At 11 am on the 11th day of November 2018, it will be the centenary of the armistice of World War 1, the ending of fighting on land, sea and air between the Allies and their opponent, Germany.
Roughly, 10 million military personnel lost their lives along with 7 million civilians. The horror of the war aftermath altered the world for decades.
It was a war more than any other war associated with the so-called ‘war poets’. The young soldier poets of World War 1 established war poetry as a literary genre. Their combined voice has become one of the defining texts of 20th century Europe.
Hundreds of young, uniformed men took to writing poetry as a way of expressing extreme emotion at the very edge of experience. The poems written by men such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, is as poignant today as it was both during the war and immediately after it.
The outbreak of war in 1914 was accompanied by an outpouring of patriotic enthusiasm that is difficult for modern readers to comprehend, knowing what we do of the subsequent course of the war and of the literature that has come to define it. Men enlisted in their thousands during those early months of the war and the fervent patriotism was clearly shared by a wide public. The most famous of these expressions is Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed….
The patriotism and sentimentality of ‘The Soldier’ proved astoundingly popular in Britain; it was even read from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915. However Brooke’s poem was soon given a new and tragic poignancy. On 26th April 1915 just three weeks after The Times published Brooke’s poem, the same newspaper now printed his obituary written by Winston Churchill. Brooke had died at sea three days earlier, after contracting septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite. He was aged 27.
Possibly the best-remembered poem of the war is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’, written in September 1914. The fourth stanza is recited annually at Remembrance Day ceremonies, as it honours the English war dead of that time, which had even by 1914 already high casualty rates on the developing Western Front.
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.
A lasting image of the First World War is the poppy. Adopted as a symbol of remembrance by the Royal British Legion in response to Canadian John McCrae’s poem
‘In Flanders Fields’, the poppy has come to signify the millions who lost their lives in the war.
John McCrae was a doctor who was transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
The poem highlights several contrasts: the crosses on the fields, symbolizing human sacrifice, and the larks singing bravely in the sky; their singing versus the ‘guns below’; the men that are now dead and lie buried in the fields when a short while ago they were alive and loved. We tend to associate spring, singing larks and golden sunshine with beauty. But reality can be different. John McCrae uses simple language – very direct, very realistic.
The archetypal ‘war poet’ is perceived to be a young officer, educated at public school and Oxford or Cambridge – possibly postponing his university place whilst he defends his country. Many of the ‘young men’ fit this stereotype including Robert Graves, Charles Sorley and Siegfried Sassoon, but others had less privileged backgrounds, such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. Of these, Graves survived the war and lived to the age of 90, while Sorley was the youngest of the major war poets to die. The following sonnet was found in his kit after his death on the Western Front in October 1915. He was twenty years old.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead’. Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before’….
Siegfried Sassoon was on active service in Flanders throughout much of World War 1 and is generally recognised as the first poet to record the horrors and privations of life in the trenches. The 1st volume of his war poetry appeared in 1917, the year he threw away his Military Cross and published an open letter, denouncing the administration of the war. He was a romantic poet and gradually an element of anti-war feeling developed in his poems, the theme is of a longing for beauty and peace of nature. He was a friend of Owen’s, who was inspired by him. ‘Dreamers’:
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows……
….Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
Wilfred Owen was an English school teacher working in France and enlisted in the army in 1915. He was injured in 1917 and spent the next 18 months recuperating at Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon who encouraged constructive criticism. He returned to combat in August 1918 and just one week before the war ended, was killed. He was just 25. Such was the speed of communication that his parents were sitting in their home in Shrewsbury at 11am on the 11th November 1918 happy that war was over and their son had survived when there was a knock on the door. It was a telegram informing them their son was dead.
‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or, to give the phrase in full, ‘Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori’, is Latin for ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’ (patria is where we get our word ‘patriotic’ from). The phrase originated in the Roman poet Horace, but ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, Wilfred Owen famously rejects this idea. Focusing in particular on one moment in the First World War, when Owen and his platoon are attacked with poison gas, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a studied analysis of suffering and perhaps the most famous anti-war poem ever written.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge….
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! –An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
….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.
The scope of First World War poetry is much wider than that of the trench lyric. There is a substantial and distinguished body of war poetry by civilian poets, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, D.H.Lawrence, Mary Borden, Vera Brittain – to name but a few. The poetry is often regarded as ‘English’, but many of the soldier poets came from elsewhere: Scotland, Wales, Ireland and across Europe and the British Empire. These should not be forgotten, nor should the speechless millions of whom and for whom they spoke:
Battalions, and battalions, scarred from hell;
The returning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Prelude: The Troops’.
Finally, before Wilfred Owen died he wrote in the preface of his volume:
‘The book is not about heroes. Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of it. The poetry is the Pity……All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful’.
Written by Michael Graham, Library Volunteer
We are marking the centenary of the Armistice with a series on Peace-making and War-waging. Click here to see more details.