Poetry expresses a huge depth of meaning in very concise language. It has always intrigued me that the horror of World War I, where around ten million people lost their lives, delivered to us such very fine poets whose impact has been immense and possibly eternal. In a hellhole punctuated by the incessant racket of shell fire, the filth, the smells of decayed flesh, human and equine, mustard gas burning the eyes, the screams and cries; still these Poets wrote, for they could do no other.
We cannot begin to imagine the unimaginable, the rotten truth that was the trenches and battlefields of World War I into which these young men, and so many others, most unknown to us, were thrown. Lives were wasted, destroyed or changed forever. The World War I Armistice commemoration has thrown their work once again into sharp focus. The scale remains incomprehensible.
Somehow, World War II never produced the same plethora of poetry as the First Great War or at least the same sense of longevity. Perhaps the sheer scale and futility of the 1914-18 War, when men were encouraged to enlist for a ‘military adventure’ that would ‘be over by Christmas’ somehow sparked creativity. More likely, it was a need to get out a message, to inform, to paint a picture of the truth versus the propaganda. Many believe that the World War I poets were all highly educated, articulate members of the middle or landed classes; this is inaccurate. The War touched everyone, from all walks of life, not least the men encouraged to fight, for whom it was considered “sweet and meet”, a privilege to die for their country.
We must remember, too, that censorship during World War I was heavy; poetry was a way to circumvent this, to describe what was truly happening on the battlefields by those sickened by the slaughter. The Poets also had time to write, for there was little to do in the trenches when not attacking or being attacked.
Months before his death in 1918, poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote of his words:
“This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
Who were the War Poets?
Edmund Blunden (1896-1974)
Gaining a classics scholarship to Queen’s College, Oxford, like other young men, Edmund instead enlisted (in the Royal Sussex Regiment in 1915). The eldest of nine children, during 1916-18 he was involved in some of the most horrific fighting of the War on the Somme and at Ypres on the Western Front. He was awarded the Military Cross. Surviving the War, he suffered asthma which had been made worse by gas attacks. Siegfried Sassoon described him as the poet of the war most lastingly obsessed by it as he was in active service longer than any other. In 1918, he married Mary Daines. Their first child, Joy, was born a year later. Sadly, she died in infancy. Despite two more children, he and Mary were unhappy and later divorced in 1931. He later married a reviewer, Sylva Norman, a relationship which also did not survive. Childless, they divorced in 1945. He finally married Claire Poynting, who mothered their four daughters; he was vehemently opposed to World War II. Academically successful, his health was less good. Following an academic career as a prolific writer and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he died of heart failure at 77.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
Rupert Brooke was already a neo-Romantic poet, and perhaps was one of the most idealistic ones, for he like many others was persuaded of the cause at the beginning of the War; the disillusionment of the later Poets passed him by for he died too soon. After leaving Cambridge University, he became one of the Bloomsbury Group. In 1913, he became a fellow and set off travelling. He joined the 2nd Naval Brigade Royal Naval Division, and in 1914 wrote his most famous sonnets. En route to the Dardanelles, he was taken ill in Egypt. On Skyros, Greece, a mosquito bite became infected. As a result, he died of blood poisoning, so his life was sadly cut short.
The BBC site says:
Rupert Brooke caught the optimism of the opening months of the war with his wartime poems, published after his death, which expressed an idealism about war that contrasts strongly with poetry published later in the conflict.
Robert Graves (1895-1985)
Son of a British father and German mother (which must have been extremely difficult for him at this time) and a bullied public schoolboy, Graves won a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, but instead obtained a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Like many other intelligent men, he soon realised that his best way of surviving the War was to be injured. Three weeks in the Battle of the Somme, he was badly injured and reported dead, with the obituary published in The Times. His lungs were permanently damaged, but he lived a long life, eventually dying of heart failure. He fell in love with Nancy Nicholson who bore four children and later had an affair with Laura Riding. He later entered into some unconventional relationships and struggled with mental health issues. His later writing was controversial, inciting a falling out with Siegfried Sassoon, but he was lauded for I Claudius.
