If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Wilfred Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth, 1917
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
Siegfried Sassoon, Counter-Attack, 1918
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps;
And trunks, face downward in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads, slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began—the jolly old rain!
Since in 1914 there were virtually no cinema shows and radio broadcasts didn’t exist at all, amusement was mainly found either in books and periodicals or at theatres and music halls so that, for the soldiers who went off to fight in World War I, reading was consequently one of the commonest forms of entertainment and provided a diversion from the horror and tedium of war. It wasn’t limited to newspapers only but for many of them, at least for the better educated ones, it included literature too. As to Britain, its army was made with volunteers among whom many were well-educated men who had studied in Great Britain’s high-quality public schools – whose common system was based on the idea that understanding the poetry of the past makes people good citizens – and possessed a special relationship with literature. Thus, all British students were more than familiar with a very wide range of poets, from ancient Greek poets to those more recent, e.g. Thomas Hardy, Robert Browning or William Tennyson. The latter being particularly known, and partly responsible of the early sense of heroism underlying the beginning of the war, for his The Charge of the Light Brigade – a poem about the Battle of Balaclava lost by the British army on October 25, 1854 in the Crimean War – whose lines were focused on the heroism of the British cavalry brigade and exalted a battle which, instead, had been one of the worst and most tragic cases of lack of military intelligence and miscommunication in passing orders. The Oxford Book of English Verse, a collection of important poetry, was also very popular among soldiers together with more recent publications of poetry sent to them from friends or relatives at home.
As a consequence of their being so highly schooled in poetry, many British soldiers turned to writing poetry not only as one of their chief sources of pleasure, but to record both their experience and their emotional reactions to the war. Along its four years, World War I produced more poetry than any war had ever done before or since. Hundreds of volumes of war poetry were published; poets – including Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg and many others – recorded what they saw and felt during the war, from their initial longings for glory to the final terrible confrontation with death. Many of these poems are now forgotten, but many others are still remembered and taught and provide many personal and individual views of the first modern war. The whole corpus of English poetry of World War I closely reflects the two opposite attitudes that soldiers had toward the war: those of glory, first, and disappointment, later. The earlier poems – including those by Brooke and others – are filled of portraits of soldiers who firmly believe that they are part of a glorious adventure full of heroism and mystical sacrifice, sacred pride of being Englishmen and confidence in their strength. For the first year or two of the war, many poems spoke of honour, glory and patriotism; they very often compared the duties and attitudes of modern soldiers with those of the warriors and heroes so highly celebrated in classic epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey while being covered with everlasting glory and honour. Yet, the ever increasing horrors of a war whose end couldn’t be foreseen anymore began to reshape war poetry, just as poetry itself – in a mutual and reciprocal relationship – was to reshape the attitudes of both soldiers and civilians. After 1916, as the war went on, showing new and unimaginable horrors, all dreams of glory had been shattered and almost destroyed in the slaughtering battles and in the muddy trenches of many a battlefield and patriotism had turned into some sort of bleak grim endurance against all odds. Hope, that had been almost buried beneath the ever-increasing weight of bitter disillusionment, was more and more declining and the idea that it was not only stupid but almost criminal not to put an end to the slaughter was more and more openly taken into consideration. Many, both at home and on the battlefields, saw the year 1916 as a precise watershed in the war and, in many ways, it marked a clean break in the poetry of the period, as well. After the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916 and finally dragged to a stalemate in November, the general tenor of much of the war poetry changed. The later poems – which, for instance, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden are best remembered for – date from after this period and what they show most is the useless cruelty and pain of war, the unspeakable suffering and sorrow inflicted on the living flesh of soldiers, the confrontation with a kind of death deprived of any notions or images of honour or heroism.
As to the first attitude, Rupert Brooke is perhaps the most famous of those poets who celebrated England’s entry into World War I. Born on August 3, 1887, he excelled at school and, while at Cambridge University, he was one of the so called Georgian poets who rebelled against the poetry of the older generation and tried to create a new one whose lines had to be imbued with realism, boldness and vitality. Like many other educated young Englishmen, Brooke responded to the declaration of war in 1914 with a strong patriotic fervour. He had grown tired of “a world grown old and cold and weary” and hoped to find glory in the war. His sonnets about the thrill of going off to war to fight for his country, among which IV: The Dead and V: The Soldier are the best known ones, were published and became widely popular in England. Paradoxically, Brooke never fought in the war since, on his way to fight against the Turks at Gallipoli, he contracted blood poisoning from an insect bite on his lip. He died on the island of Scyros in the Aegean Sea on April 23, 1915.
