A (Great) Lost Poem of the Great War

A (Great) Lost Poem of the Great War February 5, 2018

It’s taken me a mere fifty years to find the full meaning of a poem. I still think the effort was worth it.

The Cuirassiers of the Frontier

The poem is titled “The Cuirassiers of the Frontier,” by Robert Graves. Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That remains one of the best known and most quoted sources on the First World War, in which he served. A front-line officer, he was wounded so badly that his family was notified of his death, and his obituary appeared in the press. (He actually lived on until 1985). In 1934, Graves had a major triumph with his novel I, Claudius. He followed that in 1938 with the novel Count Belisarius, about the great Roman general who reconquered much of the lost Western Empire in the 530s and 540s.

Also in 1938, Graves published his Collected Poems, and in that he included an item seemingly derived directly from Count Belisarius, almost a spin-off. This was “The Cuirassiers of the Frontier,” a poem that described the attitudes of a very diverse bunch of barbarian soldiers who found themselves in Roman service, presumably under Belisarius in the mid-sixth century. “Goths, Vandals, Huns, Isaurian mountaineers, made Roman by our Roman sacrament.” The word cuirassier is an anachronism in this era, but it refers to armored cavalry who existed in one form in Belisarius’s time, and again more famously in the era of Napoleon. The French still had cuirassier regiments right up to 1914. (Cuirasse is the French word for breast-plate or body armor).

For copyright reasons I can’t print the whole poem here, but you can find it easily online, and you can hear Graves himself reading it.

Soldiers, City, and Empire

The poem describes the soldiers who carry on fighting for a Rome (or New Rome, Constantinople) they despise and barely know.

We can know little (as we care little)

Of the Metropolis: her candled churches,

Her white-gowned pederastic senators,

The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,

The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

They condemn the church, founded by the traitor and apostate Peter, who should properly have been stoned as a traitor. Meanwhile, the frontier soldiers hold true to each other and devote their greatest love to the one among them who is most successful in killing Persian enemies.

In Peter’s Church there is no faith nor truth,

Nor justice anywhere in palace or court.

That we continue watchful on the rampart

Concerns no priest. A gaping silken dragon,

Puffed by the wind, suffices us for God.

We, not the City, are the Empire’s soul:

A rotten tree lives only in its rind.

It’s a harsh, powerful, piece, which appealed to me so much in the late 1960s given my long-standing fascination with Late Antiquity and the Dark Ages. (See for example my 2010 book on this era, Jesus Wars).

Graves and the Great War

So far so good, but note that the page to which I linked above for the text includes the Cuirassiers poem in “The First World War Digital Poetry Archive.” Huh? What does this have to do with the First World War? But then it all makes wonderful sense. Of course, it’s a First World War poem.

I have written elsewhere about John Masefield’s hair-raising 1916 poem “Up on the Downs,” which notionally concerned human sacrifice in Iron Age Britain, but which was in reality an equally grim verdict on the contemporary First World War. Now read the Cuirassiers poem in that light – and also, suggested critic Peter G. Christensen, the novel Count Belisarius itself. And particularly, read both in the knowledge that Graves’s war memoir depicted such utter disenchantment of the soldiers of the front line, their loathing of the civilians back home, and especially of the politicians and war profiteers who had consigned them to this bloodshed. Moreover, note the soldiers’ bitter rejection of institutional religion, and its often cynical role in supplying the propaganda cheerleaders for the war effort.

Count Belisarius was the story of a brilliant and beloved general whose achievements were constantly thrown away by the politicians back home, a malignant bunch of incompetent megalomaniacs. Why does a picture of then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George come to my mind as I write that?

The Cuirassiers of 1917

In light of all that, read The Cuirassiers of the Frontier again, and realize that the City here, the Metropolis, is not Constantinople in 540, it is London in 1917, with

her candled churches,

Her white-gowned pederastic senators,

The cut-throat factions of her Hippodrome,

The eunuchs of her draped saloons.

The “senators” are members of Parliament, both Lords and Commons. Those “eunuchs” are the effete intellectuals of the modern-day literary salons. Should we think of the Bloomsbury group?

