04 October 2018
Sir Andew Motions' Armistice poem released to mark National Poetry Day
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is marking National Poetry Day by publishing a specially-commissioned poem by Sir Andrew Motion, former UK poet laureate, as part of its work to mark the centenary of the Armistice.
Entitled Armistice, the piece saw Sir Andrew draw on some of the moving personal inscriptions from the First World War which adorn nearly a quarter of a million Commission headstones around the world.
One in particular inspired the poem’s ending – that of Private Roy Douglas Harvey and hints at the lasting power of the words chosen to commemorate their loved ones. The full poem can be read below as well as a video of Sir Andrew reading his work.
Now one thousand five hundred and sixty-four days end
every hour hand of every watch on the face of the earth
snaps to attention a fraction shy of the number eleven.
Their minute hands are still quivering with the effort
to complete the circle and therefore give the signal.
Whenever has machinery fine-tuned or otherwise
been able to refute with such a passionate precision
the idea that the body of time might flow like a river
and reveal it instead as a wide continuous landscape
a block universe where the sudden spotlight moon
introducing her face between cloud-curtains alights
now on one man dead already and now on one dying
while the scattered hinterland suffers its consequences
or delivers its warnings all connected but unavailable.
Then the minute hand in a spasm seals its promise
while penny whistles shriek and church bells clamour
while whizzbangs and 59s complete their trajectories
while long-faced telegram boys prop their bicycles
on lampposts and front gates and for the last time
press forward to deliver their dreadful condolences
and lark music like a distillation of daylight itself
which a moment before was neither here nor there
sweetens as it escapes the pulsing throat of the bird
and rain also accustomed to no discernible voice
patters and pounds and performs on barren ground
and a very simple breath of wind entirely fills the air
and everyday clouds performing manifold contortions
saunter off and dissolve in the horizon of their origin.
Soon rolling out plans from their corridors and offices
highly efficient angels of the resurrection will descend
to align with names they went by in their earthly lives
nine million or thereabouts bodies and body-fragments.
What is the duration of individual grieving they allow
beyond an agreed upper limit of sixty-six characters.
Think of Private Roy Douglas Harvey who was killed
a reserved and thoughtful schoolboy from Hillhead
leaving behind among other valuable relics a diary
completed up to the evening before his dawn attack
along with a much-thumbed Collins Gem dictionary
from the pages of which rose and will continue rising
these words as time and space maintain their relation
my task accomplished and the long day done.
As the guns fell silent on 11 November 1918, the families of war casualties were faced with the practical realities of how to pay tribute to those who died. The Commission’s work to ensure proper burial or commemoration for the one million Commonwealth men and women who were killed posed a global challenge and involved giving next of kin the opportunity to add a personal inscription to the headstones.
Many chose text from the scriptures, while literature and poetry also featured heavily. For some, the task of finding the words themselves, limited to 66 stone-engraved characters, was too much, and the works of Shakespeare, Lord Tennyson and Robert Binyon feature prominently in place of their own sentiments.
Popular examples included:
- Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn – Robert Binyon
- To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die – Thomas Campbell
- After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well – Shakespeare
One hundred years later, CWGC is now looking back at those personal inscriptions and the almost impossible task of trying to summarise the lives and hopes of those who died in the space of a few lines. The Commission has a rich heritage of working with leading artists and designers and appointed Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his own son in the war, as its first literary advisor. He had an important influence on the language used to adorn CWGC sites and the words carefully selected by him continue to resonate with people today.
Sir Andrew said: “Commissioned poems such as this are a mixture of planning and accident. In my preparation for the poem, I read various articles by contemporary philosophers and others about the nature of time, and also several books about the creation and maintenance of the War Cemeteries on Northern France. When I began writing it, all kinds of other ideas began to emerge, mostly arising from the feelings I share with everyone else about the gigantic scale of suffering endured during the First World War.”
Victoria Wallace, Director General of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “From its inception, the Commission tried to use the very best of contemporary art, design and literature to honour the fallen. We are hugely grateful to Sir Andrew Motion for helping us to continue this tradition as we mark the centenary of the Armistice. His words bring a new perspective on the deeply personal inscriptions families chose. It seems almost impossible to articulate such loss and love in 66 characters – less than a tweet – to commemorate someone in perpetuity.
“Sir Andrew’s poem shows us how these words written in stone a century ago can come back to life and inspire new creativity to this day, helping to preserve the stories of those who gave their lives during the First World War.
Private Roy Douglas Harvey, of Glasgow, left Hillhead High School in 1915 and was initially barred from enlisting due to his physique. He was later accepted into the war effort when minimum height and build standards were lowered.
He survived the fierce fighting at the Battle of Cambrai with the 5th/6th Royal Scots and was a part of the long-awaited British advance that began at the Battle of Amiens on 8 August 1918. He was killed three days later and found with a copy of his diary, current up to the previous day, and his Gem Collins’ Dictionary. His school described him as “a reserved, thoughtful boy, who at all times set before himself and acted up to a high ideal of conduct”. His headstone in Bouchoir New British Cemetery, France, bears the words ‘My task accomplished and the long day done’ and served as inspiration for the finale of Sir Andrew’s poem.
Visiting one of the Commission’s 23,000 sites around the world gives an opportunity to explore how personal inscriptions reflect not just those who fell, but also those who they left behind. Anyone with an interest can also search the CWGC website where all 220,000 personal inscriptions from the First World War are listed against the war dead.