These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Follow’d their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandon’d, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
by A.E. Housman (1860-1936)
To me, this poem is evocative of all those who do the dirty work for the rest of us. It is a WW1 poem, but also applies, I feel, to all those who fought in WW2, specifically to my Grandfather who fought in both world wars and his children: my Uncle who defended India, my Godmother who repaired Spitfires under enemy fire and her sister who manned (womanned?) the Barrage Balloons during the London Blitz. Plus my other Aunt’s American fiance who died at D-Day and all the young American boys my teenage mother danced with during the long wait for D-Day, and who she cried for as they left one night to take back Europe.
The mercenaries in this poem are actually the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914— the professional British army before the rush of volunteers. The BEF was sent to France in 1914 to fight against the Germans.