Home > Modern History > Core Study > World War I and its Aftermath 1914 - 1919: A Source-based Study > Primary sources for the study of World War I: war poetry
Image courtesy of Y. Dyer.
From this tutorial you will learn about how war poetry reflected changing attitudes to World War I over time.
World War I produced a crop of poets who were able to put their experiences of war into verse. Many poems were written during the heat of battle and are an important source because of the intensity of the feeling in the poets' words. The poems also reflect the changing attitudes to the Great War.
The early poetry put forward the view that Britain could not have avoided going to war in 1914; that the Germans "were powerful and were so fond of bullying their neighbours that Britain could not have deterred them from beginning a world war." For example, the novelist Thomas Hardy in Men Who March Away claimed that "the braggarts must surely bite the dust". Rudyard Kipling wrote that "The Hun is at the gate" and that the men of Britain had to fight against a regime that acknowledged "no law except the sword".
Most of this early poetry also reflected the unrealistic, over-optimistic and sentimental attitude of the British people to war in 1914. Most nations believed that the war would be short over by Christmas expecting their armies to win an immediate, decisive victory.
The war was also seen as a Christian crusade that would bring a new nobility to those who took part in it. So many men enlisted in a mood of optimistic exhilaration, assuming the war would be both chivalrous and heroic and would make better men of those who fought.
Examples of this early poetry are: Thomas Hardy's Men Who March Away; Rupert Brooke's The Soldier and The Dead; Herbert Asquith's The Volunteer and Siegfried Sassoon's France and To My Brother.
If I must go and leave these ways I know
These dusks and dawns, and colour in the trees,
And the slow yarns, and wood-smoke hanging low,
And glowing stars, and cattle at their ease
And all the dear, small things of which I am a part -
I do not go for any prideful cause
That Europe might defend.
But only that the sun-swept Austral land
Might still lie warm within the Austral hand;
And that young boys, who speak the tongue I know,
Might laugh in years ahead where sunsets glow;
While softly, softly in the leaves of the kurrajongs,
The night wind croons its tiny summer songs.
Charles Shaw [Australia]
Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a grey city,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life's tournament.
Yet ever 'twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflame.
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied;
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus he wants to recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort;
Nor need he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.
Herbert Asquith [England]
By 1915, the war was being fought with the ruthlessness that seemed new and terrible. Both sides began to realise how horrific and inexhaustible were the sheer powers of destruction that were being deployed. Also, they began to doubt whether there was any hope of either side winning a swift victory. There was a deadlock on the Western Front. Long lines of trenches had been construed from the North Sea to the Alps. Allied Generals launched massive frontal attacks that proved to be futile and an obscene waste of human life.
As more and more British soldiers began to experience the horrors and discomforts of trench warfare and as they also began to doubt the wisdom of the tactics that led to spectacularly unsuccessful attacks of late 1915, such as Loos. Their poetry began to ask disconcerting questions or to express doubts.
Soldiers, especially young soldiers, began to lose faith in the British class system that promoted officers according to what school they went to, rather than on their ability. Soldiers began to feel a race apart from the civilians at home, many of whom were making profits out of the War. They seemed also to enjoy second hand accounts and experiences of the War by following the battles in the press [eg Paul's home leave in All Quiet]. They also lost faith in a God who permitted these things to occur.
Examples of poems that show an awareness of the horror of war include Sassoon's The Redeemer; EA Macintosh's Recruiting, Wilfred Owen's Exposure and Wilfred Gibson's Breakfast. The latter two appear below.
Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent...
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.
Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire.
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
But nothing happens.
Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces -- -
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there,
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs,
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed -- -
We turn back to our dying.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn,
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over haolf-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
We ate breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to half a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorpe played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet, and dropped back dead.
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
Trench warfare on the Western Front was very different from the war that soldiers looked forward to in 1914. The soldier poets wrote down their honest reactions to the war as they experienced it, often writing while under attack. They did this in order to find some relief from their feelings and also to tell civilians at home what war was really about. They felt that they owed it to their dead comrades to let the public know and to let history know what horrors war inflicted on front line troops: the lice, the cold, the hunger, the sleeplessness, the fear, the misery and the stench that were all inherent in modern warfare.
