Another Thomas Hardy War Poem

WWIbattleAs these have been received rather well, let’s reach back across a century-plus to 1902, when Hardy was writing about the Boer War, which he (as most liberals of the day) opposed as, shall we say, an excess of the Empire. (In the United States, at the time, sympathies were also largely with the Boers as well).

The British defeated the much smaller (although equipped with higher quality arms at the squad and company level) forces of the Afrikaner settlers, only to find their foes continuing a shadow guerrilla war — which Britain then suppressed, effectively, with absolute ruthlessness. But this poem refers to the earlier, uniformed-units-on-units phase of the war, and, indeed, Hardy does what he can to universalize his sentiment.

The Man He Killed
Had he and I but met
            By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
            Right many a nipperkin!
            But ranged as infantry,
            And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
            And killed him in his place.
            I shot him dead because —
            Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
            That’s clear enough; although
            He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
            Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
            No other reason why.
            Yes; quaint and curious war is!
            You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
            Or help to half-a-crown.”

Here you see him prefiguring many of the themes and poems of the next great war.

Hardy is far from the first or the last to note that, whatever disputes the nations and their elites may have, the poor bloody infantry is pretty much the same character all the world over; and the riflemen in opposing rifle platoons were more alike one another, perhaps, than either of them was like his officers, or like the politicians or nobles who sent them to war.

One is reminded of the passage in All Quiet on the Western Front, in which Paul finds himself alone in a crater in No-Man’s-Land with a Frenchman he has mortally wounded, and complains to his dying enemy, as if he could understand, “Who do they never tell us that you are men like us?”

3 thoughts on “Another Thomas Hardy War Poem

  1. raven

    When Western civilizations went to war against each other, the soldiers on each side may have been as alike as brothers under the different uniforms. Not sure that holds true between other foes. I knew a Marine Corps veteran of Guadalcanal who despised the Japanese fifty years after the war ended.

  2. Richard

    The British killed something like a third of Boer women and children with their concentration camps. Negligent homicide I suppose but homicide just the same.

  3. staghounds

    It’s interesing that at the exact same time that the British and the Boers were at war, the United States was engaged in a very similar conquest in the Philippines.

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