WORLD WAR I POETRY. Summary of Events. The Start of the War
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WORLD WAR I POETRY
World War I began on July 28, 1914, when Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia. This seemingly small conflict between two countries spread rapidly: soon, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and France were all drawn into the war, largely
because they were involved
in treaties that obligated them
to defend certain other nations.
Western and eastern fronts
quickly opened along the borders
of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
The first month of combat consisted of bold attacks and rapid troop movements on both fronts. In the west, Germany attacked first Belgium and then France. In the east, Russia attacked both Germany and Austria-Hungary. In the south, Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia. Following the Battle of the Marne (September 5–9, 1914), the
western front became
entrenched in central France
and remained that way for the
rest of the war. The fronts in
the east also gradually locked
The middle part of the war,
1916 and 1917, was
dominated by continued
trench warfare in both the east and the west. Soldiers fought from dug-in positions, striking at each other with machine guns, heavy artillery, and chemical weapons. Though soldiers died by the millions in brutal conditions, neither side had any substantive success or gained any advantage.
Despite the stalemate on both fronts in Europe, two important developments in the war occurred in 1917. In early April, the United States, angered by attacks upon its ships in the Atlantic, declared war on Germany. Then, in November,
the Bolshevik Revolution prompted
Russia to pull out of the war.
Although both sides launched renewed offensives in 1918 in an all-or-nothing effort to win the war, both efforts failed. The fighting between exhausted, demoralized troops continued to plod along until the Germans lost a number of individual battles and very gradually began to fall back. A deadly outbreak of influenza, meanwhile, took heavy tolls on soldiers of both sides. Eventually, the governments of
both Germany and Austria-Hungary
began to lose control as both countries
experienced multiple mutinies from
within their military structures.
The war ended in the late fall of 1918, after the member countries of the Central Powers signed armistice agreements one by one. Germany was the last, signing its armistice on November 11, 1918. As a result of these agreements, Austria-Hungary was broken up into several smaller countries. Germany, under the Treaty
of Versailles, was severely punished
with hefty economic reparations,
territorial losses, and strict limits on
its rights to develop militarily.
The First World War runs through the British modern-day psyche like no other conflict. On Remembrance Day Sunday thoughts (of those who have not fought) turn to the fields in Flanders and the slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele more readily than Dunkirk, El Alamein, or Arnhem (unless, of course, the date is an anniversary of a specific battle).
It has been described as Britain's 'Vietnam', where the true horror of War touched everyone and everything in the country, breaking through the class barrier and irreversibly altering the social structure of the nation. It also closely parallels Vietnam as it represents an overwhelming feeling of futility, in that so many lives were wasted for such little gain. Unlike the Second World War, which more easily falls into the 'just war' definition of right versus wrong, the First World War appears as a conflict with aims that were quickly lost, degenerating to a war of attrition in unbelievable conditions.
Martin Stephen in The Price of Pity (1996) summarises the horror of the conflict as follows:
"The European powers were mighty in their strength and wealth. They were neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and were brought to near- destruction by powers of ambition, greed and aggression that had always been there but which had never before led to destruction on such a scale. The war evoked pity and terror like no other, and when peace was declared there was an almost animal venting of emotion in the streets of Britain. It unleashed untold suffering on Europe, a suffering that went out of the control of any human agency and which toppled some monarchies and shook other
nations to their roots. And of course, when it was
all over, the world had been made safe, and the
war to end all wars had been fought." (p. 236)
Moreover, the War was dehumanising. It brought home how quickly and easily mankind could be reduced to a state lower than animals. Pat Barker, in her novel Regeneration (1992), reflects on the War's terrible reversal of expectations:
"The Great Adventure. They'd been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure (the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they'd devoured as boys) consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed.
The war that had promised so much in the
way of 'manly' activity had actually delivered
'feminine' passivity, and on a scale that their
mothers and sisters had scarcely known."
The First World War provides one of the seminal moments of the twentieth-century in which literate soldiers, plunged into inhuman conditions, reacted to their surroundings in poems reflecting Wordsworth's 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'.
Stephen (1996) states that 'no school of
verse has ever been linked more clearly
to a historical event' and that 'Society's
vision of this historical event...was ironically
determined by a literary response to it, and
it is the vision of some of the war's poets
that has dominated the popular image of
what that war was to those who fought in it
and lived through it.'.
Brooke's entire reputation as a war poet rests on only 5 "war sonnets". Brooke's war experience consisted of one day of limited military action with the Hood Battalion during the evacuation of Antwerp. Consequently, his "war sonnets" swell with naive sentiments of the most general kind on the themes of maturity, purpose and romantic death – the kind of sentiments held by many (but not all) young Englishmen at the outbreak of the war. Brooke's "war sonnets" are really more a declaration occasioned by the ups and downs of his tumultuous personal life than a call to war for his generation.
