War Poets in World War I
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JEFFREY BROWN: “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” The words of Wilfred Owen in 1918. A few months after writing them at age 25, Owen was killed in battle in France just four days before the end of World War I. His parents learned of his death as armistice bells rang in their hometown in England. In the history books, or even reading today’s newspaper, war can seem impersonal, involving millions of men and machines.
But at an exhibition here in London’s Imperial War Museum, war is very personal. The stuff a soldier carried in his pocket as he was killed, the words he wrote to describe the horror of life and death in the trenches of World War I. “Anthem for Doomed Youth”– the title comes from a poem by Wilfred Owen– tells the story of 12 soldier-poets. All fought and seven died in what was and is still called the Great War. On display are personal effects: boots, medal a map of Belgium from the coat of Julian Grenfell, killed in May 1915, still stained with his blood. Sketches of dead rats in the trenches, by David Jones, an artist as well as poet, who survived the war. A pocket watch stopped forever at 7:36 A.M., the exact moment a shell exploded near Philip Edward Thomas on April 9, 1917. His body was found intact. His heart, like the watch, had stopped. Above all, the exhibition offers the words of these men from letters and poems. Penny Ritchie Calder is a curator at the Imperial War Museum.
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: It was the first time that poets had really been in the front line. Poets had written about war since Homer’s time in ancient Greece, but they hadn’t ever experienced it for themselves and actually sat in a trench and endured a shell bombardment. And then all of a sudden, they were there, right in the front line, and they saw what was happening to their fellow men. They had all these emotions of fear, horror, despair, elation, and they were able to put these into words.
JEFFREY BROWN: Rupert Brooke embodied the early romanticism and patriotism of the war effort. Movie-idol handsome, a young star in literary circles, Brooke wrote “The Soldier” in 1914, which begins with the famous line: “If I should die, think only this of me that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” In a letter to a friend, Brooke wrote: “Come and die, it’ll be great fun.”
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: The whole idea was that to sacrifice your life for… in this war would be a fantastic way to die, and a glorious end to a career, even though it was youth cut short. And so people genuinely felt that it was worth risking one’s life and joining up, and doing one’s bit for the country.
JEFFREY BROWN: Rupert Brooke would die in 1915, from disease on a troopship bound for Gallipoli. He was 28. Such was his almost cult-like status that locks of his hair and an olive branch placed on his grave have been preserved. Less known is Francis Ledwidge, an Irish nationalist who nonetheless signed up to serve with the British army. His poems long for home, but are often drawn back to the battlefield. One is called “A Soldier’s Grave”.
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: Ledwidge had just witnessed the burial of a German officer who had fallen quite close by to where he and his comrades were working, and they buried him. And I think just the sort of human kindred feeling for another person who has died, and thinking well, this person had family, and loved ones, and the sentiments in the poem are really very, very timeless and very touching.
JEFFREY BROWN: “Then in the lull of midnight gentle arms lifted him slowly down the slopes of death lest he should hear again the mad alarms of battle, dying moans and painful breath.”
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: It was an enemy soldier, but in death all are the same, and so there was no vehemence and no fear or hatred. It was just pure poetry that expressed how one laid someone else to rest.
JEFFREY BROWN: Francis Ledwidge died on the western front in 1917, at age 29. Perhaps the least likely soldier in the group is Isaac Rosenberg: small, sickly, a starving artist before the war who drew self- portraits at the front.
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: He hated war. He was a hopeless soldier, but he did his best. And the poems that come out, a fantastic contrast between those written maybe by officers, and they’re on tiny scraps of paper that he found in the trenches; bits of brown paper with sketches on them, and you can see the immediacy of them. They have the sort of feeling that they were written right and right then.
JEFFREY BROWN: In his poem “Dead Man’s Dunk,” Rosenberg describes removing the battlefield dead. “A man’s brains splattered on a stretcher bearer’s face, his shook shoulders slipped its load but when they went to look again, the drowning soul was sunk too deep for human tenderness they left this dead with the older dead stretched at the crossroads.” Isaac Rosenberg himself was killed on patrol in France, in April 1918. At home in England, newsreels portrayed the maimed enjoying races and adjusting to their new life.
But the slaughter on the battlefield continued, and bitterness soon crept into the poetry of World War I. Siegfried Sassoon, an infantry officer born of the leisure class, survived the war’s single bloodiest day, July 1, 1916, when nearly 60,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded at the Battle of the Somme. In his poem, “The General,” Sassoon ridiculed Britain’s military leaders: “‘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 cursing his staff for incompetent swine.”
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: It’s an extremely powerful, punchy little poem, and I think sums up a lot of the irony and the way in which there was this feeling that the generals and those in charge were having a very cushy number, didn’t ever visit the front, and were just treating the men at the front line like pawns, had no feeling for, you know, instilling any kind of morale into them, and were just treating them as cannon fodder.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sassoon would issue a public protest against the conduct of the war, but he was honored for his service and later wrote several volumes on his experience. Through four years of fighting, more than ten million soldiers on all sides were killed. The Great War, it is often said, rang in the mass blood-lettings of the 20th century and changed the world forever. In the years since, the war and its poetry have remained part of Britain’s cultural memory, down to our own troubled times.
JEFFREY BROWN: We’re here at a time when people in Britain and the United States are thinking about a possible war with Iraq. Do you think that these poets still have a relevance for us today?
PENNY RITCHIE CALDER: They have a resonance which still speaks today. And, in fact, a lot of the comments in the book that visitors see on their way out; that they write how they feel about the exhibition have said our leaders should come and see this exhibition today. It’s not anti-war, it’s not pro- war, but it’s about the reality of war, and the reality of war is fairly ghastly.
JEFFREY BROWN: As Wilfred Owen wrote in his poem “Anthem for Doomed 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.”