Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Gordon, one of our volunteer fieldworkers writes…

For a while now I have had an interest in inscriptions and one in particular. When I was recording our local memorials some years ago, I noticed in our local parish church the Latin inscription “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which means “It is a sweet and glorious thing to die for one’s country“. The quotation comes from the 1st Century Latin poet Horace.

Portrait of Wilfrid Owen (Neg Q 79045)At first I did not think too much about it, until my wife who is a good Latin scholar, reminded me about the poem written by the First World War soldier Wilfred Owen (1895 -1918). His poem is titled “Dulce et Decorum est” in which he mocks this sentiment. On reflection I agree with Owen’s view.

I wondered how many memorials used this quotation and so I decided to do some desk research based on the UKNIWM database.  400 are listed on the UKNIWM site, mainly in Latin but also 8 in English.  This represents 0.75% of the total of 55,000 memorials so far recorded. Analysing the 400 I have found the following:

WW1 memorials: 275 entries
WW2 memorials: 61 entries
Other memorials: 64 entries (including Crimea, Zulu, Boer and Korean wars)

The earliest inscription I found was at Melton Constable, Norfolk, for a victim who died at sea in 1778. However it is not clear when the monument was erected. It seems many monuments were erected decades after the event. There are two monuments to French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic wars, one was erected in 1914 at Norman Cross, the other at Dartmoor prison in 1865.

The Horace quote seems to have been used for the first time around the late 18th century and then on various occasions, reaching a peak during the First World War.

I am surprised that the grand total was not a lot higher than 400. Probably more will be found among the memorials still to be recorded. I suspect that the novelty was fading after WW1, especially when Wilfred Owen’s poem became widely read. It would surprise me if this inscription is used again for recent wars. However I could be wrong.

Here are the last lines of “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen:

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

It would be interesting to get the opinions and thoughts of others involved in the war memorial project.


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