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The Poets of Hell

By Anthony Brandt
3/14/2017 • Military History Magazine

These few Englishmen described the brutal realities of the trenches, not as effete observers but as participants, fellow men-at-arms in the Great War.

In April 1917 British army 2nd Lt. Wilfred Owen of the 5th Battalion, Manchester Regiment, was thrown into the air by the blast of an incoming enemy round and lay semiconscious for several days in a shell crater in Savy Wood in northern France. After being evacuated to a casualty clearing station, he wrote his sister:

You know it was not the Bosche [sic] that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call 2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!

But we do. Cock Robin was in pieces, and Hubert Gaukroger had been a friend.

From the clearing station Owen was sent to the Craiglockhart military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, to be treated for shell shock. That fall he was transferred to light duty, managing the 5th Battalion officers’ mess in Scarborough, England, but he longed to get back to the war. A year later he was again declared fit for combat and got his wish. He seemed to know he was going to die, but he felt a strong responsibility to his men to become their voice, to say the things they were too uneducated or too clumsy with words to say for themselves. In a letter to his mother he explained it: “I came out in order to help these boys —directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.” Watching doesn’t quite cover it. In a letter to friend and fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, Owen gave a more vivid account of what he meant: “The boy by my side, shot through the head, lay on top of me, soaking my shoulder, for half an hour.” He was not watching their suffering; he was sharing it.

Owen fought bravely, and he did die. He would receive a posthumous award of the Military Cross for an earlier action in which, he wrote his mother, “I lost all my earthly faculties and fought like an angel.…You will guess what has happened when I say I am now commanding the Company and in the line had a boy lance-corporal as my Sergeant-Major. With this corporal, who stuck to me and shadowed me like your prayers, I captured a German Machine Gun and scores of prisoners.” He and his corporal attacked the machine gun by themselves, in fact, and killed a great many Germans while doing so. He wrote of it on Oct. 4, 1918. A month later to the day he was killed by a German machine gun trying to get his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal. It was one of the last battles of the war; the Armistice was signed a week later. The bells celebrating the Armistice had been pealing for an hour when his parents received notice of his death.

With notable exceptions—Homer’s Iliad, the surviving Anglo-Saxon battle poems—we do not normally think of poetry and warfare as natural companions, and the works produced by the English war poets of World War I is something of an anomaly. Owen was the best of them, but there were many others—Sassoon; Ivor Gurney, whom the war drove mad; Robert Graves; Rupert Brooke; Isaac Rosenberg; Edmund Blunden; Charles Hamilton Sorley—who fought and wrote some of the greatest war poetry in the language, an achievement unmatched before or since. We can only guess at the reasons. It may well have been what Owen described: the urge, the moral necessity, to give voice to the inarticulate men dying in such huge numbers and in such unspeakable circumstances in a war so senseless and poorly led. Poets appear when ordinary language fails.

How could it not fail? Faced with the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916, when the British Fourth Army rose from the trenches and suffered 57,470 casualties, nearly 20,000 of them killed, and gained no meaningful ground. Again the word “suffered” hardly seems adequate for the occasion. War is hell, and this was one of its torture chambers. The battle raged until November, as corpses lay unburied for days and weeks in the no-man’s-land between the trench lines. Shelling, and the roar of it, was constant. The British alone fired 6.5 million shells over the course of the war. An invisible fog of stench from the unburied dead lay along the ground. Between the Germans and the Allies a million men were killed or wounded at the Somme. “Somme,” wrote German soldier Friedrich Steinbrecher, killed in action in 1917. “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The war was like that: ghastly, horrible, one disaster after another. No one knew how to fight a war against dug-in, impenetrable defenses. The Germans had planned to win the war in 48 days by flanking the French defenses with a quick movement through neutral Belgium. The British and French blocked this maneuver, and within just a few months the war reached stalemate, with trench lines that stretched unbroken from the North Sea to the Swiss border. In four years of constant warfare, during battles like the Somme, the Marne, Passchendaele and Verdun, those trench lines moved in most cases no more than a couple hundred yards, with enormous losses on both sides.

