Reflections: Poets of the Great War

By Alfier, Jeffrey C. | Military Review, November/December 2000 | Go to article overview

Reflections: Poets of the Great War


Alfier, Jeffrey C., Military Review


All a poet can do is warn.1

-Wilfred Owen, KIA, 4 Nov 1918

World War I was the first major conflict in Europe in which thousands of well-read citizens became soldiers. From the large number of intellectuals and artists who flocked to war in unparalleled numbers flowered a vast literary corpus. Most of the British Commonwealth's poets studied Greek and Roman classics, biblical literature and the works of William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott and other Romantic and Victorian writers. The war assaulted such people's cultural and spiritual underpinnings.

Two recently published studies offer deep reflection on this eminently literary war. Poets and Pals of Picardy: A Weekend on the Somme, edited by Mary Ellen Freeman and Ted Smith, is a brilliantly structured and well-researched pilgrimage to the formerly desolate wasteland of Picardy, France.2 Tonie and Valmai Holts' Poets of the Great War is an anthology of major-and some minor-English-speaking war poets.3 Each book offers a profound engagement with the written word's imagistic power.

Fifth in the Cameos of the Western Front series, Freeman and Smith's anthology weaves some of history's most evocative and moving war poetry into a literary and historical tapestry.4 The poems provide insight into each soldier-poet's mind as he lived and faced death on the same bucolic hills and valleys where idealism and Byronic romanticism found graves.

A Dream Fades

Prewar poets often wrote of Virgil's dream of a golden age. As in Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory, a pervading theme in Poets and Pals of Picardy is the chasmal contradiction in the minds of soldier-poets as they witnessed their pastoral world's dissolution.5 For example, Lieutenant F.P. Crozier describes the once-tranquil landscapes surrounding him as being "masked with a wall of corpses."6

Freeman and Smith offer brief but intense glimpses into the brotherhood forged in that most terrible of wars. Memories of friends killed in battle were etched indelibly on the heart: "I next saw him a dark speck on the German wire beyond the craters in the cold light of dawn."7 Or, as Irish poet Tom Kettle said prior to being killed in 1916, "Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,/Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,/But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,/And for the secret Scripture of the poor."8

The well-known poets of the Great War include Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves and Isaac Rosenberg. Freeman and Smith also include lesser-known poets, thereby reclaiming something substantial of the often brief lives of men long wept over, who unwittingly penned their own antiphons. Shortly before his death, Leslie Coulson wrote, "When night falls dark we creep/In silence to our dead./We dig a few feet deep/And leave them there to sleep-/But blood at night is red,/Yea, even at night,/And a dead man's face is white./And I dry my hands, that are also trained to kill,/And I look at the stars-for the stars are beautiful still."9

Even letters home bore poetically evocative eloquence. One soldier describes passing through a field of unburied dead, a sight giving poignant cast to the absurdity of war: "And in a great shell-hole, filled with blood and water, sat a dead Highlander and a dead German, gazing with sightless yellow eye-balls, into each other's faces."10

Freeman and Smith also draw a special bond with the soldiers who simply vanished, whose lives were ground away beneath the impersonal millstone of industrialized warfare. More than 300,000 missing soldiers are commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's 26 Great War memorials in France and Belgium.

In US and German cemeteries in the Meuse-Argonne region of France, amid the vast sea of crosses, rise the walls that list the names of the thousands of missing soldiers. The inscriptions lend a particularly corporeal weight to Sassoon's eulogy for "The unreturning army that was youth/The legions who have suffered and are dust. …

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