British Civilisation 15: World War One War Poetry

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British Civilisation 15: World War One – War Poetry

© A. SCHOOLING, Collège Vendôme, Lyon (2009)

1. Introducing the poetry of the First World War

The First World War was, as we have already seen, an experience that mobilised the whole energies and talents of the people of the time. Before the Great War, the leisured class (that is, people who had time for leisure activities, particularly the middle classes) often spent their time writing poetry. At school – particularly at the public (that is, ‘private’) and grammar schools – often the only English literature that a student would learn was poetry and 5

Shakespeare (written in verse). It was quite understandable that those who wrote poetry before the war would continue when the war broke out.

Now we have seen that nineteenth century British poetry was particularly inventive and considered ‘noble’ and, as surprising as it may seem to us today, ‘war’ was considered the noblest of all subjects because it lifted the soul when one served a greater good, soldiers being prepared to sacrifice everything for others. We have seen the 10

Romantic tradition praised ‘death’, which it suggested was a place of ‘peace’ after the ephemeral passage of life and love on earth; this tradition often used the lyrical form of poetry – as in the Lyrical Ballads – because this form enabled individuals to ‘sing a song’ that was drawn from personal experience. Most First World War poetry would also use this form as an appropriate form of personal expression of war experience.

Of course, the poets of the First World War did not invent a British response to war, because there already 15

existed a lot of war poetry that most educated people knew by heart. We have learnt about Shakespeare’s Henry V, where the king prepares his troops for battle on St Crispin’s Day. We have read Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade where the calvary ride ‘into the valley of Death’. Indeed, not only did inspiration come from British poets, but also from the Bible: ‘the valley of Death’ is a reference to Psalm 23 which almost every British citizen would have known by heart: ‘even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death I will fear no evil...’. Thus, when we 20

read through the war poetry below, we must realise that the poets drew inspiration from a common source.

Today, many British people consider ‘war poetry’ to be only poetry written during the First World War, since this poetry has been studied in schools for generations. As we shall see from the poetry below, it is not always ‘anti-war’ poetry, but most of the major poets of WWI are remembered for writing against the war. As mentioned above, there were thousands of people who wrote in verse during the war, but the quality of their verse has not always been 25

considered ‘good’ in the sense that it just repeated clichéd phrases devoid of reality. In contrast, the famous war poets, such as Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, wrote with style and often expressed a new reaction to war compared to the tradition we have just evoked. Just like their Romantic predecessors, they considered themselves to be ‘prophets’ speaking the truth to a world that did not want to listen.

2. Poem

: by Rupert Brooke


Rupert Brooke, like most war poets, was a former public schoolboy and young when the war broke out. He wrote a number of good poems just before the war, but if the war had not happened, he would probably have had a career in the British civil service with poetry just a hobby. He was blond-haired and thought to be extremely handsome and charming. When he died on a Greek island in 1915 from a scorpion sting just before the beginning of the Dardanelles operation, he immediately became the archetypal war hero who was prepared to lay down his life for his country. 35

His response – five war poems – was based on mobile warfare since he had already taken part in the Royal Naval Division’s operations in Antwerp; the last of these poems was ‘The Soldier’, the first three lines of which are among the best-known in the English language…


(December 1914 – January 1915) If I should die, think only this of me:


That there’s some corner of a foreign field1 That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust2 conceal’d3;


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A dust whom England bore, shaped4, made aware5, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam6, 45

A body of England’s, breathing English air. Wash’d by the rivers, blest7 by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away8, A pulse9 in the eternal mind10, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; 50

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

© David Roberts, Minds at War: The Poetry and Experience of the First World War, Saxon Books, Burgess Hill, 1996, p. 71.




“Field” means an area of land where grass or other crops grow; here it refers to the battlefield, but because the word “battle” is absent the battle is finished and the soldier can be at peace.


“Dust” means very small particles of earth or sand; when someone who has died is being buried, the priest traditionally says: “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes…”.

