I’ve been waiting to see this film. Peter Jackson’s amazing restoration of footage from the Great War:
The royal houses of Europe have always been a bit of an incestuous bunch —at least until recently when standards have been relaxed. For those of royal blood, their selection of future mates was largely arranged so as to form or strengthen political alliances. As a result, the pool of choices was very limited and the families of Europe (including Russia up through the 19th century) became a confusingly intermarried bunch.
Three of the principal combatants during the First World War –Britain, Germany and Russia– were ruled by men whose close family ties were unable to prevent that dreadful conflict. King George V of Great Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins. Here’s how they were related:
King George V was the son of King Edward VII and his wife Alexandra of Denmark.
Tsar Nicholas II was the son of Tsar Alexander III and his wife Dagmar of Denmark (Alexandra’s sister).
Kaiser Wilhelm II was the son of Kaiser Friedrich III and his wife Victoria of Great Britain (Edward’s sister).
Additionally, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II were related further back in the family tree through the marriages of the tsar’s distant cousin (the granddaughter of Nicholas’ great grandfather —I’m not sure what that relationship works out to be…) to Wilhelm I, King of Prussia (Wilhelm II’s grandfather).
AND, Tsar Nicholas II married Alexandra of Hess-Darmstadt —daughter of Alice of Great Britain, sister of Edward VII, making him cousin by marriage as well.
Despite these close familial relationships, in 1914 the monarchs found themselves at war in the worst conflict the world had ever seen up to that time. By the end of The Great War, two of those monarchies had been brought to their end —the Russian through revolution and the German through defeat. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on July 17, 1918 by the revolutionary Bolsheviks who had been holding the Romanovs captive after Nicholas’ abdication of the throne. The kaiser was forced to abdicate the Imperial German Crown and the Prussian Kingship on November 9, 1918 as the German army was near collapse and revolution loomed on the home front. Wilhelm fled by train to the neutral Netherlands where he lived out his life in exile.
This poem is by Siegfried Sassoon is from the collection Men Who March Away, edited by I.M. Parsons some fifty years after World War I. I have in my possession a biography of Sassoon which is climbing close to the top of my to-read pile, so watch for more about that fascinating War Poet. Meanwhile, here is one of his poems and a little background. In his introduction to the collection, Parsons writes about The Kiss:
“The Sassoon poem is particularly interesting, not only for its technical accomplishment and for the terrifying image in the final line, but because in spirit it is so completely alien to the author’s whole attitude to war. For that reason, Mr. Sassoon was understandably reluctant to let me reprint it, fearing that it might be taken as meant seriously –as a ‘fire-eating’ poem.”
Sassoon himself said, “I originally wrote it as a sort of exercise … After being disgusted by the babarities of the famous bayonet-fighting lecture. To this day I don’t know what made me write it, for I never felt I could have stuck a bayonet into anyone, even in self defense. The difficulty is that it doesn’t show any sign of satire.”
To these I turn, in these I trust–
Brother Lead and Sister Steel,
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty, clean from rust.
He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glimmers naked, cold and fair.
Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he set his heel
Quail from your downward, darting kiss.