Poetry and the First World War

There is nothing more poignant and heartfelt than poetry written by a person in the midst of a battle, whilst facing possible death.

Although this type of work doesn’t often get the recognition it deserves I for one am glad to be able to have access to the words of those who decided to let their emotions, thoughts and fears become part of our history by penning them upon whatever paper or material that was available to them.

Below are just a few examples of memorable prose written in an attempt to remember and capture the moment, the people, the terror and the pain of the First World War. I have picked just a few of the many offerings, so without further ado let’s take note of the words of brave men. Prolific even under duress.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ for his often near suicidal daring feats of courage during WW1.

Suicide in the Trenches I knew a simple soldier boy
Who 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 eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go. 

Wilfred Owen (1893-1917)  English poet and soldier. He was shot dead at the Sambre-Oise Canal, France, one week before the end of the war.

 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.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds. 

Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) English poet and soldier, died at the Somme in France. His ‘Poems from the Trenches’ have received a lot of recognition.

Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust

Alan Seeger, American poet (1888-1816) died at the Battle of the Somme

I have a Rendezvous with Death  

At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
 I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.
God knows ’twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear . . .
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvouz. 

Arthur Graeme West (1891 – 1916) shot dead near Bapaume by a sniper’s bullet. Unfortunately there is no picture of this talented poet. He like many other soldiers remains faceless, despite his words being carried forth through history nearly a hundred years later. The above picture is the post-war cemetery in Bapaume.

The Night Patrol France, March 1916
Over the top! The wire’s thin here, unbarbed
Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough:
Full of old tins, though — “When you’re through, all three,Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so,
Then straight for that new piece of German wire;
See if it’s thick, and listen for a while
For sounds of working; don’t run any risks;
About an hour; now, over!”And we placed
Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood
A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire,Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn
The wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers,
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells shot fruitlessly — and everywhere the dead.
Only the dead were always present — present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools — the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air. They lay, all clothed,
Each in some new and piteous attitude
That we well marked to guide us back: as he,
Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed
His legs Crusader-wise: I smiled at that,
And thought on Elia and his Temple Church.
From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse,
Down in a hollow, huddled as in a bed,
That one of us put his hand on unawares.
Next was a bunch of half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three,
Who had no light to see by, save the flares.
On such a trail, so light, for ninety yards
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring
Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times.
A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat;
They shot a glare above us, when it fell
And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land,
We turned and crawled past the remembered dead:
Past him and him, and them and him, until,
For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent
Of the Crusader and slide past his legs,
And through the wire and home, and got our rum.

John Alexander McCrae (1872-1918) Canadian MD and surgeon during the WW1 and the 2nd Battle of Ypres. He died of pneumonia in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
      In Flanders fields.
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.

I would like to leave you with the image of the fields in Flanders where the poppies grow en masse over the bodies, remnants and memories of the Great War. They represent the fields of blood and the many lives lost there.

                                                                Lest we forget.

Free downloads of the above mentioned poems:
Download to listen to The Diary of a Dead Officer by Arthur Graeme West at Librivox.
Download to read The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to the extensive collection Siegfried Sassoon poems at Librivox.
Download to read The Poems of Isaac Rosenberg at the Internet Archive.

Download to listen to Returning we hear the larks written by Isaac Rosenberg at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to In Flanders Field written by John McCrae at the Internet Archive or his collection of poems at Librivox.
Download to read poems by John McCrae at the Internet Archive.
Download to read poems by Alan Seeger at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to Anthem of a Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen at Librivox or his collections of poems.
Download to read poems by Wilfred Owen at the Internet Archive.

3 thoughts on “Poetry and the First World War

  1. There are such strong images to be found in poems. “The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” especially resonates with me. I don't understand people who claim “I don't like poetry.” There are so many different types of poems, so many different poets. How can you possibly not like any of it?

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