60 3

“Concealed” means hidden. 4

“Shaped” means having given a particular form and appearance. 5

“Made aware” means that the soldier has been informed and understands the truth. 6

“To roam” means to travel around freely. 7

“Blest” is an irregular past participle from the verb “to bless” meaning to ask or give God’s favour. 65


“Shed away” comes from the irregular verb “to shed” meaning to get rid of or taken away. 9

“Pulse” means regular beating, for example, the beating of a heart or the beat of a piece of music. 10

“Mind” usually means the place where thoughts are kept or where a person’s intelligence is found.

3. Poem

: by Siegfried Sassoon

Although a little older than Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon was also a public schoolboy 70

who immediately ‘did his duty’ by joining up on the outbreak of war. He had produced poor verse before the war began, but the subject of war gave Sassoon something interesting to write about. After many of his friends died in the trenches, he started to be mentally unstable and he took risks when fighting. His nickname was ‘mad Jack’ and his daring won him the most prestigious British medal, the Military Cross, or M.C., when he 75

took a German trench on his own. In fact, he wanted to die, because he couldn’t face living when all his friends were dying. In July 1917, Sassoon became famous for producing a statement in the Times newspaper and it was read in the House of Commons: he protested against the war, saying that the Allies were really greedy for territory and that the war could be ended if they wanted. (The first accusation was partly true, but the 80

second was just wishful thinking.)

By then, Sassoon had received a ‘Blighty’, that is a wound which meant he was sent back to ‘Blighty’, the nickname of Home, or Britain. The authorities didn’t want Sassoon to be given publicity, so they suggested he was suffering from shell shock, a ‘new’ condition that was being treated for the first time during WWI. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland where he met another soldier-85

poet, Wilfred Owen, who just happened to be there… (Of Owen, more later!)

After many conversations with his psychiatrist, he later returned to the front line to help protect ‘his boys’. He was later wounded – this time accidentally shot by one of his own men! After the war, he became famous for writing semi-autobiographical works of prose about life before and during the war, as well as editing many of the other dead soldier-poets’ works.


Rupert Brooke’s grave on the island of Skyros, a ‘corner of

a foreign field…’


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(October 31st, 1916) The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back

They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought In a just cause: they lead the last attack

On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought 95

New right to breed an honourable race,

They have challenged Death and dared1 him face to face.” “We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.

“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind2; Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die; 100

And Bert’s gone syphilitic3: you’ll not find

A chap4 who’s served that hasn’t found some change.” And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”

© Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems , Faber & Faber, London, 1983 (p. 57)


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“Dare”, in this context, means to challenge someone to do an action which is dangerous or needs courage. 2

“Stone blind” means that a person cannot see anything at all; usually “stone” is placed before the expressions “stone cold”, “stone deaf” and “stone drunk” where “stone” means “completely”; there is also the expression “to be stoned” which means to be totally drunk or in another world because of having taken drugs.


“Syphilitic” means that Bert has caught the venereal disease syphilis after having slept with prostitutes when on 110

leave. 4

“Chap” is a familiar term meaning a “person”.

4. Poem

: by Siegfried Sassoon


(Denmark Hill Hospital, April 1917) “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 cursing1 his staff2 for incompetent swine3. “He’s a cheery4 old card5,” grunted6 Harry to Jack As they slogged up7 to Arras with rifle and pack8. 120

. . .

But he did for them9 both by his plan of attack.

© Siegfried Sassoon: The War Poems , Faber & Faber, London, 1983 (p. 78)



“Cursing” means someone says obscene or blasphemous things. 125


“Staff” means the staff officers who were responsible for planning attacks in châteaux far from the front line and who never saw action.


“Swine” literally means “pigs”; it is a form of insult. 4

“Cheery” means “happy”. 5

“Old card” means that the General is a friendly, amusing man. 130


“Grunted” means that Harry made a low, rough noise, suggesting that he wasn’t happy with the General. 7

“Slogged up” is a mixture of the verb “to slog”, an informal word meaning to continue working hard at something difficult, and to “go up”, meaning that on the map Arras was higher than the base camp; Sassoon was saying that the march to the front line was difficult.


