It is one of the most magnificent poems of the First World War

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The approach of Armistice Day is not only reminiscent of the hideous slaughter of over 700,000 British troops during the four years of the Great War, but also of the cultural damage that resulted from it. The war produced its artistic monuments – the writings of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Gurney, the Pastoral Symphony of Vaughan Williams, Morning Heroes of Bliss, Sherriff’s Journey’s End, the memorial architecture of Lutyens and others – but one should not not forget the talent she stifled.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart was one of the brightest men of his generation. Born in 1888, he won the best scholarship at Eton, and the Newcastle scholarship there; at Oxford he landed three more classic scholarships ahead of his inevitable double first in Mods and Greats. Equally inevitably, he was elected a fellow at All Souls, but instead chose to work at Barings Bank.

There, his career was meteoric, becoming Managing Director at the age of 25. He joined a high social group centered on Lady Diana Manners – later Diana Cooper – known as Coterie. When war broke out, Shaw-Stewart joined the Royal Naval Division, a group of soldiers in the Navy created by Winston Churchill when he was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1914 so that he could have an interest in the fight on the western front: and many of his smart young friends joined him and brought their smart young friends with them. Very amateurish at the start and thrown into battle too soon, they have become seasoned fighters.

Like many serious classics, Shaw-Stewart had written his own poetry. He served in the RND alongside Rupert Brooke, with whom he made common artistic cause, but in April 1915 he found himself in command of the shooting team at Brooke’s funeral on the island of Skyros, as they and thousands of others made their way to the Dardanelles. Shaw-Stewart’s contemporaries suggest that when he saw his generation succumb, he developed a desire for death. On the island of Imbros in the Aegean Sea, now Turkish but then inhabited by Greeks, he tried to communicate with the locals in his classical Greek, and was amused that to some extent they seemed to understand him . It was there, while he was waiting to fight in Gallipoli, that he wrote (on a blank page in his copy of A Shropshire Lad) one of the most magnificent poems of the Great War, “Achilles in the Trench” .

Vanity is taken from The Iliad: Imbros looks at the site of the city of Troy on the Turkish mainland. First, Shaw-Stewart confronts what might be about to happen: “I saw a man this morning / Who didn’t want to die; / I ask and I can’t answer, / If I do. wish otherwise. The morning is “cold as cold seashells”; “But more shells await / Across the Aegean Sea; / Shrapnel and powerful explosives, / Shells and hell for me.” Her pun then brings up Helen of Troy: “Oh hell of ships and cities, / Hell of men like me, / Fatal second Helen, / Why do I have to follow you?

He then compares himself to Achilles, but not as a hero: “Achilles came to Troyland / And I to Chersonese; / He went from anger to battle, / And I from the peace of three days.” »Then he asks the eternal question of the soldier:« Was it so hard, Achilles, / So very hard to die? / You know, and I don’t know; / All the more I am happy.

The fence image, which unites the notion of the classic brilliant public schoolboy with the fate that may await him in this terrible modern war, refers to Achilles, with flames coming out of his helmet, screaming in pain from the Achaean ramparts afterwards. the death of his friend Patroclus. This is the anger that the hero turns to for battle, and he uses it to prepare for the coming test:, / Capped in flames, and cries out for me.

Shaw-Stewart survived the Dardanelles. He won the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur for working as a liaison officer with the French in Salonika in 1916. He was appointed lieutenant-commander, and it was then that he was acting in command of the Hood battalion. in France in December 1917 that he was hit in the face by a large piece of shrapnel near Cambrai and killed instantly. Unlike too many of his comrades, he has a known grave in Metz-en-Couture; but he could not seek a more beautiful and resounding memorial than this immortal poem.

Achilles in the trench by Patrick Shaw-Stewart

I saw a man this morning
Who did not want to die;
I ask, and can’t answer,
If I wish otherwise.

The fair broke out this morning
On the Dardanelles:
The breeze was blowing softly, the cheeks of the morning
Were cold like cold seashells.

But more shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and powerful explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me
Fatal second Hélène,
Why do I have to follow you?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I in Chersonese;
He went from anger to battle,
And I have three days of peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So hard to die?
You know, and I don’t know;
The more I am happy.

I’m going back there this morning
D’Imbros on the sea.
Standing in the trench, Achilles,
Capped with flames, and cry out for me.


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