May 02, 2004
Housman on 'Mercenaries'

In reply to a couple of disingenuous questions from Heather Mallick ("What poem does a modern mercenary recite? Halliburton's mission statement?"), Colby Cosh quotes A. E. Housman's "Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries":

These, in the day when heaven was falling
The hour when earth's foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth's foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

David Kovacs, one of my favorite professors in grad school, has demonstrated that the poem is not about mercenaries at all, but the regular British Army. As he puts it, "in the early years of the First World War, German propaganda charged England with employing a 'mercenary,' i.e. a professional, army, and it is to this charge that the poem published in the [London] Times on 31 October 1917 alludes as it commemorates the third anniversary of the First Battle of Ypres".

In a footnote, he gives specific evidence, e.g.: "A pamphlet called 'Facts about the War' published by William Heinemann around 1915 has a section called 'German Views of British Soldiers' in which paragraphs from the Cologne Gazette are quoted contrasting the unwarlike British shopkeeper, who pays for mercenaries to protect his money bags, with the Germans, whose war-casualties come from all ranks of society".

He sums up as follows: "The mercenaries of the poem were not really mercenaries at all: they had merely been represented as mercenaries by enemy propaganda. The point of the poem was to show, in light of their heroic conduct on 31 October 1914, how absurd this accusation was."

(All quotations are from David Kovacs, "A Cautionary Tale", TAPA 123 [1993], 405-410. TAPA is the Transactions of the American Philological Association.)

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 02, 2004 10:49 PM

In other words, because the Tommies were volunteers instead of draftees, the Germans called them "mercenaries". It is true that the troops fighting in Oct. 1914 must have mostly been from the pre-war army, which was a professional army of career soldiers and drew its enlisted troops almost entirely from Great Britain's lower class. However, their officers were middle and upper class, and died even faster than the rank and file. And the war-time volunteers (who I assume were mostly still in training in October) were a cross-section of British society. Eventually most of Great Britain's young men would volunteer - enough that a draft was not required - and that certainly required a fair share of the "shopkeepers" children.

So the implication of the German propaganda is that soldiers are either slaves or mercenaries. My respect for German culture just dropped a couple more notches.

Posted by: markm on May 3, 2004 12:27 PM

"The mercenaries of the poem were not really mercenaries at all: they had merely been represented as mercenaries by enemy propaganda."

So, really, this is as true today as it was then.

Ever since I stumbled upon Wells' "War and the Future: Italy, France, and Britain at War", I've been stunned by how consistent the "pacifists" have been over the last 100 years. They've never hesitated to blame the civilized world or to excuse the barbarians.

Posted by: Robert Crawford on May 3, 2004 03:17 PM