Accessing the Human Side: Poetry of the First World War

“In Flanders Field, the poppies blow” – John McCrae

‘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.There was certainly a turning point in the genre and type of poetry produced during the war. When war was announced, the country was gripped by a patriotic fervour that was echoed in the writings of people around that time as people flocked to sign up, enlisting in ‘Pals Battalions’, many of which never returned. A good poem from around this time is John McCrae’s ‘Flanders Fields’, which is firmly written in the spirit of ‘jingoism’: that unquestioning patriotism that led so many men to sign up. Although McCrae doesn’t flinch from the death toll in the war, describing the ‘crosses/ Row on row’, he uses it instead to galvanise the readers, telling us that he considers it our duty to continue the work left undone by the dead. McCrae tells us to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’ and to hold ‘the torch’,saying that the sacrifice of the Dead must be honoured. This call to honour the memory of the dead is increased by his warning that if ‘ye break faith…we shall not sleep’. Poems like this at the start of the war were common, and further incited the masses to pursue their dreams of the glory that they imagined was waiting for them at the front.

The First World War was characterised by trench warfare.

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).So, having considered the nature of First World War poetry, what can I say about it as a whole? It’s easy to sit here, drinking tea (still), sitting in my comfy armchair and thinking about it from in front of my computer, but the truth is that this poetry bears witness to the experiences of men who fought and died in the trenches for us (such as my great-great uncle, and countless more); it is one way through which some of those men sought to immortalise, memorialise, and confront their experiences.. It’s strange to think but, above the pictures, diary entries and letters home, verse remains the most popular thing to read – the most popular way of trying to access what the men who fought the war really thought about it. This poetry elucidates not only the war’s atrocities but also the light-hearted side of trench warfare: pet hates, such as plum and apple jam, were immortalised in poems written by many ordinary soldiers:

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.

And maybe that was the best side of trench poetry, in that it brought out the human side of the war: the feelings and actions of the men who fought and died as individuals, rather than characterising them as one unknowable body of people engaged in an incomprehensible catastrophe. One hundred years later we can still feel its power. Whether it documented the patriotic fervour that gripped the nation, the horror of the realities of trench life, or simply the day-to-day minutiae described by the soldiers, it’s easy to say that even in this day and age, that era in poetry remains a worthy contribution to the genre and, quite possibly, a timeless one.

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