One-shot #8: At a Calvary Near the Ancre

At a Calvary Near the Ancre

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But His disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life; they do not hate.

–Wilfred Owen, likely in late 1917 or early 1918

This poem evokes many religious images in comparing Christs’s struggles with those of the soldiers fighting on the Western Front. While religiosity in Britain and France declined steeply in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, it was still commonplace at the war’s onset. Some time prior to entering the war, Wilfred Owen had lost his faith, partly as a result of a prolonged stay at a vicarage during which he began to see fundamental flaws in the system of belief espoused by the vicar – whose own personal mansion was maintained by a town full of poor people who could not even afford food or medical care.

But the stories of Christianity – and particularly the Crucifixion – were ingrained in young Owen, who stated in his youth that the greatest sources of beauty in the world were the Bible and the writings of Keats. Owen would visit many churches even after his loss of faith, as he still found solace in the buildings themselves; he spent his 25th (and final) birthday by himself, in Ripon Cathedral. So he likely saw a lot of scenes such as that in this post’s feature stereoview:

Unidentified church, with one soldier looking upon the crucifix hanging in front of the apse rose window, 6×13 glass-plate positive by A. O. Fasser. Courtesy of the Jordan/Ference collection.

The poem itself, of course, evokes many of the same notions as this stereo photo. In the first stanza, the first line – “One ever hangs where shelled roads part.” – is both an allusion to the Crucifixion and to the Calvary models which were once found at crossroads in rural France. In the gospels, the soldiers keep watch on the cross, while “His disciples hide apart”. “And now the Soldiers bear with Him” can be taken two ways – that they bear the cross with Him (implied by the veneration suggested by the capitalization of the ‘S’ in ‘Soldiers’) and that they tolerate Him – as soldier were wont to tolerate their commanders, generals, and officers. While the men under Owen’s command generally respected him, he was no stranger to the fact that officers were generally derided by their men.

In the second stanza, the soldier are now priests, strolling past Golgotha (another word for Calvary, the place where Christ is supposed to have been crucified, and literally translating to “place of the skull”). The Church (the embodiment of Christ on earth) has sent them to be “flesh-marked by the Beast” – that is, torn apart by Germany – because the gentle Christ has denied it victory.

The final stanza is more ambiguous – clearly critical of both the Church and the Beast, while not condemning the brave (priests/soldiers) – that is to say, critical of the generals who represented the State, and the German state that they were sent to fight. The message of the final two lines here is telling: “But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate.” This is in keeping with Owen’s appreciation of the messages of the Bible, if not belief in religious institutions or biblical literalism. John 15:13 reads “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Owen is clearly condemning the war in this stanza, while lauding those who give their lives to save those of their fellow soldiers – the true thing he thought he was protecting, as an officer, and as a soldier.

As to the image, I feel that it is quite fantastic. Although it is marred by some of the errors which characterize Fasser’s earlier works – minimally stereo, architectural angles all wrong – it works compositionally & thematically, and the lighting is superb. The flare from the right-hand window, hitting the ceiling and indicating that it is either very early morning or not long until sundown, create a reverence around the crucifix. The solitary soldier gazing upon the same works better than either a crowd, or a scene with no human figures – this would fail as a simple architectural study. It is generally well composed, apart from the rightward camera tilt which is sadly common in Fasser’s architectural work. Nothing to be done about the vertical distortion here – as far as I know, no stereo cameras had tilt/shift capability, so architectural photography is always going to have some flaws.

And besides, it illustrates the poem quite nicely!



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