From scathing verses on the horrors of life in the trenches to laments on the tragedy of a lost generation, the First World War inspired some of British poetry's most poignant and affecting work. Here, Ellie Cawthorne highlights five influential British writers whose lives and work were shaped by the conflict…
In the autumn of 1917, far from the front lines of France, large crowds gathered in Birkenhead for the Welsh National Eisteddfod. A central part of the cultural festival was a poetry competition, in which poets submitted work under pseudonyms with the hope of winning a prestigious ceremonial ‘bardic chair’.
However, war cast its long shadow over the festival that year. When the pseudonym of winning poet was announced at the awards ceremony, trumpets sounded and applause ensued. Yet no one stepped forward to claim the prize. It was revealed that the winner – a young poet known by the bardic name Hedd Wyn (meaning ‘blessed peace’) – had been killed in battle just six weeks earlier. As the bardic chair was swathed in black cloth, the shockwaves were palpable. “No words can adequately describe the wave of emotion that swept over the vast audience when Wyn’s bardic chair was draped with the symbols of mourning,” one newspaper reported. Wyn’s absence that day was emblematic of a lost generation of men who would never return home.
Hedd Wyn, whose real name was Ellis Humphrey Evans, had been raised on a sheep farm in Gwynedd, north Wales. By the time he enlisted with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, he was already a well-respected Welsh-language poet. Despite his relatively young age, Wyn had already won five other bardic chairs. However, his promising talent was cut short. Soon after arriving on the western front in June 1917, he was killed in one of the opening attacks of the battle of Passchendaele, on 31 July 1917.
Wyn had begun his award-winning poem Yr Arwr, or ‘The Hero’, after enlisting, finishing it on the front lines. Shortly before his death, he had also composed another of his most famous poems, War (originally written in the Welsh language):
Why was I born into this age
In which mankind has exiled God?
With God departed Man, with rage,
now sits upon the throne of God.
And when man knew that God had gone,
To spill his brother’s blood he bore
His eager sword, and cast upon
Our homes the shadow of the war.
The harps to which we sang are hung
On willow boughs, and their refrain
Drowned by the anguish of the young
Whose blood is mingled with the rain
The bardic chair that Wyn was never able to claim in 1917 was afterwards known as Y Gadair Ddu or ‘The Black Chair’. It has been preserved at Wyn’s family home, now a museum, as a poignant reminder of those Wales lost in the war.
A model soldier turned passionate pacifist, Siegfried Sassoon is remembered for his incendiary antiwar writing, which reflects shattered illusions about the glory and honour of warfare.
After enlisting as a second lieutenant in May 1915, Sassoon soon gained an exemplary military record. He was decorated twice, awarded the Military Cross for rescuing comrades during a raid on an enemy trench. However, this bravery was also tinged with a disturbingly wild recklessness, which saw Sassoon termed “Mad Jack” by his comrades. As he experienced the horrors of trench warfare and witnessed the deaths of loved ones – including his brother Hamo at Gallipoli – Sassoon became increasingly disillusioned with the war. His poetry reflected this; where once it had been romantic, it grew increasingly harsh, mocking and cynical.
In April 1917, the poet’s growing antagonism toward Britain’s military commanders came to a head. Wounded in the shoulder, Sassoon lay recuperating in a military hospital bed. It was during this time away from the trenches that he constructed one of his most scathing indictments of the ineptitude of the military top brass – a poem called The General:
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
The caustic black humour of The General did not go down well with Sassoon’s superiors. The poet made matters worse by refusing to return to the front line and publishing an uncompromising letter in The Times arguing: “The war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Such provocative actions brought Sassoon dangerously close to being court-martialled. However, the army was reluctant to publically punish a well-known solider with such an impressive military record. Instead, they sent Sassoon to Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital to be treated for shell shock. It was here that Sassoon began a fruitful creative relationship with fellow soldier-poet Wilfred Owen; he would become a profound influence on Owen’s work.
After further postings in Palestine and France, Sassoon survived the war. He went on to a successful career writing both poetry and prose, and died in 1967. His experiences during the First World War proved a lasting influence on his work.
Rupert Brooke has often been seen as a poster-boy for the idealism of Britain’s early war effort. Unlike poets such as Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, whose poetry was coloured by the mud and blood of the trenches, Brooke never lived to experience the horrors of front line service first hand. Consequently, his writing is characterised by a patriotism and romanticism which is completely at odds with the poetry that emerged from the later years of the war.
