In the matter of the ending of World War One, it isn’t generally known that there was an agreed-upon elapsed time of six hours between the signing of the armistice agreement to end the fighting, and the time the guns were to stop firing. Despite the allied generals knowing they had won the war six hours before it was due to end, they continued ordering their men out of their fortified trenches to storm the German positions, simply to win extra ground which might bring the generals last minute glory. The result was that in the last six hours of the war, 10,000 men were killed who needn’t have been. Who said truth is stranger than fiction?
But has anything changed? Think about the nearly four thousand American soldiers, not to speak of the one million Iraqis who have died so far in a war cooked-up by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others, so they could pose as heroic warriors, the better to banish to a corner of their minds that they, none of them, had not only never fought in a war, but had found ingenious ways, when young, to avoid the draft at the time of Vietnam. It’s not for nothing that the only person in the Bush inner circle who urged caution about going into Iraq was Colin Powell, a general who had actually fought in a war – in Vietnam.
When we consider the major wars of history, we think the side that won, did so, because its soldiers were braver, or its generals were smarter, or its peoples more resilient, than those of the side that lost. However, Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, found that in all the major wars over the last 500 years, the victors had bigger economies and greater industrial productive capacities than those of the vanquished. Therefore, because of these non-military factors, it could have been predicted that in both the world wars of the twentieth century, the allied powers would win.
The First World War was arguably the last one welcomed, when declared, by the peoples throughout the affected nations. The first poem I’ve selected, by Robert Service, reflects this.
Robert W. Service
(France August First 1914)
Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!
High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!
Rich and poor, lord and boor,
Hark to the blast of War!
Tinker and tailor and millionaire,
Actor in triumph and priest in prayer,
Comrades now in the hell out there,
Sweep to the fire of War!
Prince and page, sot and sage,
Hark to the roar of War!
Poet, professor and circus clown,
Chimney-sweeper and fop o' the town,
Into the pot and be melted down:
Into the pot of War!
Women all, hear the call,
The pitiless call of War!
Look your last on your dearest ones,
Brothers and husbands, fathers, sons:
Swift they go to the ravenous guns,
The gluttonous guns of War.
Everywhere thrill the air
The maniac bells of War.
There will be little of sleeping to-night;
There will be wailing and weeping to-night;
Death's red sickle is reaping to-night:
War! War! War!
I gleaned the following about Robert Service (1874 – 1958) “Robert William Service was born in Preston, Lancashire, England. After spending his childhood in Scotland he came to Canada in 1894, working for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in the Yukon for eight years.
He is world reknown for penning "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", The Cremation of Sam McGee", The Call of the Wild" and "The Spell of the Yukon" .
Less well known, but worthy of note are three other poems: "The Quitter", "Carry On!" and "Just Think!"
He was a newspaper correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkin Wars of 1912-13 and served as an ambulance driver and correspondent during World War I.
From 1914 on he lived in Europe, returning to Canada during WWII, to live in Hollywood and Vancouver, then again living in Brittany and on the French Riviera. He died in Lancieux, France.”
Although the next poem, The Old Vicarage Grantchester, by Rupert Brooke, isn’t a First World War Poem, I’ve included it because Rupert Brooke died as a soldier in this war, notwithstanding that it was from an infection; and that it may be his most famous poem; and that, in its evocation of a poetic and surreal rural England of fields and old churches and parsonages, it reflects the idealism and patriotism that spurred the young men of England to march off and die for their country.
The Old Vicarage, Grantchester
(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)
Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
'Du lieber Gott!'
Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.
ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! -
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.
God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told) . . .
Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915) was born in Rugby, Warwickshire. A graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, he was a familiar figure in literary and political circles. His first collection of verse, Poems, was published in 1911. He entered the war as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division, and following his participation in the Antwerp expedition he composed his five war sonnets. While sailing in the Aegean on the way to Gallipoli he died of acute blood poisoning, the result of a mosquito bite.
Wars are only made possible because men are prepared to fight in them. And they do so because, starting when they were boys, they grew up glorifying the profession of arms. The next two poems, by Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, illustrate this:
The Next War
You young friskies who today
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Robert Graves 1895 – 1985 served as an officer in the trenches of World War One, and was seriously wounded. His autobiographical memoir “Goodbye To All That” described searingly and graphically what life was like in the trenches. His prodigious literary output of poems, essays, and historical novels included the renowned “I Claudius” and “Claudius The God”.
Arms and the Boy
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.
Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) was born in Ostwestry, Shropshire. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and the University of London, he was teaching abroad when war broke out. In 1915, he returned to England in order to enlist. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion. Diagnosed with shellshock, he was sent to England in order to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On 4th November 1918, he was killed by German machine-gun fire. The first collection of his verse, Poems (1920), was edited by his friend and mentor, fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.
One reason men were so keen to go to war in 1914 was that their womenfolk wanted them to, not least their mothers. The next poem expresses this. As you read it, ask yourself how different the English mother in the poem is from those mothers in today’s middle-east who beseech their sons to become suicide bombers
A Mother’s Dedication
Dear son of mine, the baby days are over,
I can no longer shield you from the earth;
Yet in my heart always I must remember
How through the dark I fought to give you birth.
Dear son of mine, by all the lives behind you;
By all our fathers fought for in the past;
In this great war to which your birth has brought you,
Acquit you well, hold you our honour fast!
God guard you, son of mine, where’er you wander;
God lead the banners under which you fight;
You are my all, I give you to the Nation,
God shall uphold you that you fight aright.
The reality of a mother’s learning of her son’s death in war is shown in the “The Hero” by Siegfried Sassoon, arguably the most famous of the First World War’s soldier-poets.
‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
Here's another poem by Siegfried Sassoon
He stood alone in some queer sunless place
Where Armageddon ends. Perhaps he longed
For days he might have lived; but his young face
Gazed forth untroubled: and suddenly there thronged
Round him the hulking Germans that I shot
When for his death my brooding rage was hot.
He stared at them, half-wondering; and then
They told him how I’d killed them for his sake—
Those patient, stupid, sullen ghosts of men;
And still there seemed no answer he could make.
At last he turned and smiled. One took his hand
Because his face could make them understand.
I gleaned the following biographical about Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967) “With war on the horizon, a young Englishman whose life had heretofore been consumed with the protocol of fox-hunting, said goodbye to his idyllic life and rode off on his bicycle to join the Army. Siegfried Sassoon was perhaps the most innocent of the war poets. John Hildebidle has called Sassoon the "accidental hero." Born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1886, Sassoon lived the pastoral life of a young squire: fox-hunting, playing cricket, golfing and writing romantic verses.
Being an innocent, Sassoon's reaction to the realities of the war were all the more bitter and violent -- both his reaction through his poetry and his reaction on the battlefield (where, after the death of fellow officer David Thomas and his brother Hamo at Gallipoli, Sassoon earned the nickname "Mad Jack" for his near-suicidal exploits against the German lines -- in the early manifestation of his grief, when he still believed that the Germans were entirely to blame). As Paul Fussell said: "now he unleashed a talent for irony and satire and contumely that had been sleeping all during his pastoral youth." Sassoon also showed his innocence by going public with his protest against the war (as he grew to see that insensitive political leadership was the greater enemy than the Germans). Luckily, his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves convinced the review board that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and he was sent instead to the military hospital at Craiglockhart where he met and influenced Wilfred Owen.
Sassoon is a key figure in the study of the poetry of the Great War: he brought with him to the war the idyllic pastoral background; he began by writing war poetry reminiscent of Rupert Brooke; he mingled with such war poets as Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden; he spoke out publicly against the war (and yet returned to it); he influenced and mentored the then unknown Wilfred Owen; he spent thirty years reflecting on the war through his memoirs; and at last he found peace in his religious faith. Some critics found his later poetry lacking in comparison to his war poems. Sassoon, identifying with Herbert and Vaughan, recognized and understood this: "my development has been entirely consistent and in character" he answered, "almost all of them have ignored the fact that I am a religious poet."
Vera Brittain, who served as a nurse behind the front lines, experienced losing in the First World War all the men in her life, including her brother and her fiancée. She wrote the following poem some years after the death of her fiancée, Roland Leyton (1895 – 1915):
Perhaps (To R.A.L)
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.
The wiping out of almost an entire generation of young men meant that millions of women of similar age would never marry and have families - an issue dealt with in the following poem by Vera Brittain.
The Superfluous Woman
Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.
But who will look for my coming?
Long busy days where many meet and part;
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.
But who will seek me at nightfall?
Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.
But who will give me my children?
I gleaned the follwing on Vera Brittain (1893 - 1970) "She was the only daughter of Thomas Brittain, a wealthy paper manufacturer, and Edith Bervon, and was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1893.
Vera was educated at home by a governess and then at a boarding school in Surrey, where one of the teachers introduced her to the ideas of Dorothea Beale and Emily Davies. Brittain was also deeply influence by reading Women and Labour by Olive Schreiner. Vera wanted to go to university but her father believed that the main role of education was to prepare women for marriage. Eventually Thomas Brittain relented and Vera was allowed to go to Somerville College, Oxford.
In 1914 Vera met and fell in love with Roland Leighton, a friend of her only brother, Edward. On the outbreak of the First World War Roland and Edward Brittain joined the British Army. Vera also wanted to become involved in the war effort and decided to leave Somerville College and become a nurse. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served in England and in France. Vera became engaged to Ronald Leighton, in August, 1915 but four months later he was killed on the Western Front. So also was her brother, Edward Brittain, and several of her close friends.
After the Armistice Vera returned to Somerville College where she met Winifred Holtby. The two women graduated together in 1921 and they moved to London where they hoped to establish themselves as writers. Vera's first two novels, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1925) sold badly and were ignored by the critics. Vera had more success with her journalism and in 1920s wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide. Vera also published two books on the role of women, Women's Work in Modern Britain (1928) and Halcyon or the Future of Monogamy (1929).
In the 1920s Vera's political views became more radical and she left the Liberals and joined the Labour Party. For a time she considered becoming a MP but after marrying the American academic, George Catlin, she went to live in the United States. Vera found it difficult to settle in America and after the birth of her two children, John (1927) and Shirley (1930) she moved back to England where she lived with Winifred Holtby. In her first volume of autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933) Brittain wrote about her struggle for education and her experiences as a nurse during the First World War. It was an immediate bestseller in Britain and the United States. Her companion, Winifred Holtby died in 1935 and Vera subsequently wrote about their relationship in her book Testament of Friendship. In the 1930s Brittain became a pacifist and in 1934 supported Richard Sheppard and his Peace Pledge Union and was one of its leaders during the Second World War. From September 1939 she began publishing Letters to Peace Lovers, a small journal that expressed her views on the war. This made her extremely unpopular as the journal criticised the government for bombing urban areas in Nazi Germany.
In 1943 Brittain attempted to explain her pacifism in her book Humiliation with Honour. This was followed by Seeds of Chaos, an attack on the government's policy of area bombing. After the war Vera wrote a history of the women's movement, Lady into Women (1953). Other books included a second volume of autobiography, Testament of Experience (1957), Women at Oxford (1960) and a biography of Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. A strong opponent of nuclear weapons, in 1957 Brittain joined with Kingsley Martin, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Victor Gollancz, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Vera Brittain remained active in the peace movement until her death in 1970".