The Enduring Power of the War Poets
The centenary of the First World War is drawing to a close, but if there is any justice in the world, the conflict will live in infamy for many centuries to come. Few events have captured as perfectly the death of peace and liberty and the triumph of militarism and statism as the Great War. It not only sent millions to the slaughter and annihilated the last achievements of liberalism, but paved the way for even greater devastation less than a generation after.
It is difficult to comprehend the physical scale of the destruction, much less its human impact. At some point, statistics and even first-hand accounts of the horrors simply beggar understanding. When we read, for example, that at the Battle of the Somme the British suffered 57,470 casualties on the first day, our eyes gloss over the figure. The numbers are too large; they lack human meaning.
But when reason fails—and the First World War was nothing if not an abandonment of liberal reason—intuition and art offer insights lacking in conventional history. Poignant examples are given by the British war poets, many of whom saw combat and wrestled with trying to convey the indescribable conditions they faced in the trenches. Their work offers a powerful indictment of the motives and execution of the war, a condemnation that is made all the more powerful by the knowledge that many of the best-known war poets—including Ellis Humphrey Evans, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas—were eventually killed in action.
The amount of poetry published during and after the war was enormous, and it’s impossible to list every potentially interesting piece of it, so I’ll mention only a few of the most famous works.
Possibly the best-known WWI poem is Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In it, Owen describes a scene that would have been familiar to his fellow soldiers but not the people at home—a forced march under gas attack. He then uses the story to bring home the brutal reality of war and to denounce jingoism:
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 had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumblingFitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd flound’ring 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 paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
The sad truth is that “the old lie” is just as alive and well today as it was a century ago.
Many of the war poets were quick to identify the source of the devastation in which they found themselves: political and military leaders, along with journalists, clerics, and others who concealed or rationalized the true nature of the war. Few poets were as effective at exposing propaganda as Siegfried Sassoon, who started as an enthusiastic supporter of the war effort, but quickly became disillusioned and bitter after seeing its monstrous reality. In one of his best-known poems, “On Passing the New Menin Gate,” he describes a memorial built for the soldiers who died in Flanders:
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,the unheroic dead who fed the guns?Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,The armies who endured that sullen swamp.Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.Was ever an immolation so beliedas these intolerably nameless names?Well might the Dead who struggled in the slimeRise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
“Sepulchre of crime” must be one of the most damning phrases in literature, and applies equally well to other monuments besides the one at Ypres (and to other wars). Sassoon’s relentless criticism comes through strongly in “They,” which targets religious support for the war effort:
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‘New right to breed an honourable race,‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
Sassoon also savaged those naive supporters of war on the home front who saw it as a glorious and noble undertaking. In “Suicide in the Trenches” he essentially speaks for the “lost generation”:
I knew a simple soldier boyWho grinned at life in empty joy,Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,And whistled early with the lark.In winter trenches, cowed and glum,With crumps and lice and lack of rum,He put a bullet through his brain.No one spoke of him again.You smug-faced crowds with kindling eyeWho cheer when soldier lads march by,Sneak home and pray you’ll never knowThe hell where youth and laughter go.
This is a tiny sample of the anti-war poetry from this period, which is probably the only result of the war that could ever truthfully be called “Great.” But one hundred years later the war poets still offer us profoundly human accounts of this devastating conflict and its toll on the world.
I would like to close on an optimistic note, but in this case I think that would do a disservice to the war poets. Instead, I leave the last word to G.K. Chesterton’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”:
The men that worked for EnglandThey have their graves at home:And birds and bees of EnglandAbout the cross can roam.But they that fought for England,Following a falling star,Alas, alas for EnglandThey have their graves afar.And they that rule in England,In stately conclave met,Alas, alas for EnglandThey have no graves as yet.