Before social media, email or smartphones – even before television – the effect of the written word was even more powerful than it is today. Poetry has long been used as a way of expressing our emotions, but perhaps at no time was emotive energy so intensely transferred onto the page than in the heat of battle during World War One.
Maybe it is because war can bring about so many emotions: from humiliation to pride; from trepidation to hope; and from love to hatred. How and to whom emotions were directed in World War One could not always be pigeon holed. A solider might have just as much hatred for his own generals or politicians as he did for the enemy. Love may be felt not only for a family left behind at home, but also for fellow soldiers, and the country itself.
While there are a huge range of emotions which are displayed within World War One poetry, there is an undeniably tragic element which is a natural consequence of nearly 10 million dead on both sides over the course of the War, and many more civilians who lost their lives.
So let us start with one of the more bleak, yet powerful examples of World War One poetry: ‘In Flanders Fields, by John McRae’
McRae was a Canadian lieutenant colonel who was inspired to write the poem after conducting the burial service for artillery officer Alexis Helmer in his role as Company Doctor. The hum of bird song beneath the rumble of the guns, which McRae describes in the poem, offers a glimmer of hope amidst the cruel scene. However, McRae seems to be implying that the soldiers who fight on bear the responsibility of winning the war so that the dead may rest in their graves. The association he makes between commemorating the fallen soldiers and the fields of poppies was said to have strengthened the connection which has now become popularised by Remembrance Sunday.
Next let’s look at a poem which weaves melancholy with its words: ‘Perhaps’ by Vera Brittain.
The tragedy at the heart of this poem, penned in 1916, is the death of the poet’s fiancé Roland Aubrey Leighton (1895-1915), who was killed by a sniper aged 20. Brittain had accepted Leighton’s proposal for marriage only four months before he died. The consistent repetition of the word ‘perhaps’ throughout the poem gives it a form of uncertainty, but there also seems to be a sad resignation at the heart of the words. The poet appears to have been very depressed with the cards which life had dealt her, and is doubtful whether she will ever recover fully: “Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain.” ‘Perhaps’ is a great example of a World War One poem which deals with the loss of a loved one, and its impact.
The sheer fragility of human life during World War One is almost hard to comprehend, but one of the best jobs in this regard is done by ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ by Issac Rosenburg.
What seems like it could be an uplifting poem from the title is actually brutally frank about the chances of human survival in this dangerous theatre of trench warfare. In the verses, the poet describes encountering a rat, and then draws comparison between his own chances of survival and that of the rat – “Less chanced than you for life, Bonds to the whims of murder, Sprawled in the bowels of the earth.” He seems almost to envy the rat’s freedom to pass between the Allied and German trenches, and suggests that the creature can sense its own freedom in comparison to the soldiers’ situation in the trench: “It seems you inwardly grin as you pass.”
World War One demonstrated examples of solidarity between soldiers on both sides, as they fought a war which at times was reduced to a bloody stalemate. This was famously exemplified on Christmas Day, 1914, when hostilities ceased temporarily, and troops went out into ‘No Man’s Land’ for a game of football. This sense of sharing the same fate is highlighted by ‘To Germany’, by Charles Hamilton Sorley.
LINK to poem – https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47426/to-germany
An adept writer even at the age of 20, Charles Hamilton Sorley had the experience of studying in Germany prior to enrolling at Oxford University. Perhaps this contributed to the empathy which he demonstrated for the enemy in ‘To Germany’. The line “you are blind like us” hints at anti-war sentiment, and that the soldiers on both sides were merely pawns in a game played by the higher powers. It also references the nature of Germany’s imperial ambitions with the line “your future bigly planned”. He wraps up the poem with a parting shot at the futility of the war, writing: “And in each other’s dearest ways we stand, And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.”
Finally, let’s look at a poem which brings out the sheer horror of experiences on the battlefield – ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, by Wilfred Owen.
Wilred Owen wrote ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ while recovering in a Scottish hospital after fighting in Northern France. The title refers to the latin ode of Horace, the Roman poet, and translates to “is sweet and proper to die for one’s country”. Describing the terror of a gas attack, Owen leaves the reader under no illusions that Dulce et Decorum Est does not ring true for this war. With his descriptions of panic in the wake of the attack “an ecstasy of fumbling”, staring death in the face “he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”, and finally conveying the intensely disturbing experience “obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud”, Owen delivers a graphic and haunting account of what it was like to fight in World War One.
Rhetoric of honour/soldier-poets
World War One poetry represents a broad range of different viewpoints and perspectives, but one common theme is the rhetoric of honour which is contrasted with descriptions of broken and injured bodies. This ability to describe the physical discomfort experienced on so many levels in the trenches – in the eyes, the mouth and the head – is often contextualised using the wider political narrative as a backdrop.
While some of the early poems of World War One favoured the first person, commonly referring to ‘I’, later poems – with ‘To Germany’, by Charles Hamilton Sorley being seen as a precursor – came to use ‘You’ more often, talking directly to the reader when describing the terrible scenes.
Why has First World War Poetry stood the test of time?
World War One poetry offers us history, culture, and powerful personal experiences. Because the written word offered the people who were affected by the War one of the only ways of chronicling their experiences, thoughts and feelings, it comes in many forms and offers numerous perspectives.
While World War One poetry might be seen as very ‘English’ in its nature, the number of other Anglo countries involved in the War – from Scotland to New Zealand and Canada – means that we are left with a truly international collection of poetry. Poetry from the War still works in the classroom, and perhaps there is no better way of teaching children about trench warfare than with poetry filled with vivid descriptions of the gas masks, barbed wire, mud and misery.
If you value poetry for its ability to transfer human emotion and carry human experience, World War One poetry has it all.
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