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Brian Pohanka photo by Jim Wassel  

A Memorial Tribute to
Brian C. Pohanka
(March 20, 1955 - June 15, 2005)

The Soul of an Idealistic, Noble Soldier

Brian's memorial tribute continues from Page 1: The Civil War

The Great War (World War I)

Wilfred Owen

As I came to know Brian better, I shared with him some recent poems I had written, and he shared with me his interest in the Great War (World War I) and his fondness for poetry from that era. On several occasions, Brian had visited WWI battlefields in Northern France on the Western Front. In an email dated May 26, 1999, Brian wrote:

A very pretty poem -- well done -- from the heart and soul as all good poems should be, I think. And with reference to Nature -- always something so vital.

I collect poetry of the First World War -- such a hellish thing for anyone to pass through, but even more so for poets, or those with artistic souls.

Wilfred Owen I especially like -- and when I was in France I read two of his poems, including my favorite, "Spring Offensive" at his grave near the village of Ors. He died a week before the Armistice....

On May 28, 1999, Brian continued in his commentary about the Great War soldier poet Wilfred Owen, and also responded to my message regarding Civil War author Ambrose Bierce. Additionally, he expressed some concern about his speech to be delivered at Gettysburg for the upcoming Memorial Day ceremony:

I picked up a recent reprint of Wilfred Owen's collected letters yesterday at Borders Books. I had never owned a copy, tho[ugh] I'd used one in a library. John Stallworthy wrote a solid, if somewhat dated biography of Owen -- but the recent biographer of note is Dominic Hibbard who has written two studies of Owen -- both very good. The second of them I picked up last year in France, on the Somme -- wholly appropriate, of course! Bierce was a different character -- a cynic -- distilled vinegar -- but what a wit, with a very finely honed humor, on the dark side, but one a very fine teacher I once had was fond of, and passed on to me. And I have many of Bierce's works. It is all wonderful stuff -- spirit-balm -- or mustard plaster -- as the case may be. But a big part of my mind-set, psyche, soul, whatever that indefinable is. And I hope as I speak at Gettysburg I can pass on something of that -- the older we get the greater sense of that passing on, something -- ought to be there, though I daresay in most it's not, just a sort of "huh?" -- but Life is much, much more than that, of course. Rambling, but I think you know what I mean!

Brian was eager to share information on books he had read about Wilfred Owen. On June 6, 1999, he wrote:

Thank you for noting the Wilfred Owen web site. I am very glad that you are as taken with his work as I am.

There are a number of biographies of Owen. Jon Stallworthy's Wilfred Owen, and several books by Dominic Hibbard -- who is the present day authority on Owen -- these include Owen the Poet and Wilfred Owen: The Last Year.

Certainly while a poet for many years, it was not until the fateful meeting with [poet Siegfried] Sassoon at [the hospital in] Craiglockhart that Owen began to write the best of his poems -- and I think he surpassed Sassoon -- at least I prefer Owen and I think he has stood the test of time very well indeed. His pararhyme is especially well done I think.

He has many fine poems, but as I noted, "Spring Offensive" is my favorite. It was one of his last, perhaps the last that he wrote, and was not quite finished when he was killed. I love the line about the "buttercup blessed with gold our slow boots coming up" -- and the mix of natural beauty and sad wonder at the beauty -- with nature trying to hold back the men from going "over the top" into the explosions -- "hell's upsurge" -- and so on.

He thought of himself as a "ghost" -- there is that terrible fatalism -- but turning it to great work -- like so many he was distanced from the sense of the world, life, by those horrors -- but the passing through and enduring of them he consciously turned to as inspiration for his work. Sad and wonderful. I think he took upon himself that Doom knowingly -- and was not bowed down by it, but in a sense embraced it. More of the tragic greatness of the man, as his was not at all the nature of a warrior.

On June 15, 1999, Brian continued with his analysis of Owen and explained, among other things, why he liked biographies:

...I think the thing about Owen -- beyond the power of his words -- that I see is that he was so little cut out to be a soldier -- that being plunged into that horror made his words and reflection of it all the more powerful -- and once he realized that fact -- that he was a human barometer of that hell -- by assuming the fatalism but also a duty to speak of it even at the cost of his life -- that shows very rare courage indeed. Rather than avoid the war-demon, he met it head on, though he well knew it would likely cost his life. It is hard enough for a trained professional warrior to face all this. One reason I enjoy reading biographies -- the intersection of lives and souls with events beyond the control of anyone -- I think History can be likened to the weather -- with Wars as hurricane,earthquake, etc. And how any one person reacts to the cataclysm cannot be known until it happens.

