“‘Twas a Famous Victory”

“‘Twas a Famous Victory”

On past Memorial Day weekend celebrations I have posted various speeches and photos in memory of our fallen heroes. For this Memorial Day weekend, I thought I would offer you a different perspective and present one of the best anti-war poems ever written.

The poem “The Battle of Blenheim” by Robert Southey was assigned in my younger son’s English class, along with a more traditional poem extolling the valor of war.

It has been a regular in English Anthologies since it was published in 1798, presenting the story of the futility of war, the foolishness of elders, and the wisdom of children. As one 1909 anthology put it, “Its call is to the people of the coming generations more than to ours, for it seeks to arouse feelings and attitudes just beginning to be felt among civilized people. Its cry is the rising voice of humanity; the protest against the senseless slaughter of war.”

It was a summer evening,
Old Kaspar’s work was done,
And he before his cottage door
Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
Roll something large and round
Which he beside the rivulet
In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
And with a natural sigh,
“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he,
“Who fell in the great victory.

“I find them in the garden,
For there’s many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men,” said he,
“Were slain in that great victory.”

“Now tell us what ’twas all about,”
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
“Now tell us all about the war,
And what they fought each other for.”

“It was the English,” Kaspar cried,
“Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,” quoth he,
“That ’twas a famous victory.

“My father lived at Blenheim then,
Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
Nor had he where to rest his head.

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They said it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won,
And our good Prince Eugene.”
“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!”
Said little Wilhelmine.
“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he,
“It was a famous victory.”

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he,
“But ’twas a famous victory.”

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Thank you Roger.

Of late I’ve been reading about Vietnam veterans who came out against the war in Indochina and/or became peace activists. A very moving book in this regard is Gerald Nicosia’s Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement (2001). And at Ratio Juris, my Memorial Day post is about Arlington West here in Santa Barbara, a project now under the auspices of the local Veterans for Peace chapter. (interested readers can click on my name and scroll down for the post)  

Edward Brynes
Edward Brynes

“The Battle of Blenheim” appeared before the age of “wars of national liberation”.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Edward: The point being…? A war is a war is a war…whether in the Mahābhārata, the Hebrew Bible, the Peloponnesian war, revolutionary wars, world wars, what have you.

Edward Brynes
Edward Brynes

The point is that at least some wars of national liberation seem to enjoy a special status; they often don’t receive the condemnation that other wars do:


Patrick S. O'Donnell

Both sides of the Vietnam War have spoken of the pain, suffering, cruelty (needless violence), the need for healing and reconciliation, and so on associated with war. Ex ante justifications and post facto perspectives are indeed different (unless, say, one is a principled pacifist) and we might certainly speak of some wars as being more “justified” than others (hence the ethical doctrine of jus ad bellum). That wars of national liberation would have some sort of “special status” is not at all surprising in a world of nation-states as the predominant form of geo-political recognition and order. Appreciation of such things in no way diminishes the desire to see the end of all wars, to appreciate the evil nature or consequences of wars generally (the ‘senseless slaughter’ above), or to understand why a day of memorialization leaves questions associated with necessity and justification aside to focus on matters that transcend in some sense the conventionally political and controversially ethical questions so as to focus on our common humanity, and the pain, suffering, and evil that characterize war.