Poem by A.E. Housman
, written in 1914
, following the battle of Ypres
. While it may at first glance look like the soldier of fortune
's Charge of the Light Brigade
, it should be noted that Housman's use of the term mercenaries
was ironic - the poem was a response to the description in the German press of British professional soldiers
as "mercenaries", in contrast with their own conscript
Written early in World War I by a noncombatant, the poem lacks the sarcasm, black humor, and general anti-war sentiment that would later characterize the treatment of the subject by soldier-poets like Wilfred "Dulce et Decorum Est" Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, although the description of the soldiers' cause as "abandoned" by God points a little in this direction. For the most part, the poem unironically celebrates the valor, bravery, and self-sacrifice of the British troops (despite their "mercenary" nature), and stands as one of the last examples of the grand nationalistic, "glory of war" tradition of western poetry.
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.
For some reason, this is the only poem I ever memorized, having first encountered it in my AP European History "primary sources" book, of all places.