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
A chorister and talented composer, thought by some to be touched with genius, Ivor struggled with mental illness (he was bipolar). Due to his poor eyesight, he was rejected by the army in 1914, but by 1915, he enlisted in the 2nd 15th Gloucester Reserve Battalion. He was wounded in action but returned as a machine-gunner on the Arras Front. Exposed to gas at Passchendaele, he was sent home, where he suffered a breakdown and deferred shell shock. He was unable to earn a living as a writer, so tried labouring, clerking and working as a cinema pianist, all of which failed. Mental illness overwhelmed him (he made several suicide attempts) and he spent fifteen years in a psychiatric hospital before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 47. Such a sad end to a
David Jones (1885 – 1974)
Joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a Private, Jones was involved in the opening battle of the Somme but was later wounded in the 1916 attack on Mametz Wood. In 1917, he suffered severe trench fever, a serious disease transmitted by body lice. Postwar, he lived a life of poverty and ill health, supported by friends, while working as an artist/poet, one of the first generation British modernist poets. The younger Jones showed a talent for visual arts. He lived a long, productive life missing out on Passchendaele as a member of a ‘reserve nucleus’ who thereby missed more active service. In Parenthesis is perhaps his key work.
Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917)
An Irish man, he left school at twelve (or perhaps fourteen, as the stories vary), to labour in the mines. Despite being a moderate Irish Nationalist, he joined The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, fighting at Gallipoli and Salonika, but when sent to the Western Front, he was killed by a stray shell at the start of Passchendaele. Ledwidge was killed while serving in Flanders, at Boezinge, on 31 July 1917 during the Third Battle of Ypres. He was aged 29 and was buried at Passchendaele. Most of his poetry made little reference to the War.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)
When war broke out, Wilfred Owen (to my mind – and also that of Jeremy Paxman– the greatest of the War Poets) was working as a private tutor in France. This devout Anglican joined the Artists’ Rifles in 1915, then was commissioned to the Manchester Regiment. In 1917, he suffered shell shock, so was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a mentor in guiding his poetry to success. In 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross but was killed in action on 4th November, shortly before the Armistice. He was killed aged just 25, on 4 November 1918 during the battle to cross the Sambre-Oise canal at Ors. Owen’s poetry grew in stature with the release of Edmund Blunden’s edition with a biographical memoir in 1931. The detail is grim and unflinching.
Isaac Rosenberg (1890 – 1918)
Born to a Lithuanian Jewish family of emigrants, so perhaps the least privileged, Isaac did not attend Oxbridge but instead attended the Slade School of Art, despite leaving school early for his parents could no longer afford to keep him there. Unable to make a living, he enlisted in the 12th Battalion, the Suffolk Regiment of bantam men of less than 5ft 3in in height. He was transferred into the 11th Battalion, the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. It seems he detested war and hated the idea of killing, but he was now unemployed and, hearing that his mother would be able to claim a separation allowance, in late October he enlisted. Writing poems on scraps of paper in the trenches, poems he then sent to his sister Annie to be typed, he was killed on patrol in 1918 and his unidentifiable body buried on the battlefield. He was considered a very promising poet, potentially among the greats like Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886 -1967)
He attended Clare College, Cambridge, but left without a degree, having dropped out. Very wealthy family fortunes meant he did not have to work but he wrote poetry. However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. His father left when he was young, and died soon afterwards. Siegfried, who did not go to school until fourteen, enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry and transferred to the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Awarded the Military Cross for bravery during a trench raid on the Western Front, he made a ‘public act of defiance against military authority’ in 1917, condemning the continuation of the War. This was assumed to be/promoted as neurasthenia (shell shock) and thus largely ignored. He survived the War, his later prose work highly regarded. He married and had a child, but the marriage failed (perhaps because of his ambiguous sexuality). He became a Roman Catholic in 1957, which inspired his later poetry.