This poem is often found in Great War anthologies:
Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
The poem was first published in a book of 1915, so you can see why Brian Gardner included it in Up the Line to Death, and why a student-friendly website might describe it as ‘ a recruitment poem, to try and convince men to join up and fight in the First World War.’
Update: G.M. Griffiths used to say this about the poem on his very useful site, but has now altered his comments on Asquith to take into account my suggestions in this post.
Some critics go further, like the American James Anderson Winn in his book The Poetry of War. Winn (who seems rather fond of ticking poets off) accuses Asquith of ‘deflecting the reader’s attention from the carnage of the Great War’, of ‘camouflag[ing] the bloodshed, and of denying ‘the reality of machine guns and barbed wire, with which he was surely familiar as an officer in the Royal Artillery’.
So I was surprised recently, when looking at the memoirs of Herbert’s mother, Margot Asquith, to read:
Our second son, Herbert, began his career as a lawyer. He had a sweet and gentle nature, and much originality. He was a poet, and wrote the following some years before the Great War of 1914, through which he served from the first day to the last.
The poem she refers to is, of course, ‘The Volunteer’.
From what I can gather, the poem was actually written in 1912. Asquith was not then a soldier but a lawyer, so himself presumably ‘ Toiling at ledgers in a city grey’. This is a poem about joining the newly-formed Territorials; far from deflecting the reader from the prospect of death, it faces the fact that volunteering is more than a romantic gesture, but may well lead to personal extinction (as we are told in the first two words of the poem).
I would agree that the vocabulary is rather lush, but it’s the clerk’s lush dream that Asquith is describing. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Asquith of being unrealistic, because he is not aiming at realism, but at giving us the clerk’s vision, which is perhaps viewed with a tragic irony; the poet knows that it is unrealistic, and the clerk will find that it leads to death – yet it still has a magnificence.
And in describing war in terms of cavalry charges, Asquith was no more unrealistic than just about everyone else at the time.
In 1912 a continental war was a very hypothetical prospect. Prophets like Kipling warned against the build-up of German strength, and many were aware that Europe was becoming dangerously unstable; even the pessimists, however, did not envisage a war on the scale of what actually occurred. If one reads fictional imaginings of future wars, like Douglas Newton’s War! of 1914, they envisage fighting on the scale of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, a cruel but short campaign with a quick, decisive end. (This, of course, is what the Kaiser was hoping for in France, before turning his attention to a long slog against Russia. ‘Over by Christmas’ was very much part of the German war plan.)
In all such fictional depictions of future war, cavalry play a major part. The cavalry charge was, after all, the deadliest and most terrifying available weapon of attack, crashing through the infantry lines and reducing the enemy to a chaotic retreating mob. Artillery could take its toll on the enemy and machine guns were effective in defence, but cavalry, it was generally assumed, was the way to win a war.
The ‘reality of machine guns and barbed wire’ kept the cavalry off the battlefield for most of the War, which is why it degenerated into the long, terrible war of attrition.
Seen as a Great War poem ‘The Volunteer’ might look like an evasion of reality; seen as a pre-war poem about the Territorials, it looks rather different, perhaps even like a warning that romantic dreams may lead to death. As so often, context matters.