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WORLD WAR I POETRY. Summary of Events. The Start of the War

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summary of events
Summary of Events
  • The Start of the War

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 western and eastern fronts
The Western and Eastern Fronts

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

into place.

trench warfare
Trench Warfare

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.

the united states entrance and russia s exit
The United States’ Entrance and Russia’s Exit

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.

the end of the war and armistice
The End of the War and Armistice

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.

significance of ww1
Significance of WW1

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.'.

rupert brooke
Rupert Brooke

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

country's cause".

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.

Rupert Brooke

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. 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 less Gives 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.

Rupert Brooke

siegfried sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon
  • Siegfried Sassoon was born in England, in 1886. Sassoon

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.

  • Sassoon enlisted on 2 August 1914, two days before the British declaration of war, and initially joined as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry – later Sassoon was commissioned in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (May 1915). Between November 1915 and April 1917 he served as a second lieutenant in both the First and Second Battalions R.W.F.
  • On November 1, 1915 Sassoon suffered his first personal loss of the War. His younger brother Hamo was buried at sea after being mortally wounded at Gallipoli. Sassoon subsequently commemorated this with a poem entitled To My Brother. Then on March 18, 1916 second lieutenant David C. 'Tommy' Thomas was killed whilst out with a wiring party.
These losses upset Sassoon and he became determined to "get his revenge" on the Germans. To this end, he went out on patrol in no-man's-land even when there were no raids planned. Such reckless enthusiasm earned him the nickname "Mad Jack", but he was saved from further folly by a four-week spell at the Army School in Flixecourt. Returning to the front a month later some of Sassoon's desire for revenge had abated, and when his platoon was involved in a raid on Kiel Trench shortly afterwards, his actions in getting his dead and wounded men back to the British trenches earned him a Military Cross, which he received the day before the start of the Battle of the Somme, in July 1916.
  • He was not involved in the Battle of the Somme and was

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.

Sassoon was only back in France for two days before going down with German measles, which forced him to spend nearly ten days at the 25th Stationary Hospital in Rouen. On March 11 Sassoon rejoined the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Somme front. He was "in reserve" during the Battle of Arras before spending a month in the Hindenburg Tunnel.
  • Sassoon participated in the second Battle of the Scarpe where he was wounded in the shoulder. This particular incident started a train of events which culminated in Sassoon's Declaration, for it was whilst on convalescent leave after being wounded that Sassoon talked to several prominent pacifists (including John Middleton Murry and Bertrand Russell). His Declaration of "wilful defiance" was written during this time, and he returned to the Depot in Liverpool having sent his statement to his Colonel, miserably determined to take whatever punishment was meted out.
  • Fortunately for Sassoon, his friend and fellow

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


It was at Craiglockhart that Sassoon met the poet Wilfred Owen (also diagnosed with shell-shock). Sassoon's encouragement of Owen's writing has been well-documented.
  • Sassoon himself wrote a good deal of poetry whilst at Craiglockhart and the material he wrote at that time later appeared in Counter-Attack and Other Poems. After four months at Craiglockhart, Sassoon was again passed fit for General Service abroad.
  • He had spent many hours talking to his psychiatrist,

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.

Sassoon eventually found himself in the Front Line again, near Mercatel. From there he moved to St. Hilaire and the Front Line at St. Floris where his old foolhardiness took over, despite the responsibility of being a Company Commander. Sassoon decided to attack the German trenches opposite them, and he went out with a young Corporal. His actions were paid for with a wound to his head on July 13, 1918, and Sassoon was invalided back to England. That was the end of Sassoon's War.
  • After a period of convalescence

he was placed on indefinite sick

leave until after the Armistice,

eventually retiring officially from

the Army in March 1919.

Much of Sassoon's poetry written during the War was epigrammatic and satirical in nature. Several poems, particularly those in Counter-Attack and Other Poems are aimed at those on the Home Front. Sassoon used his poems to hit out at those at Home whom he considered to be making a profit out of the War, or those whom he felt were helping to prolong the War.
  • Only a few of his poems were actually about the generals and other senior officers - the two best-known of these being Base Details and The General.
the general
The General

“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.

Siegfried Sassoon

does it matter
Does it Matter?

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.

Siegfried Sassoon

wilfred owen
Wilfred Owen
  • In 1914 the First World War broke out on a largely

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.

  • Wilfred Owen was 21 when the war broke out. Although he had failed to win a scholarship to university, he was very intelligent and cultured, and in the two years before the war began, had taken a post at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France, tutoring the children of wealthy families and learning the language and literature of the country.
Owen was not horrified or elated by the outbreak of war, although during 1914, he became more aware of the human sacrifice involved and was filled with confusion. Eventually he returned to England and on 21 October 1915, enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. He spent the next seven and a half months training in Essex and on the 4 June was commissioned into the Manchester Regiment, where he underwent further training before crossing to France on 29 December.
  • In the second week of January,

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".

In the middle of March, Owen fell through a shell-hole into a cellar and was trapped in the dark for three days, suffering from nausea and concussion. He spent a fortnight in hospital before rejoining his battalion and becoming involved in fierce fighting. At one stage he was blown out of the trench in which he was taking cover from an artillery bombardment which had already dismembered an officer in the neighbouring trench.
  • He escaped uninjured, but these trials by fire had taken their toll on his mind, and on May 1st, he was seen by his Commanding Officer to be behaving strangely. He was ordered to

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.

Apart from his joining the army, no other event had so much influence over Owen as meeting Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart. Owen read the published poetry of Sassoon for the first time at the hospital. He introduced himself, and so began a close friendship and literary partnership which would create some of the finest poetry of the war. Owen's most famous poems were written from this time until he left the hospital.
  • Owen relived his most traumatic memories every night through the form of obsessive nightmares. Under Sassoon's direction, he began to write about these memories in poetry. His poems recreated the miserable conditions and constant

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.

In one of his most famous poems Anthem for Doomed Youth, he asked angrily "what passing-bells for these who die as cattle?", reflecting the fact that the soldiers were simply little more than machine gun fodder, lines of them killed instantly as they went over the top.
  • Owen wrote for an entire generation of young men killed or horribly wounded in a four year war. In one poem Disabled, he wrote about the thousands of young men who dreamed of glory and triumph and joined the army with all the others in the factory, or on their street, or at a football match, where recruiting drives were often made.
Owen is the most famous of all the war poets as he succeeded in portraying the reality of the war - the boredom, the helplessness, the horror and above all, the futility of it - without losing his artistic poise, or allowing bitterness to creep into his work.
  • Wilfred Owen returned to the front in 1918 and was awarded the military cross for bravery for capturing a German machine gun. He never received it as he was killed early on the morning of 4th November 1918, seven days before the armistice.
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.

Wilfred Owen

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.

Wilfred Owen