As to the second attitude, the change is reflected in the poems of authors such as Owen and Sassoon whose work – just as the romantic and optimistic poems of Rupert Brooke were very popular early in the war, was much more popular late in the war and afterwards – is said to mark the emergence of modern literature, which focuses more on the perceptions of common people than earlier literature does. They both show a very different view of war since they openly express their realisation that there is no kind of higher calling to war but simply a bitter and cruel struggle to survive and theirs are poems deeply marked by harsh disillusionment and grim despair even if, sometimes, hidden under a veil of irony, which reinforces their presence.
Owen was born in Oswestry, England, on March 18, 1893. He attended the University of London, but was soon forced to leave it because of serious financial difficulties. He worked as a reverend’s assistant and as a schoolteacher and decided to enrol in the English army in the summer of 1915. Owen served as an officer in the Second Battalion Manchester Regiment and in a battle at Serre, he saw many of his men killed and wounded. These memories of battle would soon cause his war poetical production. In 1917 Owen was hospitalized with a concussion and shellshock. At the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, Owen met poet Siegfried Sassoon; the two poets encouraged each other and both created some of their greatest works while at the hospital. Owen returned to active duty in September 1918 and was soon sent to attack some of the Germans’ strongest defensive positions on the Hindenburg. Owen earned a Military Cross for his efforts, but he was soon killed in a battle on November 4, 1918 one week before the end of the war. Owen’s friends and admirers – including Sassoon – made sure that Owen’s poetry was published, and Owen is now considered one of the greatest of the war poets.
Siegfried Sassoon was also one of the few who survived the war. Born on September 8, 1886, he acquired a gentleman’s education and pursued the commonest interests of a wealthy Englishman: poetry and foxhunting. His early poems, published between 1906 and 1916, were considered bland and uninteresting, but his activities in World War I would soon completely change his refined attitude bringing new realism and strength to his writing. Sassoon served as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers – together with other writers such as Robert Graves, “Hedd Wyn”, David Jones and Frank Richards – and earned a Military Cross for valour in battle. He published his first collection of war poems, titled The Old Huntsman, in 1917. Soon after, he wrote a letter condemning the British army leadership, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, which was forwarded to the press, read out in Parliament by a pacifist MP and considered by many as treasonous. Instead of being court-martialled he was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met fellow poet Wilfred Owen. Sassoon’s poems address the horror and futility of war with a directness and an intensity which is really rare in war poetry. Sassoon survived the war and went on writing other works of real distinction. His trilogy of autobiographical novels, Memoirs of George Sherston, is considered one of the best accounts of the war. He also became actively engaged in politics, especially anti-war politics. He died on September 1, 1967.
For many of the poets who fought in World War I there was no future. Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen died in the war, ending their brief careers as poets. Others spent the rest of their lives reliving and recounting their war experiences. Poetry, of course, went on, but it was changed forever by the war. The war killed millions of men, but it also killed off the kind of poetry that could urge men to die for honour and glory and love of country. Future poets would never again uncritically accept those romantic notions of warfare that had existed before World War I. The great poetic works that came out after the war—especially T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’s Cantos – all shared the attitude displayed by Owen and Sassoon and post-war literature of all sorts is filled with images of people who are alienated from any ideas of grandeur, who are constantly lied to by bureaucracies, and who retreat more and more deeply into a shell of a self-isolation which is both alienation and safety.
from Regeneration by Gillies MacKinnon, UK 1997 – Film adaptation of Pat Barker, Regeneration, 1991
The War Poets Association, www.warpoets.org
Reframing First World War poetry, The British Library
Rupert Brooke, The Rupert Brooke Society
Wilfred Owen, www.warpoetry.co.uk
Siegfried Sassoon, www.ppu.org
Regeneration by Gillies MacKinnon, UK 1997
King and Country by Joseph Losey, UK 1964
Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick, USA 1957