Burden is a poetry collection that tells the story of a seventeen-year-old British soldier, Private Herbert Burden, who was shot for desertion during World War I. He was one of hundreds so executed. It is now understood that many had committed no crime, but were suffering from PTSD. Burden’s story is told in the voice of Lance Corporal Reginald Smith, the author’s uncle. The author discovered years later in a box of papers that his uncle, Lance Corporal Smith, had befriended Private Burden but then was ultimately commanded to join in the firing squad that killed his friend.
This slim book reaches below standard indictments of war—it shows us that “terrifying,” “senseless,” “horrific” don’t go deep enough. To utter them, the eye must already be closing over. Smith’s account is an object lesson in why poetry matters. It takes us to places even the best journalism can’t reach.