“Pack” was the heavy backpack that soldiers wore on their backs and it contained all their equipment and food. 135


“He did for them both” is an informal expression meaning “He killed them”. Sassoon’s original,

illustrated manuscript of ‘The General’, © George Sassoon


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5. Poem

: by Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen was the youngest of the three poets. Unlike the other two, he attended a grammar school and did not come from a wealthy background. As his surname suggests, his family was originally from Wales, and like many lower middle class men, he decided 140

on a career in the church. Unfortunately, Owen began having doubts about his faith and when the war broke out he decided to join the army.

His poetry lacked assurance until he met his ‘mentor’, Siegfried Sassoon, when he was in hospital in Scotland. Sassoon suggested several changes to his poetry and

encouraged him to continue with what Owen called ‘the pity of war’. Like Sassoon, he decided to go back to the 145

front line to be able to continue writing powerful poetry and protect his comrades, but his fate was not so good: while everybody else was celebrating the armistice on November 11th, 1918, his parents received a telegram announcing that their son had died in battle in Belgium just a few days before!




(September – October 1917)

What passing-bells2 for these who die as cattle3? 150

– Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering4 rifles’ rapid rattle5 Can patter out6 their hasty7 orisons8.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning9 save10 the choirs, – 155

The shrill11, demented12 choirs of wailing13 shells; And bugles14 calling for them from sad shires15. What candles may be held to speed16 them all? Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers17 of goodbyes. 160

The pallor18 of girls’ brows19 shall be their pall20; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk21 a drawing-down of blinds22.

© Wilfred Owen: Selected Poetry and Prose, (edited by Jennifer Breen), Routledge, London & New York, 1988 (pp. 48-49)




“Anthem” means a song and is usually used in the expression “The National Anthem”; but it can also be an important religious song (often expressing joy); here, perhaps, a solemn song of celebration.


“Passing-bells” are bells that ring after someone’s death to announce the death to the world. 3

“Cattle” means cows and bulls that are kept for farming or carrying things. 170


“Stuttering” means that a person finds it difficult to say the first sound of a word and hesitate or repeat it. Here we hear the sound the rifles make and they seem to come to life, which is the exact opposite of what they do to people.


“Rattle” suggests a short, rapid sound that is repeated through shaking or hitting. 6

“Patter out” means to speak rapidly. 175


“Hasty” means something done quickly usually without thought or time to prepare. 8

“Orisons” are prayers, and here they are funeral prayers. 9

“Mourning” is when someone shows they are sad about another person’s death; often it is public behaviour when people wear black.


“Save” means “except for” in this context. 180


“Shrill” means a very high, piercing note. 12

“Demented” means that the person is completely mad. 13

“Wailing” means high-pitched notes that someone who is crying makes when they express their despair or pain. Original manuscript of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ with Sassoon’s amendments, © British Library

Wilfred Owen in uniform and also (bottom right) wounded


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“Bugles” are small brass instruments like trumpets which traditionally play the tune the “Last Post” at military funerals.

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“Shires” are all the English counties, many of which end in “-shire”, from where the soldiers come. 16

“Speed” means to send them off quickly, and here it means to heaven. 17

“Glimmers” are faint lights that often come and go. 18

“Pallor” means paleness. 19

“Brows” are foreheads, that is, the part of someone’s head above their eyes; the word “brow” is literary and 190

suggests the emotions that cause someone to show happiness or sadness on their foreheads. 20

“Pall” (which is pronounced like “Paul”) is a cloth that is placed over a dead person’s coffin at their funeral. 21

“Dusk” means the sun going down at the end of the day and it has a symbolic significance here. 22

“The drawing-down of blinds” normally means shutting window blinds at night, but here it also evokes the tradition of drawing the blinds in a room where a dead person lies, as a sign to the world and as a mark of 195

respect. The coming of night is like the drawing down of blinds.

