‘In Flanders Field, the poppies blow.’ Written by John McCrae, this poem is probably one of the best-known war poems produced by a British poet. Drilled into the British psyche by decades of English lessons, it sums up the horror and sadness of the First World War with its thirty-seven million war deaths. Almost everyone in Britain has a relative who was killed as a result of it. And, with the centenary of one of the biggest conflicts in human history fast approaching, it seems only right to take a look at some of the other work produced as a result. A hundred years later, has it lost its relevance in a new, modern age? It’s time to make a cup of tea, sit back and digest the subtleties of war poetry, to see what it can tell us today about yesterday…
It is true that everyone I know has a relative who fought in the First World War, and this is also true of my own family. It’s strange to think that people you’re actually related to really fought and died in the war, and this brings out a kind of morbid fascination in most people, to see who their relatives were, what they did, how they died. I’m no different, and I spent two or three hours website-hopping before writing this article, trying to find inspiration on what to write. What I did find was information about my great great-uncle, Harry Skeen. A solider – a private – and a true Yorkshire lad, he enlisted two years below the age threshold, at sixteen, to the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment and was sent to the Western Front almost immediately… another victim of jingoism and the propaganda produced by the population – propaganda which included poetry.
Needless to say, the initial fervour of the men was quickly dampened by the conditions on the Western Front and a whole new type of speech and literature developed in the trenches (interestingly enough, we get quite a lot of words we use today from this time: plonk (cheap wine), bumf (a lot of paperwork) and catwalk). One of the most prominent poets in relation to this trend was Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry satirised the unquestioning patriotism of the time and painted vividly the horrors of life at war, and of the men who died in it. One of these men was actually my great-great uncle, who drowned less than a year after signing up in the mud at Paschendaele, and was thus immortalised in the Services Records until I stumbled across them a hundred years later. Sassoon’s work was enormously influential in portraying life as it really was on the Western Front, and his friendship with the poet Wilfred Owen inspired Owen’s most famous poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. This poetry was a stark turnaround from the romanticism of pre-war literature in its unflinching portrayal of ‘those who die as cattle’ and the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’, and helped to usher in a new era of literature: that of modernism, or of the bleak questioning of life in the face of the indifferent universe (evidence of the pervasiveness of the sense of gloom induced by the war).
A terror hangs over our heads
I scarcely dare to think
Of the awful doom that each one dreads
From which the bravest shrink.
It’s not the crushing shrapnel shell
It’s not the sniper’s shot,
It’s not the machine gun’s bursts of Hell,
These matter not a jot.
It’s a far worse thing than that, son,
With which we have to grapple.
It’s if we see another one
More tin of plum and apple.