One thing that especially appalled them was the vast scale of modern warfare which decreed that whether an individual survived an artillery bombardment depended on chance and not on bravery or skill. Some of them seemed to hope that if people learned the truth about death and mutilation in battle, they would avoid war as too horrible to continue.
Several poems fit into this category: Robert Nichols' Comrades: an Episode; Sassoon's Dreamers and Rear Guard; Wilfred Owen's classic Dulce et decorum est; and Richard Adlinton's bitter realism of Bombardment.
Four days the earth was rent and torn
By bursting steel,
The houses fell about us;
Three nights we dared not sleep,
Sweating, and listening for the imminent crash
Which meant our death.
The fourth night every man,
Nerve-tortured, racked to exhaustion,
Slept, muttering and twitching,
While the shells crashed overhead.
The fifth day there came a hush;
We left our holes
And looked above the wreckage of the earth
To where the white clouds moved in silent lines
Across the untroubled blue.
Dulce et decorum est
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.
Men marched asleep. Many lost their boots,
But limped on: blood shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue: deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.
But someone was still yelling out and stumbling
And floundering 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.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we hung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His h anging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
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.*
* "tis sweet and fitting to die for one's country"
Wilfred Owen, in particular, stressed the tragic waste of war and many of his poems were compassionate rather than bitter or angry. He wanted to stir up pity for the dead who had died agonising and undignified deaths. He also wanted to make readers aware of all of the good young men on both sides could have achieved, if only they had lived.
He believed in Christian pacifism and strongly put forward the case in letters home, rather than in his poems. Other poets made similar expressions of pity or protest. For example, Sassoon asks for sympathy for the dead member of the Working Party. Rudyard Kipling compares the modern soldier's agony to Christ's agony in Gethsemane. Other poems which express this theme are Owen's Strange Meeting and Sassoon's Attack.
Lost in France
He had the ploughman's strength
in the grasp of his hand;
he could see a crow
three miles away,
and the trout beneath the stone.
He could hear the green oats growing,
and the south-west wind making rain.
He could hear the wheel upon the hill
when it left the level road.
He could make a gate, and dig a pit,
and plough as straight as stone can fall.
And he is dead.
After the campaigns of 1916 had failed so tragically and neither side appeared to have any hope of winning the War, very respectable right-wing civilians in Germany, France and Britain thought that it would be best to negotiate some kind of agreed peace. This feeling of hopelessness also led many poets to write bitter satire against the war.
During the autumn of 1916, before the intensely bitter winter of 1916/17 Sassoon was home on sick leave. He was busy revising his the poems that would appear in The Huntsman in 1917. He was also busy discussing the ethical problems with Phillip Morrell, a Liberal MP, to convert the majority of Members of Parliament to the idea of a negotiated peace was the only answer to the problems facing European civilisation. They did not convert many MPs but made a deep impression on Sassoon.
In June 1917 when he was again invalided home, he felt a more desperate desire to publicise these ideas and to protest against the way in which the war was being conducted. He was appalled to realise how few yards were gained and how many thousands of lives were lost in frontal attacks such as the Somme Offensive. In despair he flung his Military Cross into the Mersey River and posted an anti-war letter to his commanding officer.
Soon afterwards, at Craiglockhart, Sassoon completed his poems that were published in Counter Attack . Many of these poems strongly protested against the war. He indignantly implied that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it.
Another impetus which drove front-line soldiers to write such bitter satire was the feeling that they belonged to a 'different race' from the civilians, especially those who were becoming wealthy through the war. Soldiers were indignant because many of the old and rich were making handsome profits out of the war and did not share the soldiers' terrible discomfort and the danger of the front, yet had the effrontery to conceal their selfishness behind self-righteous jingoism.
In Blighters, Sassoon directed his indignation against the vulgar jingoism of the music hall show and the shallow applause of the civilian audience. In Armchair, Osbert Sitwell directed similar satire against the old men who clung to vital posts that they are incompetent to hold. The church was another target for this satire. Sassoon's They attacks the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of organised religion.
Examples of this theme are Kipling's Batteries Out of Ammunition; Sassoon's Blighters and The General; Wilfred Owens' Inspection and Kipling's Mesopotamia.
"Good morning; good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.