The war poets and the First World War

Feb 13, 2023

World War I (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918) was one of the deadliest conflicts in global history. Nowadays, it is also referred to as a literary war because of the numerous works of literature that were produced by the so-called war poets during this period. 

Historical introduction to the war poets

The causes of the war

The outbreak of the war was mainly caused by the fervent nationalism and imperialism that spread throughout Europe during the 19th century. Moreover, in the early years of the 20th century the international crisis became recurrent, especially as a result of the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria-Hungary (1908), that fuelled tensions in the Balkans. Europe was divided into two opposing blocks: on one hand France and Britain, that gradually brought in their field Russia, Japan and Italy; and on the other Austria-Hungary and Germany, that bound to them the Ottoman Empire.

The trigger of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – committed in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. After the assassination, Austria-Hungary launched an ultimatum to Serbia (July 23 1914), blaming the country for Ferdinand’s death. While the European chancelleries attempted to find a peaceful solution, on July 28 the Austro-Hungarian empire declared war on Serbia. After this, the peace in Europe was broken through a domino effect: Germany sided with Austria-Hungary, meanwhile Russia and France sided with Serbia. Then, Germany declared war on France, and invaded Belgium (a neutral country) on the way to France. Great Britain intervened in defense of Belgian neutrality, and declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary.  By the end of 1914, not only Europe was at war, but also all of Europe’s colonies in Asia, Africa and South America. Finally, on May 23 of 1915 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary. 

The trenches and shell shock

The trenches were long, narrow ditches dug into the ground where soldiers lived and fought. They were often deep enough for a man to stand in, and were usually lined with sandbags or other materials to protect against bullets and shrapnel. Trenches were used by both sides of the conflict and were located along the front lines of the war. The trenches were a key aspect of the war, as they provided soldiers with a place to shelter and rest while also offering some protection from enemy fire. However, life in the trenches was often miserable, as soldiers were subjected to extreme conditions such as cold, wet weather, and exposure to diseases. The trenches were also dangerous places, as soldiers were constantly at risk of being killed or wounded by enemy fire or suffering from shell shock.

The term “shell shock” was coined to describe the psychological effects of being subjected to the constant noise and stress of artillery fire. However, it is now understood that shell shock was not caused solely by the noise of shells, but also by the overall conditions of trench warfare, which included extreme physical and psychological stress, exposure to danger, and the loss of comrades. The psychological effects of shell shock were varied and could include symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and difficulty concentrating. Some soldiers also experienced physical symptoms, such as tremors, fatigue, and memory loss. 

This condition was often misunderstood, and soldiers who suffered from it were often seen as weak or as cowards. As a result, many soldiers who experienced shell shock were sent back to the front lines instead of being treated for their condition. However, as the war progressed and more was understood about the psychological effects of trench warfare, efforts were made to treat and rehabilitate soldiers suffering from shell shock. These efforts included the use of therapies such as hypnotherapy and psychoanalysis, as well as the establishment of rest camps and hospitals specifically for the treatment of this condition. 

The war in England

When the war began in 1914, England was one of the major Allied powers and played a key role in the conflict. The war had a profound effect on English society, as millions of men enlisted to fight and many women took on new roles in the workforce to support the war effort. The war also had an economic impact, as resources were redirected to support the military and the government implemented measures such as rationing to conserve resources. It also had a psychological effect on the English people, as the conflict dragged on for years and the death toll continued to rise.

Thousands of English young men enlisted to fight in the conflict. Many of these men were motivated by a sense of duty and a desire to defend their country, as well as to escape difficult economic and social circumstances. The English government implemented propaganda campaigns to encourage young men to enlist in the military. These campaigns utilized various forms of media to promote the war effort and portray the conflict in a positive light. The propaganda often depicted the war as a noble cause and portrayed the enemy as evil or inferior, in an effort to justify the conflict and rally support for the war effort. By the end of the war, approximately 700.000 soldiers from England died. 

The war poets

A literary war

World War I is often referred to as a “literary war” because it had a significant impact on literature and the arts. Many writers and artists were involved – in different ways – in the war and their experiences influenced their work. Many of these writers, such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, now best known as war poets, served as soldiers and wrote about their experiences on the front lines. The war also had a significant impact on the work of writers who were not directly involved in the conflict but lived it as common citizens, as it shaped the social and cultural landscape of the time and influenced the way in which people thought about the world. 

The experience of the war was mainly described in the works of poetry written by the so-called “combatant poets”. They wrote about their experiences during World War I, with many of them serving as soldiers on the front lines. These war poets wrote about the horrors of trench warfare and the impact of the conflict on their lives and the lives of those around them. Some of the most well-known English war poets include Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke. Their work provides a unique perspective on the conflict and helps to shed light on the experiences and emotions of those who lived through the war. The English war poets of World War I are an important part of our understanding of the conflict and its lasting impact on society. 