Brian continued with the same thought on July 2, 1999:

Yes there is something of a haunting aspect to Owen's work -- a certain fated aspect to his life and death -- Without the benefit of the type of education available to the upper class, he pursued his passion for poetry and I think really surprised Sassoon when the latter realized this enthusiastic little officer with the "grammar school accent" could indeed write very well indeed. The way he took upon himself the suffering for his men and for his art was truly noble in a sense far above patriotism....

WWI and Other Great War Writers

Brian commented about writings from the Great War era in this message from February 3, 2000:

I would certainly agree that there is a harsh, grim, ironic, cynical and fatalistic bent to much of the WWI writing -- of course it evolved into that once it became clear that was not going to be like any other war, any earlier war -- it was going to pit the might of the industrial advances against flesh and bone -- the killing power of the artillery, heavy ordnance, high power shells -- new terror weapons like gas -- all this was bought into play in a most horrific fashion. I would say there is a commonality of writing style amongst the warring powers after the first six months or so -- as it got progressively more horrific. The exception to a degree is the U.S. as our involvement was relatively brief and at the very end -- we preserved a certain cocky "Yanks are Here" jingoism and naivete -- to a degree that the French, British and Germans had abandoned long before. Our World War One was really Vietnam -- what we became because of that war was what the European nations had experienced during and after WWI.

Brian sent me the contents of a post he made to the Civil War Discussion Group on November 12, 2001, a day after Veterans Day:

I was very glad to see that the general consensus of the media was to note Veterans Day on its proper day -- November 11th -- and that there were some articles, even in the Washington Post -- about the First World War, one rather powerful unpublished memoir excerpt in particular, from the pen of an American officer, courtesy of his descendant.... Having gone over the Western Front on more than one occasion -- powerful, moving, emotive, disturbing and oh so sad place -- I am always glad when that slaughter gets some attention, as it shaped our modern world and our own places in that world, more than any other event of the 20th century (IMHO of course).

One of the more moving experiences I had my last trip over there, was visiting the little village of Belloy en Santerre, off a big highway, but like many French villages sort of near ghost towns. It was just west of there that on July 4, 1916, Alan Seeger, Harvard graduate, poet, bohemian, and American volunteer in the Foreign Legion, was cut down with scores of his comrades by German machine gun fire. An elderly man was tending the war memorial, which bears Seeger's name, and as I offered my tribute to this fallen soldier, the old fellow doffed his cap and bowed his head -- then directed me to the town hall -- and I placed a photo of Seeger alongside the printed poem they had framed and hanging on their wall... So as we conclude our little remembrance here, I will submit Seeger's poem....

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath --
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows t'were better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear....
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

- Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

On Veterans Day, on November 11, 2003, Brian sent me the contents of a message he posted to the Civil War Discussion Group message board:

I never cease to think of the implications of that terrible war, and all those lives of promise slaughtered in that hell, on this 11th of November. Having visited the Western Front on several occasions, and read some of Wilfred Owen's poetry as I stood beside his grave, I think we must always remember the casualties of that "Lost Generation" -- and ponder the implications of how that War shaped all that has followed, down to our own times.

Here is another poem that I recently came across, written by Lieutenant E.A. Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders. Like Owen, he too would perish in the "War to End all Wars." Mackintosh was decorated with the Military Cross for attempting to rescue the badly wounded soldier to whom this poem was dedicated. At great risk of his own life, the Lieutenant was carrying the wounded man back through a hail of machine gun fire, when the soldier was hit again, and killed.

"In Memorian
Private D. Sutherland Killed in Action in the German Trench,
May 16th 1916, and the Others Who Died"

So you were David's father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year got stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David's father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight --
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers',
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed, "Don't leave me, Sir,"
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.


Brian's tribute continues with:

Psychology, Fine Arts, Travels, and Nature


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