The destination for history

How were changing attitudes to WWI reflected in poetry?


Initially many in Britain hoped that their country might avoid becoming enmeshed in the war threatening Europe, but this view changed dramatically as it learnt of the atrocities which had been committed by the Germans in the invasion of Belgium in August 1914. Then the war was a just war – a fight against evil and against aggression. People cheered as the troops marched off to fight. It would all be over by Christmas.

Rupert Brooke in his sonnet Peace, written in August 1914, glorified the War in what he saw as the purifying act. Ironically Brooke himself saw little action, anticlimactically dying in April 1915 of sepsis from a mosquito bite on his way to Gallipoli.

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 could 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.

In contrast Charles Hamilton Sorley, the only Scottish War Poet to be remembered in Poet’s Corner, had lived for a while in Germany and in his poem To Germany emphasised the irony that the German person on a tram in Berlin no more wanted the war than his British counterpart on the Clapham omnibus.

To Germany
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind.
And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other’s truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

Initial enthusiasm all too soon evaporated with the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium and its retreat in front of the advancing German forces culminating in the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 when the exhausted remnants of the BEF fought a desperate battle to prevent the Germans from cutting off their access to the Channel ports. The two opposing armies fought to a standstill and with the approach of winter dug themselves into two lines of trenches which stretched from the Channel to the Swiss borders and formed the battlefield for the next three years. Here men lived, fought and slept in the rain and mud of Flanders with the ever-present fear of death from a sniper or from the indiscriminate explosion of an artillery shell.

This stand-off was interspersed with brave but costly attempts to break the enemy’s line, such as the Battle of the Somme which lasted from 1st July to 8th November 1916. In the first day of the fighting alone the British suffered 57,000 casualties, just under half of those committed to the attack as wave after wave of troops were sent to their death. In the four and a half months of fighting combined  Allied and German casualties exceeded 1 million men – and for what? A handful of villages captured and a few miles of farmland gained.

The obstinacy of the generals and their refusal to change tactics was lampooned in Sassoon’s poem Base Details. Independent thinking was not allowed to deflect the generals from their master plan which was controlled by Haig from his command headquarters fifty miles behind the lines surrounded by his Staff officers.

Base Details
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say – ‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

The Pity of War was ever-present to those serving in the trenches, a horror powerfully expressed by Wilfred Owen, arguably the greatest of the First World War poets, in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen’s poetry flourished after he was persuaded by Sassoon to base his poetry on his personal experiences in Flanders. Dulce et Decorum Est was written in 1917 but finalised early in 1918. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ is a quote from the Latin poet Horace and translates as ‘it is sweet and decorous to die for your country.’ These words had first been used by Owen in an ephemeral poem The Ballad of Purchase Money which he had written in 1914. It began:

O meet it is and passing sweet
To live in peace with others,
But sweeter still and far more meet
To die in war for brothers.

The Brooke-like sentiments of this poem, written before Owen had first-hand experience of the horror of war, contrast with the hard edge of Dulce et Decorum Est after Owen’s journey from naïve patriotism to revulsion at the reality of war:

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 ecstacy 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.

The unthinking patriotism at the outbreak of the War had given way to revulsion at the needless waste of human life. Owen himself was killed on 4th November 1918 in the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal, just one week before the ending of hostilities, encouraging his men as they tried to make a crossing under intense enemy fire.

By Andrew Ferguson

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