Army of Death was created for the Centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele: 31 July – 6 November 1917.
It was infamous not only for the scale of casualties, but also for the mud. For the sake of a few kilometres, the British lost 310,000 men and the Germans 260,000.
For this piece there are two major themes.
– The poem, The Army of Death by Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915)killed by sniper at the age of 21 at the Battle of Loos.
– The use of horses on the front.
Conditions were severe for horses at the front; they were killed by artillery fire, suffered from skin disorders, and were injured by poison gas. Hundreds of thousands of horses died, and many more were treated at veterinary hospitals and sent back to the front. Procuring fodder was a major issue, and Germany lost many horses to starvation.
By 1917, Britain had over a million horses and mules in service, but harsh conditions, especially during winter, resulted in heavy losses, particularly amongst the Clydesdale horses, the main breed used to haul the guns. Over the course of the war, Britain lost over 484,000 horses, one horse for every two men.
Captain Sorley was among 16 Great War poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner. The inscription was written by Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
This is regarded as one of Sorley’s finest poems, and was discovered in his kit after his death. (Summary by Ruth Golding)
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?
Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
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.
I imagined a soldier walking through the mud towards the front, ever onward, blinkered like a horse to the scenes of horror that surround him.
The Army of Death by Charles Hamilton SORLEY (1895 – 1915)
Poem read by Peter Yearsley – (LibriVox weekly poetry 2006)
Sample of Out of the Deep by Orlando Gibbons – The Tudor Consort – FreeMusicArchive November 8th 2005 AA 3.0 Unported (cc BY 3.0)
Artwork of Horses created by Museleon