Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’

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.

6 Comments

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    That’s very interesting. It reminds me just a little of Randall Jarrell’s comment, when he discovered that Kipling wrote Mary Postgate before and not after his son was killed – “…you are troubled just as you are when you learn that Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder were written before and not after the death of his child. This truthfully cruel, human-all-too-human wish-fantasy is as satisfying to one part of our nature as it is terrible to another.”

  2. YW
    Posted January 25, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Dear Dr. Simmers:

    I was wondering whether there is a complete list of FWW anthologies published during the war and in the first ten years after the war? So far I’ve been able to locate War Verse, edited by Frank Foxcroft, the Erskine MacDonald ones, and *Watching the war: thoughts for the people.*

    Thanks a lot in advance!

    • Posted January 25, 2013 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

      The bibliography of Vivien Noakes’s ‘Voices of Silence’ contains a list of seventeen anthologies produced during the War years, and several assembled later. This is not a complete list, however – it doesn’t include the ones that you mention.
      I’m sure that someone will have compiled a longer list, but I don’t know where to find it.

      • YW
        Posted January 26, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

        Dear Dr. Simmers:

        Thank you very much! ‘Voices of Silence’ was brought to my attention some time ago, but I was wondering if there was a more complete list. However, this was still very helpful and many thanks again for your time!

  3. Posted October 2, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    This is extremely interesting – thank you. I think people often overlook the fact that the media was severely censored in the early days of WW1 and only patriotic poems (which is has now become fashionable to label ‘jingoistic’) would have been published. The War Propaganda Bureau presumably encouraged patriotic poems. The situation changed somewhat after the Somme Offensive in 1916.

    • Posted October 2, 2016 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Was the media really heavily censored in the early days of the War? Reports from the battleground were restricted, in the name of military necessity, but a wide range of opinion was published. Poems expressing concern or doubt about the war were published throughout the war.


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