his skin
Or cleanse one spot from it?
As the letcher returns to his sin
So the cur to his vomit.
Fools! hath the Hun
Earned place in the sun?

You who accuse that I fan
War’s spark from hate’s ember,
Forgive and forget if you can;
But I, I remember
Men who faced death,
Choking for breath,

Four years back to a day –
Men who fought cleanly.
Killed, say you? Murdered I say,
Murdered most meanly,
Poisoned!… and yet,
You can forget.

Frankau had his personal reasons for hating Germans – he blamed them for the collapse of his family’s tobacco business – but it’s worth remembering that as Kipling noticed, the English had “learned to hate”, and that many kept on hating after Armistice Day.

The unwillingness to let “the Hun” trade, and the reference to the leopard not changing his spots is reminiscent of the wartime propaganda film The Leopard’s Spots or Once a Hun, Always a Hun, that was so disliked by many Free Trade Liberals when propaganda was debated in parliament.

It’s hard to work out how widespread this kind of attitude was in the post-war years. And it’s interesting to speculate how Frankau would have managed today, when the EU has just made xenophobia an offence…

Post a Comment

%d bloggers like this: