You have to be a historian to appreciate the dichotomy between what was valued in the past and what we have chosen to keep of it now, which of course, will be reevaluated by future generations ad infinitum. Books and writing bring it home all the time. Who’s heard of John Oxenham? And yes, he is the father of the famous children’s writer, Elsie Oxenham. History has left us with ‘the war poets’, a select group whose writing about WWI is currently how we like to see it. But what about back then? In this period as we are reflecting on the first of the big twentieth century wars, might it not be apt to remember it as those who lived through it remembered it?
And if that’s the case, then it isn’t Siegfried you should be reading, it is Oxenham. His poetry sold over one million copies during the war and his hymn, ‘For Men at the Front’, sold at least five million copies, that being the most conservative estimate.
For The Men At The Front
Lord God of Hosts, whose mighty hand
Dominion holds on sea and land,
In Peace and War Thy Will we see
Shaping the larger liberty.
Nations may rise and nations fall,
Thy Changeless Purpose rules them all.
When Death flies swift on wave or field,
Be Thou a sure defence and shield!
Console and succour those who fall,
And help and hearten each and all!
O, hear a people’s prayers for those
Who fearless face their country’s foes!
For those who weak and broken lie,
In weariness and agony–
Great Healer, to their beds of pain
Come, touch, and make them whole again!
O, hear a people’s prayers, and bless
Thy servants in their hour of stress!
For those to whom the call shall come
We pray Thy tender welcome home.
The toil, the bitterness, all past,
We trust them to Thy Love at last.
O, hear a people’s prayers for all
Who, nobly striving, nobly fall!
To every stricken heart and home,
O, come! In tenderest pity, come!
To anxious souls who wait in fear,
Be Thou most wonderfully near!
And hear a people’s prayers, for faith
To quicken life and conquer death!
For those who minister and heal,
And spend themselves, their skill, their zeal–
Renew their hearts with Christ-like faith,
And guard them from disease and death.
And in Thine own good time, Lord, send
Thy Peace on earth till Time shall end!
and here, from his best-selling – though he had to publish it at his own expense as his publishers didn’t want to – book Bees in Amber
He writes in characters too grand
For our short sight to understand;
We catch but broken strokes, and try
To fathom all the mystery
Of withered hopes, of death, of life,
The endless war, the useless strife,—
But there, with larger, clearer sight,
We shall see this—His way was right.
This is how people lived and died during WWI, with the words of Oxenham providing the meaning, the reassurance to make the unbearable bearable. We should not forget this.