On the eleventh of November 1918, at eleven in the morning, eighty-eight years ago today, the guns fell silent, to end the Great War, the “war to end all wars”. This phrase sounds quaint, even cynical, when we think of all the wars that have happened since. But at the time, people actually believed there’d be no more wars, perhaps because they had welcomed the Great War when it started - men volunteering in 1914 for the army in their millions, and women cheering and throwing flowers at the men as they marched off to the trenches in France.
Perhaps this idealism, and naivete, was why so many poets joined up, for the Great War killed more poets than any war in history, which is no doubt why the Great War produced more poetry than any war in history. But the idealism and patriotism of the poets quickly dissipated in the trenches, as they wallowed in the rain, mud, and the overwhelming stench of death. It was a war that wiped out an entire generation of the young men of Europe.
Today we look back at this war, and wonder how people could have swallowed all the patriotic propaganda so that they willingly marched off to be slaughtered en-masse. But we wonder because we are not of that time. If we had been, we would have acted and believed the same as did the people then, because to be patriotic, and willing to die for your country was the way it was, and to some extent still is, despite today’s Globalisation.
When we nowadays consider the period 1914 - 1945 in Europe, we see it simply as a European civil war, given most of Europe, as embodied in the European Union, is now, for all intents and purposes, one country.
Now, to the poets and poetry of World War One.
The following poems were written by soldier-poets when they were in the trenches in France. All died there, and they all died young. The depth and beauty of the poems is such that we can only mourn the loss of what their creators might have achieved had they been allowed to grow old.
I Have A Rendezvous With Death
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 ’t were 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 rendezvous.
Allan Seeger (1888 – 1916) was born in New York and spent much of his childhood in Mexico. Educated at Harvard, for several years he lived a bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village. He was visiting London, conducting research at the British Museum, when war was declared. He joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed in France at Belloy-en-Santerre. A collection of verse, Poems, was published a few months later.
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 be
In 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 (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.
When You See Millions Of The Mouthless Dead
Charles Hamilton Sorley
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his forevermore.
Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen, the son of a university professor. After attending Marlborough College he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but chose to defer entry to enlist in 1914. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a captain. He was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. A collection of verse, Marlborough and Other Poems, was published the year after his death.
The Shell Hole
In the Shell Hole he lies, this German soldier of a year ago;
But he is not as then, accoutred, well, and eager for the foe
He hoped so soon, so utterly, to crush. His muddy skull
Lies near the mangled remnants of his corpse – wars furies thus annul
The pomp and pageantry that were its own. White rigid bones
Gape through the nauseous chaos of his clothes; the cruel stones
Hold fast the letter he was wont to clasp close to his am’rous breast.
Here ‘neath the stark, keen stars, where is no peace, no joy, nor any rest,
He lies. There, to the right, his boot, gashed by the great shell’s fiendish whim,
Retains – O horrid spectacle! – the fleshless stump that was his limb!
Vile rats and mice, and flies and lice and ghastly things that carrion know
Have made a travesty of Death of him who lived a year ago.
Hamish Mann (1896 – 1917) was born in Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, and was educated in Edinburgh. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded at Arras and died the following day. A collection of his war poetry, A Subaltern’s Musings, was published posthumously.
But A Short Time To Live
Our little hour - how swift it flies
When poppies flare and lilies smile;
How soon the fleeting minute dies,
Leaving us but a little while
To dream our dreams, to sing our song,
To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower,
The Gods - They do not give us long, -
One little hour.
Our little hour - how short it is
When love with dew eyed lovliness
Raises her lips for ours to kiss
And dies within our first caress.
Youth flickers out like wind-blown flame,
Sweets of today to-morrow sour,
For Time and Death, relentless, claim
Our little hour..
Our little hour - how short a time
To wage our wars, to fan our hates,
To take our fill of armoured crime,
To troop our banner, storm the gates.
Blood on the sword, our eyes blood-red,
Blind in our puny reign of power,
Do we forget how soon is sped
Our little hour.
Our little hour - how soon it dies;
How short a time to tell our beads,
To chant our feeble Litanies,
To think sweet thoughts, to do good deeds,
The altar lights grow pale and dim,
The bells hang silent in the tower -
So passes with the dying hymn
Our little hour.
Leslie Coulson (1889 – 1916) was born in Kilburn. Before enlisting he was a well-known Fleet Street journalist. He survived being wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, dying at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917 a collection of his poetry, From an Outpost and Other Poems, became a bestseller in England.
Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917) was born in London to Welsh parents. He studied at Oxford on a history scholarship. In 1899, he married the daughter of James Ashcroft Noble, a nineteenth century literary figure. Encouraged by his father-in-law, he pursued a life in letters as an author, editor, and reviewer. His first poems were written in 1914, the year before he enlisted. He was killed by a shell at Arras. Several collections of his verse were published in the years immediately following his death.
Bernard Freeman Trotter
She kissed me when she said good-bye--
A child's kiss, neither bold nor shy.
We had met but a few short summer hours;
Talked of the sun, the wind, the flowers,
Sports and people; had rambled through
A casual catchy song or two,
And walked with arms linked to the car
By the light of a single misty star.
(It was war-time, you see, and the streets were dark
Lest the ravishing Hun should find a mark.)
And so we turned to say good-bye;
But somehow or other, I don't know why, --
Perhaps `t was the feel of the khaki coat
(She'd a brother in Flanders then) that smote
Her heart with a sudden tenderness
Which issued in that swift caress--
Somehow, to her, at any rate
A mere hand-clasp seemed inadequate;
And so she lifted her dewey face
And kissed me--but without a trace
Of passion,--and we said good-bye...
A child's kiss,...neither bold nor shy.
My friend, I like you--it seemed to say--
Here's to our meeting again some day!
Some happier day...
Bernard Freeman Trotter (1890 – 1917) was born in Toronto and spent much of his youth in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. His initial attempt to enlist thwarted by ill-health, he finally set sail for Europe in March 1916. A little over a year later Trotter was killed by a shell while serving as a Transport Officer at the Front. His only collection of poems, A Canadian Twilight and other Poems of War and Peace, was published the month after 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 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.
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.