That poetry emerged from those trenches hardly seems possible, but it did, and it was a much tougher, more vivid, more graphic poetry than the world had seen before. Isaac Rosenberg’s poem “Louse Hunting” describes a scene that must have been common. It resembles, as it was meant to, a scene in hell, with soldiers stripping down around a fire to hunt the lice that infested men and officers alike. Silhouetted against the walls “like a demons’ pantomime,” “gargantuan hooked fingers/Pluck in supreme flesh/To smutch supreme littleness.” He wrote another poem, “Break of Day in the Trenches,” to the rats that fed on the unburied corpses between the lines. Rats and lice were just some of the horrors of trench life. Water was another. The British trenches (in contrast to the German) were poorly constructed, with inadequate drainage. After a heavy rain the water might be waist deep. There was always mud.

These are by no means little things. They loom large in a soldier’s life, even larger when at dawn he must climb from the trench and charge across no-man’s-land, dodge shell craters (or hide in them), find a way through the tangles of barbed wire the opening artillery barrage almost invariably failed to cut, and hope against hope that the machine gun bullets whizzing past his ears do not find him. These attacks seldom succeeded. If he did make it back to his own trenches alive, no comfort awaited him. He would be treated throughout the night to the screams and whimpers of wounded men in pain, bleeding to death in Rosenberg’s “sleeping green between.”

This is what the poets gave voice to, this particular brand of misery, these endless horrors. Poetry like this had not been written before, but neither had there been a war like this, an industrialized slaughter, with greatly improved artillery, barbed wire, machine guns and dug-in front lines separated by 100 yards or so of barren killing fields. World War I rendered horse cavalry obsolete. It introduced tanks, machine guns, airplanes and bombing. It greatly enlarged the capacity to kill. The poets who wrote about it rose to the occasion, abandoning their usual subjects—love and its loss, the beauty of the English countryside—for the color of blood, gas attacks, barbed wire, the smell of putrefaction and death.

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime,
Kept slush waist-high and rising hour by hour,
And choked the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses.…

So opens Owen’s “The Sentry,” the subject of which in the following verses is blinded by a German shell.

Nothing so gritty ever came out of the American Civil War, the Napoleonic wars or the Crimean War. Even in this war it was not quick to appear. The most common characteristic of the early poems of World War I reflected the initial public enthusiasm for it and the sense of patriotism it aroused. “The Soldier,” written by Rupert Brooke— a handsome, talented friend of Winston Churchill’s—is the best-known example:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.…

The poem goes on to celebrate English flowers, English air—in short, Englishness—and it became for the folks at home a way to think with a certain complacency about the English dead.

But by the time Brooke’s sonnet sequence came out, the war was already degenerating into the misery of trench warfare, and it was clear at the front that this sort of poetry would not do. Fellow poet and soldier Charles Hamilton Sorley labeled Brooke’s work sentimental. Sorley was killed in the trenches in 1915. Brooke died, too. On his way to the ill-conceived Allied attack on Gallipoli, Brooke was bitten by a mosquito, developed sepsis and died at sea. He never saw combat. His corner of a foreign field “that is for ever England” happens to be an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros.

After Brooke, English war poetry grew ever more realistic and disillusioned. What drove it was just what Owen wrote in that letter to his mother. The poets wanted to give voice to reality and educate a public that perceived the war in glorified terms, who still believed in noble sacrifice and knew little or nothing of what was happening. The situation was made especially ironic by the proximity of England to the war. In parts of Kent you could hear the war; the thunder of the guns carried across the English Channel on easterly winds. Mail service to the trenches was nearly as quick and efficient as it was to London street addresses. Officers in particular could get tins of food from the city’s best shops almost overnight, packed in picnic baskets. On leave they went home to the calm English countryside. If wounded or shell-shocked, they were likely to be sent to one of the great English country estates that had been turned into hospitals. The contrast between life at home and trench life was stunning, and it had the effect of further alienating men from their fellow citizens and deepening their disillusion. Life in Britannia went on as usual while her soldiers witnessed horrors they could hardly express.

