The First World War in Poetry. Comparing the Home Front and the Trench Poets

Term Paper, 2018

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Representation of the First World War in Poetry

1. Introduction

This paper focuses on the poetry written about the First World War. It examines the ways in which the theme of war is taken up in poetry and the way in which various battlefields are presented. The paper will also look at the image of soldiers as perceived in the early years ofthe war and howithad transformed with the progress of war. It also intends to highlight the view of twenty-first century poets on post-war memory poems. The genre of poetry is selected for this research in order to engage with the actual experience of war from the front lines, it will also highlight the gap between the perceptions of war at the home front and the front line. Minogue and Palmer suggest for the readers of this century that “the historical moment is so long gone that there would be quaintness in the constructed encounter, but it is peculiar quality of poetry that it can carry the reader directly into the drama of the moment” (2).

Poetry played a significant role in shaping the view of the war at the home front. Poetry fostered the enthusiasm for war more than pamphlets and articles of the time. Newspapers were filled with patriotic verse celebrating war struggle and encouraging volunteers to join in the great cause. This paper will analyse the heterogeneity of stance towards of the war and the contrastive depiction of action taken up by nationalist and pacifist poets of the time. To achieve this, the research is divided into three parts: firstly, the nationalistic and propagandist narrative represented in the celebrated poems of the time;in the succeeding part, the pacifist view taken up by the trench poets will be discussed; and in the last and final part the post-war poems written long after the war will be studied.

2. Call for Action

Stand, England for honour./ And God Guard the Right. (Bridges lines 2-4)

“Stand, England for Honour,” is a fundamental theme of these poems to inspire the readers to take up arms and fight for the homeland. These poems helped in creating and guiding a certain response of the English nation towards war. It prompted unquestionable support towards the war effort and encouraged participation in war.

This nationalistic perspective is achieved through the use of lofty phrases and patriotic rhetoric in poetry. Distorted reports and falsified claims to spread propaganda along with censorship kept the home front unaware of the actualities of the front line. Motifs of bravery, sacrifice and heroic masculinity are central to these poems. At times, manipulative language is used to create propaganda against the enemies.

War is presented as an existential conflict for the British identity as Rudyard Kipling strikes this instinct in his “For All We Have and Are”. These verses “reiterate the passing of comfort, content, delight, now that the war has begun, he argues the need for fortitude, and repeats his assertion that only the sacrifice of body, soul, and will can make England prevail” (Crawford 34). The question of taking up arms became a question of existence and identity and Kipling reflects it here.

For all we have andare
For all our children's fate,
Stand up and take the war.
The Hun is at the gate. (1-4)

This title was used byareporter of The Times while narrating the Neuve Chapelle assault in 1915. The reporter wanted to invoke a collective national sentiment to be there for England, in its hour of need. It shows how important poetry was to the nation and what role it played in creating the people's view on the war.

Some of the poets targeted the enemies by spreading propagandist ideas about them in their poems, using manipulative language to appeal to the masses at home front. The propaganda was constructed around religious or nationalistic sentiments to achieve a sense of righteousness in the cause of fight. One such example is Rupert Brooke's Peace where he utilizes homophobic sentiments by declaring German soldiers to be homosexuals who need purification. It implies that British men have the responsibility to clean and remove these dirty men from the world.

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love! (5-8)

Another striking feature of these poems is the celebration of sacrifice for the country. Death is presented as a life-assuring event which can lead to eternity. The idea of sacrifice appeals to the religious instinct of people, as religious obligations are taken more seriously by people than the national ones. Glorification of death was implemented even in news articles and general political speeches of the time to encourage military enlisting. Rupert Brooke demonstrates on the same idea of death in The Soldier.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever 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, breathingEnglish air,
Washed by rivers, blest by suns of home.(1-8).

Minogue and Palmer in The Remembered Dead suggest that Brooke finds “cleanliness, beauty and wholesomeness in death” and the actual grotesque images oftorn bodies are ignored (27). Brooke himself experienced war at the front lines and yet concealed the true nature of modern warfare in his idealistic vision of war.His sonnets turned out extremely in influential in spreading the cause of taking up arms for its spiritual appeal. Even after his death he is considered as a supreme example of “patriotic masculine sacrifice” (Minogue and Palmer 29).

Another recurrent theme related to the concept of death is the hallucinatory reappearance of the dead people--sometimes as voices or as imaginary manifestations. The idea of the dead addressing and advising on existence and eternity also resonates the religious concept of life after death, making it popular among the general public. The dead speak from their graves to convince people to fight and die like they did. It sends a reminder the living to not let their sacrifice go in vain and it appeals to the young men who are enthusiastic for war.

In In Flander's Fields, John McCrae gives voice to the dead soldiers who are are “passing the torch” to the living, to take up the responsibility of fighting evil by continuing their mission.

