A Poem for the Fallen; in Washington Seeking Neutrality

Special to The Great War Project

(20-21 September) President Woodrow Wilson and his closest advisers continue to struggle with what it means for a nation – the United States – to remain neutral in this war, especially in light of the reports of German atrocities in Belgium and France.

Wilson at his desk in the White House, date uncertain

Wilson at his desk in the White House, date uncertain

Wilson refuses to speak in detail with the Washington press corps about this, lest he might say something that can be misconstrued by the belligerent powers and the American public.

In these days a century ago, Wilson receives appeals and evidence from all the belligerent powers. That includes from the German Kaiser claiming Belgian atrocities against German soldiers and from a delegation of Belgians urging him to take up their cause.

He remains steadfast in his impartiality.

At the same time, Britain is establishing a naval blockade of Germany. President Wilson is not happy with this development. He protests to the British government that it will have “evil effects” on American public opinion, according to historian Martin Gilbert.

Wilson is especially sensitive about the blockade’s restricting the ability of the US to sell cotton produced in the American south. His position is, neutrality should allow the US to trade with any nation it chooses to, including the belligerent nations.

Just this day a century ago, he sends off a letter to the French president, Raymond Poincare. “The time will come,” he writes, “when this great conflict is over and when the truth can be impartially determined. When that time arrives those responsible for violations of the rules of civilized warfare, if such violations have occurred, and for false charges against their adversaries, must of course bear the burden of the judgment of the world.”

But Wilson writes later:

“Somebody must keep cool while our people grow hotter with discussing the war and all that it involves.”

Adds historian Arthur Link, “If he, the moral leader of the people, did not show the way toward calm understanding, then the tide of hatred and alarm would engulf America.”

At this moment in the war, there is optimism in London.

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1914

Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1914

“Here the feeling is absolutely united,” writes Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, “and running breast high for a prolonged and relentless struggle. There will I think be no difficulty in putting a million men in the field in the spring of 1915.”

Next day, a century ago, The Times newspaper publishes “For the Fallen,” a poem by Laurence Binyon. It contains these words:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.