My Humanities – The War Poets
Guest post by Thomas H. Wilson, Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History and past-Chair of Arizona Humanities
My uncle Bill, my father’s brother, was a First Lieutenant in the 15th Field Artillery of the Second Division in France during World War I. The Second Division saw action at Chateau-Thierry, Soissons, St. Mihiel, Champagne (Blanc Mont) and Argonne-Meuse. On July 14, 1918, Bill wrote home that his unit was out of the line but not out of range of German gas and explosive shells, which were passing overhead.
I had a couple of rifle shots fired at me the other day,” he wrote, “but they missed. They sure sound tame after you are only used to shells coming your way."
Uncle Bill perhaps did not know it when he wrote his letter, but four days later the Second Division was engaged in the great allied counter-offensive at the Second Battle of the Marne, which finally broke German offensive capability in the Great War.
Uncle Bill returned from the war safely, as did my uncle John, who fought with the 316 Infantry of the 79 Division. I have the letters uncle Bill wrote home to the family. He expressed himself in plain prose as the quote suggests. Other soldiers expressed themselves in verse. For some reason, more than in any other conflict, the young men who participated in the Great War expressed in poetry their anticipations, thoughts, fears, experiences and despair of the war. This essay is offered in remembrance of the beginning of the Great War in August 1914, and to those who there lost their lives.
When the guns of August began in 1914, many young men of all nations enlisted with patriotic enthusiasm. No one captured the sentimentality of the early months of the war better than Rupert Brooke, who penned some of the most memorable lines of the war.
1914 V: 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;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Brooke died of sepsis from infection, while on the way to Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.
After the initial euphoria of the war’s beginning wore off and the grim reality of trench warfare set in, the war poets explored themes of life in the trenches, contrasts of life and death, the horrors of war, mental peace and tranquility, thoughts of home, and many other subjects.
Canadian doctor Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields on May 3, 1915 upon the death of a friend and former student, who was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres. Dr. McCrae died of pneumonia while commanding the Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne in 1918.
In Flanders Fields
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.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Probably all soldiers through all time wonder how they will react in battle. In Before Action, W. N. Hodgson, who had already won the Military Cross for bravery at the Battle of Loos, asks the Lord to make him a soldier, make him a man, and help him to die. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, the British Army suffered 60,000 causalities, 20,000 dead and 40,000 wounded. Among the dead was W. N. Hodgson. Before Action was published two days before he died.
By all the glories of the day,
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay,
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured,
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived,
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my unfamiliar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
William Noel Hodgson, MC
From the summer of 1916, Wilfred Owen, one of the best known of the war poets, served in France. He was severely wounded, suffered shell shock, and went to recover in Edinburgh where he met Siegfried Sassoon, who was also in recovery. Sassoon helped and encouraged Owen with his poetry. Wilfred Owen was killed at the Sambre Canal a week before the war ended, on November 4, 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Wilfred Owen’s mother received news of her son’s death on the day the Armistice bells were ringing in England.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
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.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen, MC
Siegfried Sassoon was already writing poetry when he enlisted in the army the day Great Britain declared war, August 4, 1914. Sassoon’s brother was killed at Gallipoli in late 1915, and Siegfried did not get to the front until the spring of 1916, when he earned the sobriquet “Mad Jack” for the enthusiasm he showed going after the Germans. Sassoon was first wounded in 1917, and was shot in the head by friendly fire in 1918.
The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?
Siegfried Sassoon, MC
During the course of the war, Sassoon became more publicly critical of its conduct, and perhaps was only saved from military discipline by his friend Robert Graves, who convinced the authorities that Sassoon suffered from shell shock. Poems such as “The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still” from July 1916 do not sound like a recruiting tool.
Robert Graves served in the same regiment as Siegfried Sassoon. His poem 1915 expresses wistfulness for things missed at home, a longing most soldiers experience. Robert Graves was severely wounded at the Battle of the Somme.
I’ve watched the Seasons passing slow, so slow,
In the fields between La Bassée and Bethune;
Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,
Red poppy floods of June,
August, and yellowing Autumn, so
To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,
And you’ve been everything.
Dear, you’ve been everything that I most lack
In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,
Music, the quiet of an English wood,
The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,
The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,
And Peace, and all that’s good.
In his autobiography, Good-bye to All That, Graves wrote of what today might be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (1960:219-20):
I thought of going back to France, but realised the absurdity of the notion. Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong smell of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn’t face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover.
After wars, veterans return home, often to great mental and physical challenges. Sometimes these are unspoken, and too often untreated. Poet Edmund Blunden, who fought at the Somme and at Ypres, looked back at 1916 from the perspective of 1921.
1916 seen from 1921
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;
In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there—and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own;
But now what once was mine is mine no more,
I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
With such strong gentleness and tireless will
Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.
I rise up at the singing of a bird
And scarcely knowing slink along the lane,
I dare not give a soul a look or word
Where all have homes and none’s at home in vain:
Deep red the rose burned in the grim redoubt,
The self-sown wheat around was like a flood,
In the hot path the lizard lolled time out,
The saints in broken shrines were bright as blood.
Sweet Mary’s shrine between the sycamores!
There we would go, my friend of friends and I,
And snatch long moments from the grudging wars,
Whose dark made light intense to see them by.
Shrewd bit the morning fog, the whining shots
Spun from the wrangling wire: then in warm swoon
The sun hushed all but the cool orchard plots,
We crept in the tall grass and slept till noon.
Edmund Blunden, MC
Isaac Rosenberg’s family left Latvia to escape pogroms and emigrated to Britain. Rosenberg was a credible artist, who painted and sketched several self-portraits. In contrast to many of the other war poets, he served as a private in the war. Isaac Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches has been called the “greatest poem of the war,” and Rosenberg is listed in Westminster Abby’s Poet’s Corner as among the 16 Great War poets, along with Blunden, Brooke, Graves, Owen, Sassoon and others. Rosenberg was killed in action on the Somme on April 1, 1918.
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.
Millions fought in the Great War, and millions died. Some of the war poets survived the war and had distinguished careers, like Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden. Others perished, like Brooke, McCrae, Hodgson, Owen and Rosenberg. We will never know the human creativity the world lost due to the unspeakable carnage of war. The poets who did not come home give us some measure of that loss.
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.
From Prelude: The Troops by Siegfried Sassoon
Thomas H. Wilson is the Director of the Arizona Museum of Natural History and past-Chair of Arizona Humanities
The War Poets originally ran in the April 2013 Humanities Now e-newsletter.