Thursday 24 May 2012

The 'Old Lie'

Supervising a baking hot GCSE poetry exam this afternoon, I was thinking about Afghanistan. I gather that there is a definite date for troop withdrawal and we are now in the 'draw-down' stage. This is, technically, the third Anglo-Afghan War, something I did not know until I started researching the Victorian period for the book.

The first Anglo-Afghan War was started in 1839, when the British Army invaded the country in an attempt to overthrow the emir, Dost Muhammad, and ended in total disaster three years later when the entire British garrison, including wives and children was slaughtered by Mujahideen as they attempted to withdraw from Kabul to the British fort in Jellalabad. Only the army doctor survived, arriving at the fort on an exhausted and half-dead horse, to tell the tale. In 1878, we had another go at invading and organising the country, and three years later, guess what? We lost again.

I am probably not the most unbiased person to comment on Afghanistan, as Talented Daughter was out there for three years, and they were three very long years, trust me. Also I had the dubious honour of finding myself on the American Embassy blacklist in the '60's when, as a teenager, I helped organise a very small anti-Vietnam demo in my home town - hardly worth raising an eyebrow over in the grand scheme of things, but that was how we did paranoia back in those days.

So I will leave the final thoughts on the subject to the First World War poet May Wedderburn Cannan, who summed up the utter futility of war far more movingly than ever I could. In her poem 'The Armistice', she imagines two female office workers talking. Their co-workers have all left to celebrate the ending of the Great War. The poem concludes:
                           One said, 'You know it will be quiet tonight
                           Up at the Front: first time in all these years,
                           And no one will be killed there any more.'
                           And stopped, to hide her tears.
                           She said, 'I've told you; he was killed in June'.
                           The other said, 'My dear, I know; I know ...
                           It's over for me too ... My man was killed,
                           Wounded ... and died ... at Ypres ... three years ago ...
                           And he's my man, and I want him,' she said.
                           And knew that peace could not give back her dead.


  1. What a wonderful, true poem. Thank you for posting it, Carol. I'm ashamed to say I have never heard of the author, but will seek out her work now.

  2. Interestingly, there were over 530 female poets writing during World War 1 - totally neglected in favour of their male counterparts. Also try Margaret Postgate Cole: Preaematuri and The Veteran. 'Scars upon my Heart' (Virago) is the best source to sample and enjoy all their work.

  3. War is so depressing, that alone should be the reason to stop...

  4. This has so much meaning today, Carol. I cannot believe these wars are still being propagated. This is a beautiful poem and I'm going to look up these women poets!


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