World War I spawned a generation of British soldier-poets whose verse took poetry in a raw new direction. Rupert Brooke led the way with an unadorned realism, but his famous poem “The Soldier” still voices the patriotic fervor of the early war years. Brooke died of sepsis in April 1915, on his way to fight in the Dardanelles, so he never knew the horrors of trench warfare and mass slaughter experienced by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and others. Their gritty verse elegizes the blank eyes and mangled bodies of their compatriots—and the senseless slaughter of the “Great War.”
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, 1914
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs Because the shells were screeching overhead. I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorpe played full-back instead Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet, and dropt back dead. We ate our breakfast lying on our backs
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
—Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, 1914
Shaken from sleep, and numbered and scarce awake,
Out in the trench with three hours’ watch to take,
I blunder through the splashing mirk; and then
Hear the gruff muttering voices of the men
Crouching in cabins candle-chinked with light.
Hark! There’s the big bombardment on our right
Rumbling and bumping; and the dark’s a glare
Of flickering horror in the sectors where
We raid the Boche; men waiting, stiff and chilled,
Or crawling on their bellies through the wire.
“What? Stretcher-bearers wanted? Someone killed?”
Five minutes ago I heard a sniper fire:
Why did he do it?…Starlight overhead—
Blank stars. I’m wide-awake; and some chap’s dead.
—Siegfried Sassoon, 1917
Dead Man’s Dump (excerpted)
The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the food of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
—Isaac Rosenberg, 1917
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.
—Siegfried Sassoon, 1917
(being the philosophy of many soldiers)
Sit on the bed. I’m blind, and three parts shell.
Be careful; can’t shake hands now; never shall.
Both arms have mutinied against me,—brutes. My fingers fidget like ten idle brats.
I tried to peg out soldierly,—no use!
One dies of war like any old disease.
Tis bandage feels like pennies on my eyes.
I have my medals?—Discs to make eyes close.
My glorious ribbons?—Ripped from my own back
In scarlet shreds. (That’s for your poetry book.)
A short life and a merry one, my buck!
We used to say we’d hate to live dead-old,—
Yet now…I’d willingly be puffy, bald,
And patriotic. Buffers catch from boys
At least the jokes hurled at them. I suppose
Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting.
Well, that’s what I learnt,—that, and making money.
Your fifty years ahead seem none to many? Tell me how long I’ve got? God! For one year
To help myself to nothing more than air!
One Spring! Is one too good to spare, too long?
Spring wind would work its own way into my lung,
And grow me legs as quick as lilac-shoots.
—Wilfred Owen, 1918
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue (Vol. 27, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Poetry: And Shells Go Crying Over Them—Voices of the Great War
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