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. (10-15)

Here the poem also sends an alarming message that if the living don't fight for the cause, then the dead will not be in peace. It is a direct invitation to take up arms against the enemy without questioning the motives of the war itself. It serves appropriately with nationalistic agenda to participate in war.

These poems built the image of a soldier as heroic and masculine; those who enroll for military services set a precedent of ideal masculinity in the times of war. In accordance with the taking up arms perspective, the White Feather movement was gaining popularity among women in Britain. A white feather was a symbol for cowardice for men who refused to participate in wars and brought on themselves humiliation and shame. Alfred E. Housman propagates this image of masculinity in The Recruit (21).

Come you home a hero
Or come not home at all,
The lads you leave will mind you
Till Ludlow tower shall fall. (13-16)

During the early years of war, men who volunteered for action were presented as the saviours of the nation. Thomas Hardy praises these men in Men Who March Away with the highest form of national and patriotic admiration.

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing grey,
Leaving all that here can win us;
What of the fate and fire within us
Men who march away? (1-7)

The intension of the poem is to applaud the commendable patriotic stance taken by soldiers rather than commenting on the realities of war. Hardy “uses archaic expressions and language to present the war as a crusade” (Crawford 34).

3. Anti-War Pacifist Poems

In this section poems having anti-war sentiment and critical perspective will be analysed. The stance and tone in these poems is the antithesis of the ones discussed in the preceding part. War action is portrayed as futile and hopeless. Poets some of whom actually participated in the war are disillusioned by the war and express their moral, mental and emotional conflict. These poems question the real motives behind the war and also raise serious concerns regarding higher authorities, profiteers of war and inept generals who send men on slaughter missions. In these poems poets also criticize the unsympathetic behavior masses and interests of warmongers who are persistent on continuation ofwar.

After the battle of Somme, the nationalistic fervour taken up by poets and literary influencers alike was altered. The horrific battle of Somme unveiled the brutal realities of actual warfare to both soldiers and poets. On the first of July 1916, during the Somme assault “60,000 were killed and wounded, over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man's Land stopped crying out” (Fussell 13). It is estimated that in a period from July to 18 November 1916, casualties on both German and Allied side reached over a million. Apart from realizations on strategic failures, the most significant impact the battle created was that it exposed the true nature of war,unlike the idealistic portrayal given by the politicians and propagandist agents earlier.

War in itself is condemned and projected as holocaust. Fussell in The Great War quotes Edmund Blunden's comment on the Somme assault; “by the end of the day both sides had seen, in sad scrawl of broken earth and murdered men, the answers to the question. No road, no thoroughfare. Neither race had won, nor could win, the war. The war had wonand would go on winning” (Fussell 38). The same insight on the destructive nature of war was attainted by the trench poets who presented the havocs of battlefield through their poetry.

The trench poets Osbert Sitwell, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, witnessing the modern mechanical warfare and the trench experience, presented a completely different view of the war. Their “writings all reflect a first-hand vision of this holocaust, and it was this, and the nearness and constancy of death, the comradeship of the trenches, the revelation of crucified humanity, that filled their minds” (Pearson 103-104). The realistic conditions of the battlefield are conveyed by these poets which were previously excluded from war literature, intentionally or unintentionally.

Santanu Das explains this gruesome trench experience: “it was one of the most sustained and systematic shattering of human sensorium: it stripped man of protective layers of civilization and thrust his naked fragile body between the ravages of industrial modernity, on the one hand and, the chaos of formless matter on the other”(74). Men who survived the actual trench experience carried the trauma throughout their lives long after the war had ended. These poems cover the action at the war front and the trauma faced by these soldiers later in their lives - now termed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The religious blandishment for war participation is criticized by Sassoon in his poem They; where he mocks the religious conviction added as duty to taking up arms against enemies. The tone is satirical and irony is subtle in order to shift attention to the deeper meaning of the words.

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!' (1-12)

It is a reply to the call religious sections of the society made to attract more people for war. The anti-Christ propaganda taken up by earlier poets is attacked in this poem, it also raises objections on the idea of glorification of death and heroic vision of sacrifice. In the first part the bishop tries to entice young minds to war where he declares that participation in war proves one's mettle and bravery to face challenges in life and connects it to being a religious obligation. The second part is the exact opposite, as it represents the deadly and life-altering effects of war on men. The last line is inspired by Milton's muse justifying the ways of god to men from Paradise Lost; here suggesting “the ways of God are strange”, where reason fails and responsibility of the crisis is shifted to Divine authority.

During the war in Britain, the war enthusiasts propagating action ignored the strategic failures caused by the ineptitude of army generals who sent soldiers on impossible missions. Instead of highlighting flaws, the nationalists celebrated these inept generals as heroes to widen the gap between the war front and the home front. The home front was mostly unaware of the actual conditions at the front and thus supported the cause of war despite bearing heavy losses of loved ones. In Base Details, Sassoon talks about the highest military officials and politicians and how unnerved they had beenwiththe destruction caused by the war.