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918), one of the best known war poets

Wilfred Owen was an English poet and soldier who is best known for his powerful and moving poetry about World War I. Owen was born in 1893 in Oswestry, England, and grew up in a working-class family. He was educated at the Birkenhead Institute and later attended the University of London, where he studied theology. In 1913 Owen began working as a tutor in France, but when World War I broke out he returned to England and enlisted in the military. 

He served as a soldier on the front lines of the conflict and was deeply affected by his experiences. He was particularly struck by the horrors of trench warfare and the impact of the conflict on the soldiers who fought in it and his poetry reflects this condition. Some of Wilfred Owen’s most famous works about World War I include Dulce et Decorum Est, Strange Meeting and Mental Cases. He died on November 4, 1918, just one week before the armistice that ended World War I. 

Dulce et decorum est (1917)

Dulce et Decorum Est is a powerful poem written by Owen during the autumn of 1917, while he was being treated at the Craiglockhart hospital because of his shell shock condition. The title is a reference to the Latin phrase “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which means “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”. Here Owen critiques this idea and challenges the notion that war is a glorious or heroic endeavor.

The poem is structured in three stanzas and uses vivid imagery and powerful language to convey the horrors of the war. 

  1. The first stanza depicts the soldiers trudging through the mud and gas, their faces “like old beggars under sacks”, as they make their way to the front lines. 
  2. The second stanza describes a gas attack, with the soldiers struggling to put on their masks as they are overcome by the gas. 
  3. The final stanza depicts the aftermath of the attack, with one soldier left behind and unable to put on his mask in time. This stanza conveys the sense of helplessness and despair that many soldiers must have felt during the war. 

The final line of the poem – “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” – is particularly poignant and serves to underscore the emotional toll of the conflict on the soldiers who fought in it. In fact, this line suggests that the horrors of the war were not just physical, but also emotional and psychological, and that the soldiers who lived through it were deeply affected by their experiences. The use of the word “gargling” to describe the sound of the soldier’s blood as it comes from his lungs is particularly striking and serves to emphasize the brutal and devastating impact of the war. 

Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967), one of the few war poets that survived

Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 in Kent, England, and grew up in a wealthy and privileged family. He was educated at Marlborough College and later attended Clare College, Cambridge, where he studied history. In 1906 Sassoon began working as a writer and published his first volume of poetry in 1913. By the time he joined the war he was already an affirmed author. Some of Sassoon’s most famous works about World War I include They and The Glory of Women.  

He was also a vocal critic of the war and was one of the first soldiers to publicly protest against it. In 1917, he wrote a letter to his commanding officer, A Soldier’s Declaration, in which he stated his opposition to the conflict and his belief that it was being prolonged for no good reason. The letter caused a sensation when it was published in the press and helped to spark a wider debate about the war and its impact on society. After the war, he continued to write and publish poetry, as well as novels and memoirs. He died in 1967 at the age of 80 and is remembered as one of the most important and influential war poets of WWI.

They (1917)

This poem is one of Sasson’s most famous works and was published posthumously in the 1960s. It is a typical Sassounian text and is very easy to understand in order to reach a larger audience. The “they” the poem talks about are the soldiers represented in opposition to the bishop, who stands for the church and the higher hierarchies. The poem is made of two stanzas which are graphically separated by a blank space. In this and many other of his poems, Sassoon identifies himself as the representative soldier of World War I that tries to make civilians understand the reality of war. 

The work describes how soldiers had physical problems not only caused by their heroic gestures during the conflict, but also by the daily accidents that happened in the trenches. He also cites the many soldiers that committed suicide, which was considered a non-honorable way to die, and how these soldiers were not perceived as heroes but as cowards. The two stanzas create a sort of dialogue, where he overall speaks against the rhetoric of church and State. It is the same tone of A soldier’s declaration: a self-confident tone not afraid to speak his mind. 

Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915), war poet till death

Rupert Brooke was a British poet who is best known for his war sonnets written during World War I. He was born in 1887 and educated at Rugby School and Cambridge University. Brooke was part of the “Georgiangroup of poets, which included writers such as W.H. Auden and Thomas Hardy, who were known for their focus on traditional themes and forms

Brooke’s poetry is characterized by its use of simple language and traditional forms, as well as its focus on themes of love, patriotism, and the natural world. He is known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the conflict, especially The Soldier. He died at the age of 27 while serving as a soldier during World War I. 

The soldier (1915)

This poem is written in the form of a Petrarchan/Italian sonnet, which consists of 14 lines divided into an opening octet (eight lines) and a concluding sestet (six lines). The poem’s point of dramatic change occurs after the fourth line, when the focus shifts from the soldier’s death to his life and accomplishments as a member of the English army in World War I. 

The Soldier reflects on the idea of patriotism and the idea that those who die for their country will be remembered and honored forever. In the poem the soldier declares that his sacrifice will be the eternal ownership of England over the small piece of land where his body is buried: “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”. 
The Soldier was the final poem in a series of sonnets about World War I. It also symbolically marked the end of the author’s life, as Rupert Brooke himself died before the publication of the poem.

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