Peter’s Church could refer to Christianity generally, or specifically to the Church of England that was such a bastion of war propaganda and patriotic boosterism. One of the most obnoxiously outspoken in the patriotic cause was bishop Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who held the “candled church” of London itself, “the City.” Graves himself became viciously anti-clerical. His savage accounts of Anglican military chaplains established a popular stereotype that has only been successfully challenged in modern times.

In an English context, the term “city” has a dual meaning. Capitalized, it can certainly mean London generally as “the great city of Empire,” even as the capital of the civilized world. It also suggests “the City [capitalized] of London,” the financial district, roughly akin to an American speaking of Wall Street. When Graves denies that “the City” is the soul of Empire, we can read it as rejecting the power of finance and great wealth, big business and war profiteers.

In contrast, the faithful cuirassiers are the British armies at the front line, whose loyalty is only to a fluttering battle standard or regimental flag. Graves himself served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and the commonest Welsh patriotic symbol is a red dragon flag. It was not just those sixth century barbarians who might assert that “A gaping silken dragon, puffed by the wind, suffices us for God.” That’s the Welsh Red Dragon. Ironically, the fact that Welsh units so prominently displayed that symbol was due to the agitation of none other than David Lloyd George, a fiercely proud Welshman. Critic D. N. G. Carter calls The Cuirassiers “Graves’s finest tribute to the Royal Welch Fusiliers.”

If the British Empire still stands, it is hollow at its core, and the true spirit of Britain lives on only in the armed forces at the front line, and in the outposts of Empire.

We, not the City, are the Empire’s soul:

A rotten tree lives only in its rind.

Those soldiers were very mixed in terms of ethnicity and origin. As we might adapt Graves’s words: Australians, Canadians, Welsh, Irish, New Zealanders, South Africans, Indian mountaineers, made British by our British sacrament.

Fight to a Finish

If such a radically anti-patriotic reading sounds implausible, we should recall another closely analogous poem written by Graves’s close friend Siegfried Sassoon in 1918. Sassoon was likewise a veteran officer, and a highly decorated one. My favorite summary of one of his solo actions reads, “Armed with grenades, he scattered sixty German soldiers.” He then sat down in the captured trench to read a book of verse.

Sassoon’s poem is entitled “Fight to a Finish,” a common phrase used in British anti-German war propaganda of the time. Here, though, it has a quite different context, as the victorious soldiers return home to London for a great parade. But they turn on the spectators, fixing bayonets to wipe out the tabloid journalists from the yellow press, while a bunch of veteran “bombers” attack politicians with hand grenades:

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;           

And with my trusty bombers turned and went

To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.

Junkers is a term normally used against German war-mongers, but here against their no less guilty British counterparts. Sassoon is fantasizing the mass murder of British elites. In less bloodthirsty mode, Sassoon’s poem “They” mocked the blowhard bishop Winnington-Ingram.

Graves himself in 1918 was no less angry about the home country for which he had fought. In his long suppressed poem “November 11,” he denounced the crowds celebrating the war’s end as “the froth of the city” and “the thoughtless and ignorant scum / Who hang out the bunting when war is let loose / And for victory bang on a drum.” Sassoon imagined sending a tank into a London music hall to massacre the jingoistic crowds.

I suspect that Graves would have echoed every word of “Fight to a Finish,” but he was a much more cautious figure. It was largely his diplomatic efforts that prevented Sassoon being court-martialed for his outspoken anti-war sentiments, rather than being treated medically for a nervous condition. Graves channeled his own anger in a poem set in the sixth century, which he could always deny as actually referring to the present day. And even so, he waited twenty years after the war’s end to publish The Cuirassiers.

When the Cuirassiers Came Home

In the context of that date, The Cuirassiers makes very uncomfortable reading. Of course, Graves was not necessarily agreeing with the statements made by his characters, but this was very close to the language of fascist rhetoric in the inter-war period, when veteran movements and their grievances were so critical to the ultra-Right across Europe. That is a familiar idea, the notion that veterans had suffered those dreadful traumas of loss, bereavement, and common suffering, when they sought refuge in a near-mystical bond with comrade and fellow-soldiers. After the war, they reproduced the comradeship in new paramilitary movements, which also offered lofty ideals, and a sense of excitement and exaltation.

