Charles Sorley, a student and avid cross country runner, enlisted in the British Army at the age of 20, willing to do his part in World War I. He wrote When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead a bit before or perhaps during the Battle of Loos. Sorley was shot in the head by a sniper three weeks into the battle, and the poem was found in his gear. We will never know how great a poet he would have become, as someone tossed his life into a muddy hole, along with 75,000 other men in a pointless battle that gained no territory and achieved no goals. Sorley’s cold sonnet is a prescient rebuke of the militant sentimentality that led his country to send him to his death long after it was obvious the battle was a pointless slaughter.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember, for you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, `They are dead’. Then add thereto
`Yet many a better one has died before’.
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew
Great death has made all his for evermore.
(John Kipling also died at Loos. John was an 18 year old whose eyesight kept him from enlisting. His war-enthusiastic father Rudyard used his influence to get him into the Irish Guards, so that he could be killed in the first and last military action he saw. John was sent to Loos with reinforcements and was blinded and fatally wounded as he arrived at the battle. I cannot imagine the burden the son of Kipling carried with him into battle, nor what he thought as he died in agony before even reaching the battles his father so loved.)