Marking Time: Remembering Francis Ledwidge

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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Despite the passing of years and the number of international conflicts which have sadly followed, Remembrance Sunday is inextricably linked to World War I. The first modern war, it saw death and destruction on a scale previously unimagined. Between the years of 1914-1918 not only did over 17 million people lose their lives, but an era passed away. Hand-to-hand combat and cavalry charges gave way to tank battles, aerial bombardment and chemical warfare. On 11th November 1918, at 11 a.m., hostilities finally came to an end with the signing of an armistice between the Allies and Germany. Remembrance Sunday is held on the Sunday closest to the 11th November in the UK and Commonwealth countries and marks the contribution of military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts.

‘Remembrance’ can mean ‘commemoration’, but it can also mean ‘a gift’. In this way, remembrance works in two directions. Commemoration of lives lost is crucial but receiving the gifts left to us by those men and woman can be of even greater significance. One of the most sadly beautiful legacies of World War I is its poetry. A number of such poets are well-known in the English-speaking world; Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon.These men were all well-educated English officers, but are not the only voices or viewpoints left to us.

In October 1914 a 27 year-old Irish patriot and nationalist from Slane, County Meath, named Francis Edward Ledwidge, signed up with the Royal Iniskilling Fusiliers, an Irish infantry regiment.

Frances Ledwidge | Library of Congress

Francis Ledwidge | Library of Congress

Francis Ledwidge left school when he was thirteen and worked as a farm hand, road labourer and copper miner (although he was sacked for organising a strike for better mining conditions). He was also a determined poet and from the age of fourteen his works were regularly published in the local newspaper The Drogheda IndependentIn 1912 Lord Dunsany – a writer and dramatist who was part of the Irish Literary Revival – became Ledwidge’s patron, providing him with money and a workspace in the library of Dunsany Castle.

In 1914, just two months after the outbreak of World War I, Francis Ledwidge enlisted in the army. He survived the Battle of Gallipoli in which his battalion endured heavy losses, and experienced terrible conditions in Serbia. Despite the horrors he witnessed, his war poetry shows a sharp appreciation of the fleeting physical and natural joys of life, with less of the cynicism which often marks the better-known war poems of English officers. The myths of Ireland, earthly delights and acceptance of a soldier’s lot were woven together in his words. Somehow, Francis Ledwidge experienced war without loss of innocence or joie de vivre; testimony to a remarkable character.

In A Cafe

Kiss the maid and pass her round,
Lips like hers were made for many.
Our loves are far from us to-night,
But these red lips are sweet as any.

Let no empty glass be seen
Aloof from our good table’s sparkle,
At the acme of our cheer
Here are francs to keep the circle.

They are far who miss us most –
Sip and kiss – how well we love them,
Battling through the world to keep
Their hearts at peace, their God above them.

Francis Ledwidge, February 1917

On 31st July 1917, Ledwidge was north-west of Ypres in Belgium, laying roads in preparation for an assault. While he was sitting in a mud hole drinking tea, a shell exploded. Six men from the Iniskilling battalion were killed, including Francis Ledwidge.

In October 1917, from the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front,  Lord Dunsany wrote an introduction to the final book of Francis Ledwidge’s poems: “He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country’s affair. He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age.”

Francis Ledwidge. Irishman, Patriot, Nationalist, Soldier, Poet.

Remembered today, a giver of Remembrances.

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming,
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: ‘We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.’
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: ‘Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.’

And one said: ‘Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way,
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and grey.’

And one said: ‘A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.’
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

Francis Ledwidge, January 1917