War Poetry – Voices from the Great War

PoppiesIn Britain, and in many of her former colonies and Imperial provinces, it is traditional to observe two minutes of silence on 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in memory of those who have died in war.  It is a tradition that began in the aftermath of World War 1 that has since expanded to encompass all conflicts where soldiers, servicemen and civilians have perished serving their country. 

In the UK, it is the poppy, a small red flower, that has come to symbolize this and at this time of year many can be seen wearing small plastic replicas.  From politicians to newsreaders and people on the street, the little red flower is worn proudly by citizens of all walks of life.   Annually, this is co-ordinated by the Poppy Appeal, a charitable effort run by the Royal British Legion that is intended to provide support to soldiers, veterans and their families, all of whom must live with the terrible consequences armed conflict can bring.

A Little Red Symbol; Where the Poppy Comes From

The poppy itself traces its origins as a symbol back to 1921, when it first became used by the American Legion in remembering its fallen. It was later adopted by other veterans groups across the British Empire and is now prominently found during remembrance ceremonies across the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.   The inspiration came from the famous 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a soldier, physician and poet serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War 1. 

In Flanders’ Fields the poppies blow*

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

The full poem was published in 1915 and is often regarded as one of the greatest literary works to emerge from the chaos and bloodshed of that terrible war.  Improvements in education through the Victorian era and into the early modern era had produced a generation of soldiers who were mostly literate and able to express themselves and what they thought, felt, loved and feared through poetry.

Following the course of the war through poetry, an observer can even follow the popular moods of the time.  When war broke out, enthusiasm was high amongst soldiers and civilians alike and poets, such as Rupert Brooke, earned immense popular acclaim for sonnets such as Peace and The Soldier, the latter in which he exhorts the reader to be glad of his sacrifice should he die abroad:

“If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”

The Changing Tone of War Poetry 

Yet as the war dragged on and what should have been over by Christmas turned into a nightmare of blood, carnage and suffering seemingly without end, the poets of the time increasingly expressed their disillusionment and frustration through their creative writing.  Poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen wrote in this period.  The latter’s Dulce et Decorum est is perhaps the best known expression of the suffering endured by soldiers in that horrendous conflict.   Describing a group of soldier enduring a gas attack, Owen says to the reader that if they could but see the horrors for themselves:

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 phrased Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori itself is Latin, first written by the Roman poet Horace and translated to mean “It is a sweet and seemly thing to die for one’s country”.  Evidently Owen, and other poets like himself facing grave peril and horrific danger in the trenches, felt otherwise urging that the romanticism of death and sacrifice presented by earlier poets was far from the bloody reality of suffering. 

Such poems would not be published widely until after the war and Owen himself would not live to see his poems published in 1920 (he fell in battle a week before the end of the war, November 4th, 1918). Nevertheless, it was the recollections and insights of such poets that would later come to colour the perceptions of future generations of World War 1 as a horrendous waste of life and inspire works such as the musical “Oh What a Lovely War” and, in more recent decades, the satire comedy “Black Adder goes Forth” both of which served only to reinforce the idea that 'The War to End All Wars', as it was optimistically referred to, had been nothing but a dreadful mistake.

It has, in some educational circles, become fashionable to condemn Blackadder for being the only education many people in Britain today have of the First World War.  However, satire and comedy only work if there is some truth to the claims behind the outrageous jokes and humour.  Thanks to war poets such as McCrae, Brooke, Sassoon, Owen and the many others who left us their thoughts on life in the trenches, we have the opportunity to read the voices of the past for ourselves today. 

* There is some dispute as to whether McCrae wrote "grow" or "blow", and he himself would alternate between the two when writing by hand later in life.  Blow is often used because of the use grow later in the poem. 




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