The Old Lie

“It is sweet and honorable to die for your country (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori).” – Horace.

April 25th is ANZAC Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand. The day is set aside to honor those who fought and died at Gallipoli during World War I. Bob and I visited the beaches of Gallipoli when we were in Turkey several years ago. What follows is an excerpt from my journal following a visit to the cemetery at Seddulbahir.

It is deadly still here. The silence is broken only by bird songs and the waves that lap against these once bloody shores. There are better than a hundred of us on this beach head and no one speaks a word. Bob and I have crossed the Dardanelles and are in Gallipoli at a place called Seddulbahir which is the final resting place of ANZAC forces who tried to land here in 1916.

Those of us who love words and understand their power suddenly have none. As you walk the rows of well kept graves, the headstones tell the story of what happened here. These boys, fighting for a king and country they had never seen, were canon fodder on a beach whose cliffs could not be scaled. James McElroy age 18. Thomas Shoemaker age 19. Johnny McBride age 17. The oldest in this cemetery is 32. The old lie…Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…was told again and at the behest of their elders, young men died on a beach whose name they could not pronounce.

Before this eight month battle ended 260,000 young men would lose their lives and leave wives and mothers to grieve their loss. Half were Aussies and New Zealanders. The other half were Turkish. Mustafa Ataturk, who would become the leader of the new Turkish nation, left this memorial for all who died at Gallipoli. “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

The guns have long fallen silent, and the peninsula is now a destination of pilgrimage for people from around the world. I marvel at a place that manages to seem so tranquil and beautiful, while harboring reminders of so much human destruction.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is a line from the Odes by the Roman poet Horace. The line was quoted in a poem written by Wilfred Owen before his death in 1919. His poem, “Dulce et Decorum est,” described the horrors that befell soldiers who fought in World War 1 and called Horace’s line, “the old lie.” Prior to the publication of his poem the phrase was often used on monuments and memorials commemorating the fallen. It has since been used to decry propaganda and war.

I am including his poem to remind myself and others who write how transcendent words can be.

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

One thought on “The Old Lie

  1. Thoughtful and poignant, Mary. And unfortunately, timely.


    “In music, in the sea, in a flower, in a leaf, in an act of kindness…

    I see what people call God in all these things.” – Pablo Casals



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