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You'd see me with my puffy petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel, Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young-chap,' I'd say — ‘I used to know his father well; Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap.' And when the war is done and youth stone dead, I'd toddle safely home and die — in bed. (1-10)

It embodies the irony of how the highest officials are playing withthe fates of poor young menin the name of patriotism. The luxuries these authorities are enjoying are in striking contrast with the situation at the war front. The irresponsible attitude and lack of empathy shown by them resulted in war in the first place; he also points out that when the war ends, those responsible wouldbe unharmed and die a natural death while pushing thousands of soldiers towards death.

Osbert Sitwell had witnessed the catastrophe of the Battle of Loos on the Western Front and became well aware of the incompetence of generals that is why he was convinced that continuation of the war was madness. John Pearson regards Loos as “a battle of outrageous blunders, of missed opportunities and wasted lives”, which strengthened Sitwell's belief that soldiers were mere pawns in the hands of “powerful elders who were so certain they knew best” (101). In his poem Arm-Chair he voices his judgment through these verses: “If I were now of handsome middle age,/ I should not govern yet, but still should hope,/ to help the prosecution of war” (Pearson 131).

When it comes to action on the battlefield, anti-war poets presented the truthful to the level graphic portrayal of the front lines. It stands in conflict to the earlier idealistic, romanticized depiction of war action; where death on the battlefield was glorified as life fulfilment. Wilfred Owen in An Anthem of Doomed Youth sketches such an encounter where the reader is taken directly into the middle of action and the scene is played with all its sounds and colours to construct the actual experience of war to the disillusioned 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. (1-8)

The dying of soldiers on the field is compared to dying of cattle. The noise and wreath of machine guns removes the veil of heroism and mighty strength presented earlier. The “no prayers nor bells” hints atthe fate of the dead who are buried or left on the ground without any ceremonies to magnify the magnitude of disaster. The title Owenhadchoosenis also ironic the anthem: which is usually used to glorify national or patriotic sentiments implies here the manipulative aspect of nationalism.

Wilfred Owen wrote in the preface of his poem collection that “my subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity” (Minogue and Palmer 198). His poems focus on the brutal realities of war. His themes range from war action to futility of war, the traumatic after effects of war to the idea of the next war, he reflects on war through multiple angles. In A Terre, he expresses the desperate hollowness a wounded soldier feels while recovering from a gas attack and a shell injury.

Sit on the bed, I'm blind, and three parts shell.
Be careful; can't shake hands now; never shall.
My arms have mutinied against me,--brutes
My fingers fidget like ten idle brats.
I tried to peg out soldierly,--no use!
One dies of war like an old disease.
This bandage feels like pennies on my eyes.
I have my medals?—discs to make eyes closed.
My glorious ribbons? _ ripped from my own back
In scarlet shreds. (That's for your poetry book). (1-10)

Initially he narrates the feelings of an injured soldier, whose fragile body could not stand a chance against the weapons used by the enemies. He mocks the military rewards which are meaningless for the man who is suffering intense injuries and coping with the trauma of battlefield. He criticizes the war enthusiasts who promote the cause through their poetry as a form of patriotic duty. The poem consists of ten stanzas which carry the despondent sentiment of a soldier and convey the sheer futility of participation inwar.

In Mental Cases Owen presents “an unflinching account of indelible images of violent death which continued to haunt some of the men's minds even when they were removed from the actualities of war” (Minogue and Palmer 20). The poemgives a detailed experience of near death felt by most soldiers while witnessing death of their fellow soldiers. This experience created a long lasting effect on their minds, now termed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which he discusses in these verses.

These are the men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders, Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander, Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander, Rucked too thick for these men's extrication. (10-18)

The conditions in which these soldiers fought, seeing their comrades dying beside them adds to the trauma and mental torture they underwent while serving on the field. Owen terms these conditions as murder, thus expressing the criminality of the war itself. It is directly in contrast to the earlier accounts and is in fact thought provoking.

4. Post World War Poems

This section discusses the poems written after the war, condemning the war and commemorating the memory of those who were affected by it.The poems selected for analysis in this section construct the images of brutality and the futility of the war itself. These poems unveil the propagandist and jingoistic themes that has been to entice young men to go to wars. Apart from this aspect, these poems played an important role in constructing a collective cultural memory for the nations who were most affected by these wars.

To the current geopolitical situation, countries going on war, the prolonging of the Afghan and theIraq wars, these poems are highly relatable. Now, when the nationalistic digital media is mostly active harbouring a war-mongering attitude, the actualities of war and the nature of war represented in the post-war memory are important for understanding and establishing the reality of wars. As an example, I want to include events of the last week (21 to 28 Feburary 2019) the tensions between two nuclear powers Pakistan and India were escalating and the role media houses played was deleterious. In contrast some of these poems describing the horrors of the two World Wars were used on social media to advocate peaceful solution and negotiations between those two countries.

