Feathers for the Fallen

In Memoriam, Private Hugh McDowall (1895-1918)

These paper poppies pinned on striped lapels,
(The ‘patriotic fashion’ thing to do,)
No longer linking flowers with the hells.
How do they remember you?

Assurances your grieving widow seeks:
“Shot in the heart, his death came suddenly.”
Your dying thoughts that must have plagued for weeks—
“And do they remember me?”

Comes tardy Death arriving on the scene
With Belgian medics hacking life from limb—
She’s unapologetic, slow, unclean.
But I will remember him,

That husband, father, Catholic Paisley man
Whose regiment was Orange as the Boyne—
The Sally Army fed him. In their can
I drop my remembered coin.

The men entrenched with blood and lice and rats
Their feet were rotting in their very boots
While Haig and others bullringed, fat as cats
These crimes, my remembered roots.

We’ll not forget a single wasted life,
That generation lost to gas and wires,
A century gone by and ours the strife
At earls, and remembered liars.

Those shameful plumes for conscientious men
And women, bearing stretchers for the dead,
We wear with pride. Their courage lives again
Remember, they also bled.

For every man they shot at bloody dawn,
For every woman raising kids alone,
For every poppy on the Tower lawn,
For names on remembrance stone:

We pin them for the day the gunsmoke clears:
These feathers, white for gas-corrupted phlegm.
McDowalls are spent. We’ve no more ‘volunteers’.
Instead, we remember them.

Author: Lucy McDowall

Liùsaidh (LJ McDowall) is a poet, author, and literary editor from Scotland. As LJ McDowall, she edits Quarterday, a poetry journal dedicated to classical poetry. Her poems have been widely published online and in print, most notably in Poets and War, Eastern Structures, Setu Magazine, the Ghazal Page, and many others. Her poetry has received honourable mention in the World Haiku Review and is forthcoming in Measure. She writes mostly of love and war.

3 thoughts on “Feathers for the Fallen”

  1. This poem is a Kyrielle dedicated to my great-grandfather, Private Hugh McDowall, who was wounded in action in October 1918 and died a few weeks short of Armistice Day in a Belgian field hospital. He was survived by his pregnant widow. Thinking to spare her in her advanced state of pregnancy, she was initially told by the military that he had been killed in action and did not suffer. This was a untrue, but the circumstances surrounding his death didn’t come to light until nearly 90 years later.

    A Catholic, his Protestant regiment, the Cameronians, would not permit him to eat with the rest of the men in the mess hall, and had it not been for the Salvation Army—called by its nickname the ‘Sally’ Army in the poem—he would have gone hungry. We donate to the Salvation Army, who still work extensively with veterans in the UK and in other countries, in his memory, because once, on leave, he asked his children, if they ever had a spare sixpence, to donate to them.

    The Tower lawn references an installation artwork that placed a ceramic poppy for each soldier killed at the Tower of London. Referenced in this poem also are the white feathers given to conscientious objectors to World War I who were often conscripted as stretcher bearers, and despite their bravery, were despised at the time.

    Every November I wear a white feather for the stretcher-bearers who bore my great-grandfather, and many other wounded servicemen, to the medics. I also wear a white poppy for the civilian dead, and a red poppy, as is traditional in Europe, for the military dead. Wearing a red poppy in your lapel is so much part of European Remembrance tradition that I was surprised when an American told me they’d never heard of it. The fields of Flanders, after the battles, would bloom with poppies, ancient seeds that had been churned up by the shellfire. Since that time we’ve worn them to remember the fallen, but lately, red poppies have become a symbolism of shallow patriotism rather than Remembrance for all the war dead, and for many, little more than a sober fashion statement. Not so for McDowalls. The feathers I wear alongside the poppies reclaim symbol of cowardice, here transformed into the symbolism of courage and peaceful defiance of atrocity. Earl Hague and Gen. Kitchener’s reputations were permanently tarnished by the treatment of the troops. We remember what they did. We do not forget. Hugh McDowall was the last McDowall to volunteer for the military, and our family’s anger at that senseless slaughter has not dimmed, nearly a century on.

    My choice of Kyrielle allows the repeat of the refrain-style final line that terminates in the echo of “we will remember them,” from the famous memorial poem ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon.

    The form also harks to the place in the Catholic Mass, the kyrie elision, or Lord, have mercy. I also find that using a very strict classical form restrains and channels with greater emotional force the anger at my great-grandfather’s pointless death, still deeply felt in blood and bone, as is the way of the Scots.

  2. Liusaidh writes that “I also find that using a very strict classical form restrains and channels with greater emotional force the anger at my great-grandfather’s pointless death, still deeply felt in blood and bone, as is the way of the Scots.” This is the sense I always get reading Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, that only formal structure can keep his emotions in order. An editor once rejected a sonnet I had written about the Viet Nam War because “poems about Vietnam have to scream.” Wrong, I thought, and still think. The grief and anger in “Feathers for the Fallen” are not stifled by the poem’s form, they are intensified.

  3. Prof. Sossaman is correct—poems do not need to scream to express the profound grief of senseless slaughter. Grief doesn’t work like that. Sometimes the pain is so great and the feeling so profound that neither words nor sound can express it. The very restraint is emotion under terrible, unbearable pressure.

    One has to remember that with every family in the British Isles losing someone in the Great War, with whole villages being decimated of their young working population, no one was ‘allowed’ to scream. No one was permitted protest. The British establishment feared that more than anything—the scream that comes with the violent revolution that took Russia a century ago this month.

    When suffering was so ubiquitous, all that was left was the slow plod to the war memorials—most of those young people we buried far from home—in the pouring November rain. The repeat of ‘remember, remember, remember, remember’ in each stanza is designed to echo that trudging grief. There are no screams at the war memorials across Britain. There is still a simmering anger that rumbles down the decades. The Royal Mint tried to commemorate the outbreak of the Great War by putting that aristocratic butcher, General Kitchener, on a coin. The protests were so vehement that you would have thought the slaughter was fresh, not nearly a century old. They quickly replaced the image with something more appropriate.

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