Once described as the “handsomest young man in England”, Brooke was a well-connected socialite and member of the Bloomsbury Group. By the time that war broke out in Europe, he had already carved a reputation for himself as a poet. Like many of his peers, the well-travelled Cambridge graduate signed up to fight soon after the declaration of war. He was commissioned as a Royal Navy officer with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.
While on Christmas leave in 1914, Brooke constructed his most well-known war poem, The Soldier. Part of a series of five war sonnets, it begins:
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
The patriotism and sentimentality of The Soldier proved astoundingly popular in Britain. However, Brooke’s poem was soon given a new and tragic poignancy. On 26 April 1915, just three weeks after The Times published Brooke’s poem, the same newspaper now printed his obituary.
Brooke had died at sea three days earlier, after contracting septicemia from an infected mosquito bite. He was aged 27. The poet’s friend William Denis Browne was at his deathbed, later recalling how he “died with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.”
Despite writing some of the most iconic poetry of the First World War, Wilfred Owen never lived to see most of it published.
After enlisting in 1915, Owen was sent to the western front in January 1917, where he was quickly exposed to the grim reality of life on the front line. In April, he wrote to his mother: “For 12 days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For 12 days we lay in holes where at any moment a shell might put us out.” Following this particularly gruelling stretch in the trenches, Owen began to suffer from crippling headaches. He was diagnosed with shell shock and sent to Craiglockhart hospital to recuperate.
Owen’s time at Craiglockhart had a lasting impact on him, both personally and creatively. By chance, the aspiring poet was hospitalised at the same time as one of his idols – Siegfried Sassoon. Although Owen wrote to his mother: “I am not worthy to light his [Sassoon’s] pipe”, the two poets soon developed a close bond. Owen later described Sassoon as the “greatest friend I have”. The pair exchanged ideas about poetry and Sassoon’s creative advice – and bitter cynicism about the war – undoubtedly galvanized Owen’s writing. In a letter, he recalled the older poet telling him: “Sweat your guts out writing poetry! Sweat your guts out, I say!”
In the 14 months following his meeting with Sassoon in August 1917, Owen experienced a remarkable streak of creativity. The poems he composed during this time evoked his hideous first-hand experience of life in the trenches. The Sentry was inspired by the blinding of a comrade, while the ironically named Dulce et Decorum est (meaning “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”) was inspired by a gas attack Owen had witnessed in January 1917:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just 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,
Owen was killed on 4 November 1918, hit by machine gun fire while attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise Canal in northern France. News of his death reached his parents on Armistice Day. He was just 25.
At the time of his death, Owen’s work was pretty much unknown – only five of his poems had been published during his lifetime. However, Sassoon desperately wanted to prevent his friend’s poignant poetry from being forgotten. In 1920, he edited and published a posthumous volume of Owen’s work, including poems such as Dulce et Decorum est and Anthem for Doomed Youth, which continue to shape how we how reflect on trench warfare to this day.
Rudyard Kipling is not widely remembered as a First World War poet, but rather a jingoistic patriot who trumpeted Britain’s imperial conflicts. However, the war undoubtedly had an irrevocable effect on his writing and a devastating effect on his own life.
When war broke out in 1914, Kipling – in his late 40s – was too old to enlist. Nevertheless, he used his writing to fuel Britain’s propaganda machine. He crafted idealistic images of the British armed forces, and is even credited with coining the term “the Hun” to demonise the German enemy. Kipling’s jingoistic writing proved immensely popular, especially with soldiers who took his verses with them to the front lines.
Although Kipling was excluded from fighting, he was adamant that his only son John (known as Jack) should play his part in the war effort. Despite the fact that John was twice prevented from joining the navy due to shortsightedness, Kipling used his connections to secure his son an infantry commission.
These actions soon came back to haunt Kipling. Aged just 18, John went missing in action during heavy machine gun fire in battle of Loos in 1915. Despite launching an extensive search on the slim hope that John could have been captured, Kipling never managed to recover his son’s body or uncover what had happened to him.
John’s disappearance shattered his father’s gung-ho attitude towards war. Kipling vented his anger at the “idle-minded overlings” running proceedings, while his Epitaphs of War tellingly reads: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.” Following his son’s disappearance, Kipling wrote the heart-wrenching poem My Boy Jack. Although the poem was framed as a response to death of 16-year-old sailor Jack Cornwell, many viewed it as referring to Kipling’s own lost son:
“HAVE you news of my boy Jack? ”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Ellie Cawthorne is staff writer for BBC History Magazine.
This article was first published by History Extra in April 2017.