Throughout the war the public had no inkling how bad things were at the front. News reports about actions were uniformly upbeat, even after the Somme. Most soldiers when they wrote home tried to keep their friends and relatives from worrying too much about their safety. The army issued a Field Service Postcard on which soldiers could simply fill in the blanks or cross out lines that did not apply. The first line read, “I am quite well.” The second: “I have been admitted into hospital (sick; wounded) and am going on well,” or, “and hope to be discharged soon.” The cards never mention the loss of an arm or a leg, or a defeat in battle, or anything that might relate to shell shock or allude to the savage reality they were enduring on a daily basis.

It was only the poets who gave voice to this reality, until after the war when memoirs began to appear. Sassoon, who came from a well-to-do family, loved foxhunting and cricket, and wrote a dreamy kind of poetry. He joined the army the day before Britain declared war, and later served as an infantry officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. It did not take him long to see what an exercise in murderous futility the war had become. He was brave, even reckless, in battle; his men called him “Mad Jack.” He was awarded the Military Cross for one action. In another he single-handedly took a German trench, attacking under the cover of rifle fire and scattering the occupants with hand grenades—then, instead of calling for reinforcements, sat down to read a book of poetry he had brought with him.

But the war disgusted him. He survived it, but it took him years to recover from the nightmares and anxiety it had left behind. His bitterness made his wartime poems all the more profound, as evinced in “Does It Matter?”

Does it matter?—losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To 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 remembering
And 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 that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

In other poems Sassoon was more specific, trying to capture the heat and horror of battle. In “Counter-Attack,” one of his best-known poems, he re-creates the scene after an attack at dawn, which “broke like a face with blinking eyes,/Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke,” as the men deepened the shallow trench they had just won. The poem goes on to describe the counterattack, focusing on a soldier who had been resting against a bank:

And he remembered his rifle…rapid fire…
And started blazing wildly…then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wiggle: none heeded him; he choked

And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans…
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.

This is brutal work, deliberately brutal. Sassoon was trying quite consciously to shatter the ignorance of the public back home, to force them to look at the true nature of the war and its goals, which were unclear to begin with and made less and less sense as the war proceeded. In 1917 he went so far as to write out and deliver to his commanding officer a manifesto against the war and a declaration he would no longer fight in it. He expected to be court-martialed; instead he was sent to the mental hospital at Craiglockhart, where he met Owen. In 1918 he went back to the front like Owen and once again served with distinction. No one could ever have accused him of cowardice. He spent much of the rest of his life writing a series of fictionalized and factual memoirs about the war. It is not unreasonable to conclude he never got over it.

Neither did the 20th century. Within two decades of the war’s close World War II broke out, and the “war to end all wars” had been exposed as only the beginning of a century of calamitous divisions we remain unable to resolve. And the Great War was, as most historians agree, senseless. It began with an assassination in a local conflict in the Balkans and escalated in a cascade of miscommunication, paranoia and diplomatic incompetence into the death of 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians.

What the war also killed was innocence. A hundred years of peace had crumbled in the summer of 1914 into slaughter on a massive scale. War was no longer civilized and would never be so again.

The world turned modern after World War I. A tone of insatiable irony came to dominate literature. Old certainties disappeared into the mud of the trenches and lay rotting on the barbed wire of no-man’s-land. The poets who first understood what it meant were almost all junior officers, and they lived and died in the muck with their men. Owen was a quiet sort, unsure of himself, already a poet when he joined up but with nothing to distinguish his work. All that changed under fire. Here is an excerpt from perhaps the defining poem of the war, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which follows a group of soldiers moving back from the front who are caught in a gas attack. They put on their gas masks; however, one fails to get his on 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 Latin verse is by Horace. World War I and Owen’s twist made it famous again: No, it is not sweet, nor is it fitting to die for one’s country.

 

A frequent contributor to Military History, Anthony Brandt is the author of The Man Who Ate His Boots: The Tragic History of the Search for the Northwest Passage (2010). For further reading he recommends The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell; The English Poets of the First World War, by John Lehmann; and The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen.

Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

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