6. Poem

: by Wilfred Owen


1 (October 1917 – February 1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

200 Knock-kneed2, coughing like hags3, we cursed through sludge4, Till on the haunting flares5 we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest6 began to trudge7. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped8 on, blood-shod9. All went lame10; all blind; 205

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots11

Of tired, outstripped12 Five-Nines13 that dropped behind. Gas!14 Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling15, Fitting the clumsy16 helmets17 just in time;

But someone still was yelling out18 and stumbling19, 210

And flound’ring20 like a man in fire or lime21 …

Dim22, through the misty panes23 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,24 choking25, drowning. 215

If in some smothering26 dreams you too could pace27 Behind the wagon that we flung28 him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing29 in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin30; If you could hear, at every jolt31, the blood 220

Come gargling from the froth32-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud33

Of vile, incurable sores34 on innocent tongues, My friend, you would not tell with such high zest35 To children ardentfor some desperate glory, 225

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.

© Wilfred Owen: Selected Poetry and Prose, (edited by Jennifer Breen), Routledge, London & New York, 1988 (pp. 50-51)

Part of the original manuscript of ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, © British Library


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DULCE ET DECORUM EST: the first words of a Latin ode by the poet Horace. The words were widely understood and often quoted at the start of the First World War. They mean “It is sweet and right.” The full saying ends the poem: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” mean “it is sweet and right to die for your country”. In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.


“Knock-kneed” means that a person’s knees hit together, usually because of a physical problem or fright. 235


“Hags” are ugly old women; it is an offensive description. 4

“Sludge” is thick mud which is very difficult to walk through. 5

“Flares” were rockets that were sent up to burn with a brilliant glare to light up men and other targets in the area between the front lines.


The “rest” was a camp away from the front line where exhausted soldiers might rest for a few days or longer. 240


“Trudge” means to walk slowly with heavy steps because the person is tired or fed up. 8

“Limp” means to walk with difficulty when one of the legs doesn’t function correctly. 9

“Shod” comes from the irregular verb “shoe” (shod, shod); it means that the person is wearing something on their feet.


“Lame” means that a person is unable to walk correctly because of an injury. 245


“Hoots” were the noise made by the shells flying through the air. 12

“Outstripped” means that the soldiers have struggled to move away from shells which are now falling behind them.


“Five-Nines” were 5.9 calibre explosive shells. 14

“Gas”: from the symptoms Wilfred Owen describes it was probably poisonous chlorine or phosgene gas; this gas 250

filled the lungs with fluid and caused the same effects as when a person drowned. 15

“Fumbling” means a person is trying to use their hands but unsuccessfully, perhaps to hold or catch something. 16

“Clumsy” means that somebody or something is inefficient and uncoordinated; the result is that things are broken or spilt.


“Helmets” were the early name for gas masks. 255


“Yelling out” means shouting loudly. 19

“Stumbling” means falling to the ground accidentally. 20

“Floundering” means somebody is moving their arms about in all directions because they can’t see and are panicking.


“Lime” is a white chalky substance usually used for putting on dead bodies and which can burn flesh. 260

22 “Dim” means the light isn’t strong. 23

“Misty panes” were the pieces of glass which were difficult to see through in the gas masks. 24

“Guttering” is usually used to speak of a candle that is going out or it can mean the gurgling of water going down a gutter, but here it refers to the sounds in the throat of the choking man.


“Choking” means the person is coughing and can’t get enough air into their lungs. 265


“Smothering” means suppressing, usually of fire, air or emotions. 27

“Pace” means to walk. 28

“Flung” comes from the irregular verb “to fling” (flung, flung) meaning the throw using force. 29

“Writhing” means that a person’s body twists and turns violently backwards and forwards because of pain. 30

“Sin” means evil in the sight of God. 270


“Jolt” means a sudden, violent movement. 32

“Froth” means the small bubbles of a liquid.

33 “Cud” is normally the regurgitated grass that cows chew; here a similar looking material was coming out of the soldier’s mouth.


“Sores” are painful wounds where the skin is infected. 275






Related subjects : War Poetry