Elaine Feinstein in his April Fool's Day remembers the death of Isaac Rosenberg in the words that are ironic and grief striking at the same time. Isaac Rosenberg is one of the most renowned trench poets who died in the Battle of Arras on the first of April 1918. It marks the futility of the war and loss of life for such a politically driven cause.

He died on April Fool's Day on patrol,
Beyond the corpses lying on the mud,
Carrying up the line a barbed wire roll
--Useless against the gun fire—with the blood
And flesh of Death in the spring air.
His was the life half lived, if even that,
And the remains of it were never found. We remember the iron honey gold, his cosmopolitan rat. (17-24).

A poem by Carol Ann Duffy in The Last Post criticizes the war in a unique way by reversing the events of the war on a normal battle day. Where those who diedare brought back to life and the wounds are healed in the process of reversal just to show how much damage and loss of life could have been avoided if only leaders of the world had realized in time the catastrophic consequences of war. “Your several million lives still possible” indicting the destruction caused by the war (line 26). It is a beautiful tribute to the naive young men who died in the wars.

If poetry could tell it backwards,true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to stinking mud...
but you get up amazed, watch bled bad blood,
run upwards from the slime into its wounds:
see lines and lines of British boys rewind,
back to their trenches---. (1-6)

5. Conclusion

World War as a subject of poetry generated multiple perspectives on the nature of war.

Both nationalistic and pacifists created some of the finest pieces of verses either motivating people to fight for their homeland or portraying the horrors of the battlefield. The aim of the paper was to highlight the significance of poetry during and after the war in shaping the view of the audience towards it. The image of masculinity that was initially built on the idea of bravery and strength of a soldier was transformed to helplessness and despair in the battlefield which is presented in poetry of trench poets.

Works cited and consulted

Blunden, Edmund. War Poets 1914-1918, British Council and National Book League, Writers and Their Work. London: Longmans, Green, 1958. Print.

Bridges, Robert. “Wake Up, England” British Poets of the Great War. Ed.Fred D.Crawford. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.1988. 31. Print.

Brooke, Rupert. “Peace” Some Desperate Glory. Ed. Max Egremont. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 57. Print.

Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier” Some Desperate Glory. Ed. Max Egremont. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 60. Print

Crawford, Fred D. British Poets of the Great War. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.1988. Print.

Das, Santanu. “War Poetry and Realm of Senses: Owen and Rosenberg”, The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Ed. Tim Kendall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 74. Print.

Duffy, Carol Ann . “The Last Post” 1914: Poetry Remembers. Ed. Carol Ann Duffy. London. Faber and Faber, 2013. Print.

Feinstein, Elaine. “April Fool's Day” 1914: Poetry Remembers. Ed. Carol Ann Duffy. London. Faber and Faber, 2013. Print.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York and London: Oxford University Press. 1975. Print.

Hardy, Thomas. “Men Who March Away” British Poets of the Great War. Ed.Fred D.Crawford. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.1988. 33. Print.

Housman, Alfred E. “The Recruit” First World War Poems. Ed. Jane McMorland Hunter. London: National Trust, 2014. 21 Print.

Kipling, Rudyard. “ For All We Have and Are” British Poets of the Great War. Ed.Fred D.Crawford. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.1988. 34.Print.

McCrae, John. “In Flanders Fields” British Poets of the Great War. Ed.Fred D.Crawford. London and Toronto: Associated University Press.1988. 37-38. Print.

Minogue, Sally. and Palmer, Andrew. The Remembered Dead, Poetry, Memory and the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.2018. Print.

Owen, Wilfred. “A Terre.” Poetry of the World Wars . Ed. Michael Foss.2nd Ed. London: Michael O'Mara Books, 2013. 64-65. Print.

Owen, Wilfred, “Mental Cases” Wilfred Owen. Ed. J. Stallworthy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974. 157.Print.

Owen, Wilfred.“Anthem of Doomed Youth” The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed M. Fergusun J. S. Mary and John S. 5th edition, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005. 1386 .Print.

Pearson, John. The Sitwells, A Family's Biography. New York and London:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1930;1980.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “They” Siegfried Sassoon. The War Poems. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London:Faber and Faber, 1983.57. Print.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “Base Details” Siegfried Sassoon. The War Poems. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis.

London: Faber and Faber, 1983.7.Print


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The First World War in Poetry. Comparing the Home Front and the Trench Poets
University of Göttingen
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World War, Poetry, Home Front, Trauma, Morale, Propaganda
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Sania Irrum (Author), 2018, The First World War in Poetry. Comparing the Home Front and the Trench Poets, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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