Brooke's poetry gives us a glimpse of a golden era in England just before the First World War. To be more precise, it was a golden time only for the upper classes, who enjoyed the fruits of Britain's imperial dominance: public school education, guaranteed employment (if they desired it) and access to the rich and powerful members of society. The gap between rich and poor was wide during this period, and unrest was beginning to grow among the lower classes. With hindsight it seems obvious that this state of affairs could not last forever. The war gave a huge shock to the system and, despite the terrible human cost, led eventually to a more equal society, not least because the poorer classes were largely the ones dying in the trenches as a result of orders issued by untrained, aristocratic generals living miles behind the lines. Brooke's generation was the last to enjoy such an unchallenged position of privilege.
His early poetry was classically inspired, with death as its most frequent theme throughout. Later, he wrote more from his personal experience gained in the South Seas and later in his brief military career. The shortness of his life added to his reputation, especially at a time when so many young men were being killed. Amongst his works were five War Sonnets, a sixth sonnet – The Treasure – and The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. Winston Churchill wrote his obituary in The Times of April 26, 1915, saying
"he advanced to the brink ... with absolute conviction of the rightness of his
Brooke's friends complained that the heroic myth of Brooke's patriotic self-sacrifice was deliberately exaggerated to encourage more young men to enlist. Since Brooke's death, the name Rupert has been used as a term of mockery for any young Army officer with a public school education. Generations of school children would be taught the opening patriotic lines from ‘The Soldier’:
"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England."
The patriotic poems of Brooke are often compared to the anti-war
poems of Siegfried Sassoon who, ironically, spent the majority of
the war in active service, yet survived.
Now; God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye , and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour cold not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!
Oh! We, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.
If I should die, think only this of me:That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall beIn 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, breathing English air,Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,A pulse in the eternal mind, no lessGives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge where he
studied both Law and History before leaving without taking
a degree. After Cambridge, Sassoon lived the life of a
sportsman, hunting, riding point-to-point races and playing cricket until the outbreak of the War. Although Sassoon wrote poetry before the War he was no more than a minor Georgian poet.
sent home from France in late July after an attack of
trench fever (or enteritis). From Oxford's Somerville
College, Sassoon was sent home to Weirleigh for
convalescence. He reported to the Regimental Depot
in Liverpool in December 1916, and returned to France
in February 1917.
Welch Fusilier, Robert Graves, intervened,
pulled strings with the authorities and managed
to persuade them to have Sassoon medically
boarded (or referred), with the result that in
July 1917 he was sent to Craiglockhart War
Hospital, Edinburgh officially suffering from
Dr. W.H.R. Rivers and eventually realised that his
protest had achieved nothing, except to keep him
away from his men; his decision to apply for
General Service seems to have been based on his
perceived responsibilities at the front.
he was placed on indefinite sick
leave until after the Armistice,
eventually retiring officially from
the Army in March 1919.
“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.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
* * * * *
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Does it matter? – losing your legs?...For people will always be kind,And you need not show that you mindWhen the others come in after huntingTo gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter ? – losing your sight?...There's such splendid work for the blind;And people will always be kind,As you sit on the terrace rememberingAnd turning your face to the light.
Do they matter? – those dreams from the pit?...You can drink and forget and be glad,And people won't say that you're mad;For they'll know you've fought for your countryAnd no one will worry a bit.
innocent world, a world that still associated warfare
with glorious cavalry charges and the noble pursuit
of heroic ideals. This was the world's first experience
of modern mechanised warfare. As the months and
years passed, each bringing increasing slaughter and misery, the soldiers became increasingly disillusioned. Many of the strongest protests made against the war were made through the medium of poetry by young men horrified by what they saw. One of these poets was Wilfred Owen.
one of the worst in memory, he
led his platoon into the Battle of
the Somme. he wrote to his
mother every week and described
what he had been through: "Those
fifty hours were the agony of my
happy life... I nearly broke down
and let myself drown in the water
that was now rising slowly above
my knees. In the Platoon on my left,
the sentries over the dug-out were
blown to nothing".
report to the Battalion Medical Officer who
found him to be shaky and with a confused
memory. He was eventually diagnosed as
having neurasthenia (shell shock) and was
invalided back to England and then to
Craiglockhart War hospital near Edinburgh.
stress with which the soldiers lived –
the mud, rats, barbed wire, lice, fleas,
corpses, blood and constant shelling.
He also gave graphic descriptions of
the effects of poison gas.
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 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 goodbyes.
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.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
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 hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And 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 pace
Behind 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 blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.