What we miss in such accounts is how absolutely the war experience had separated participants from the civilian population, from the Home Fronts, people who could not begin to appreciate or sympathize with any aspect of the conflict. Increasingly, military and civilians within the same nation came to be almost as divided as the militaries of enemy countries. Those civil-military tensions took many forms, but they played a major role in the rise of the new militias and extremist parties.

Without those veterans and their movements, inter-war fascism is incomprehensible.

Does the British war literature offer a more devastating repudiation of the home front than The Cuirassiers of the Frontier? So sweeping is it that perhaps it could only be offered in the disguised form of a historical commentary, attributed to nameless barbarians dead many centuries.

In whatever nation, those modern-day parties and militias too loathed the decadence and foppery of the metropolis, with its effeminate high culture. They hated the Lying Press, the Lügenpresse, and believed that politicians had stabbed them in the back. Like the cuirassiers, those far Right veterans saw the soul of the nation surviving only in military, masculine values. And like them, those extremists condemned Peter’s church. As Christensen remarks of Cuirassiers, “The poem demonstrates a masculine, warrior ethos in which war is better than Christianity.”

We, not the City, are the Empire’s soul:

A rotten tree lives only in its rind.

If you happen to translate all or part of The Cuirassiers into German, those fascist analogies become still more marked, as does the reader’s level of discomfort.

Robert Graves was anything but a fascist or a far-Right sympathizer. A strong individualist, he loathed authoritarianism. He also had a very favorable view of Jews. (On his father’s side, Sassoon came from one of the greatest Anglo-Jewish families). But Graves’s story does suggest just how deeply the experience of the Great War still carried its message of disillusion and betrayal decades after the event.

In Parenthesis

Apart from Sassoon, the other writer who springs to mind here is David Jones, whose epic poem In Parenthesis appeared in 1937, a year before Graves’s Cuirassiers. In Parenthesis carries a stellar reputation, and is today widely regarded as one of the greatest works of British Modernism, quite apart from its role in First World War literature. At the time, Auden, Eliot and Yeats all ranked it among the greatest works of the twentieth century to date. Jones, incidentally, like both Graves and Sassoon, served in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.

I mention Jones’s work here not because of any close analogies with the writings of either Sassoon or Graves, but because of its mythological framing. Jones integrated the experience of his soldier characters with a large corpus of religious and mythological references, but by far the most significant came from the Welsh heroic age of the sixth and seventh centuries – Arthurian literature, and the mighty battle poem of the Gododdin. This was very much the same historical era as Graves’s fictional Cuirassiers.

I will just add one point here that rather ties Jones and Graves together, if a bit obliquely. In 1936, R. G. Collingwood published a prestigious history of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon settlements, which included some speculative ideas about the origins of the Arthurian myth, ideas that became vastly influential. Briefly, Collingwood argued that the medieval legends of the Knights of the Round Table contained a distant but broadly accurate memory of an authentic revolution in late Roman military affairs, namely the cataphracts or cataphractarii, heavily armored mounted cavalry riding powerful chargers. Those precursors to medieval knights were especially found on the eastern frontiers, in the Roman-Persian wars of the fifth and sixth centuries. Collingwood’s theories persisted for decades, though they were subsequently found to be groundless, at least as applied to Britain or Arthurian legend.

But the point is that any author of the mid-1930s interested in Arthurian matters was likely to be enthusiastic about those eastern military affairs, and especially the cavalry. Including cuirassiers.

I know of no evidence that either poet influenced the other in their choice of ancient parallels for the recent Great War. Rather, each was using a heroic age, an era of barbarian epic, as a means of interpreting recent events, and of placing them in a timeless frame. Jones, like Graves, had lived through epic times, and could only make sense of them by turning to the great literatures of bygone heroic societies.


Loosely a propos of writers borrowing from this heroic era: in my teens, I loved Isaac Asimov’s  Foundation trilogy, originally published as short stories in the 1940s. One theme concerned the great reconquering general of the Galactic Empire, Bel Riose, Last of the Imperials, who is of course borrowed (via Gibbon) from Belisarius.




Browse Our Archives