Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries revisited

I’ve taken a couple of passes at this setting of a Housman poem (from Last Poems). After I posted a version on one of my blogs, I came across an alternative version I’d forgotten. I didn’t like the vocal much (I never do, but I particularly didn’t like this one), but I did like the synth and guitars, so I did a little splicing and remixing (or is that slicing and dicing?). Coming back to it for a book and album project, I did some more radical slicing and dicing, and I like it much better now.

To be honest, I’m not altogether sure I feel positively about the poem, still less the ‘war to end all wars’, but the poem does have a certain power, without the naked imperialism of Kipling at his worst.

This 1917 poem refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916.

A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ takes a very different view, regarding the BEF as “professional murderers”. I’m not sure how I feel about that one, either. Armies may commit atrocities, but its governments that set the context.

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 Harley

Author: David Harley

Musician/singer/songwriter; independent author/editor

2 thoughts on “Epitaph for an Army of Mercenaries revisited”

    1. Well, there’s no direct reference in the poem, or don’t remember any direct commentary in the collection (I don’t have it to hand). Perhaps at the time it was written AEH considered the context would be obvious, but we’re a century on from there!

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