Somme 100: Reading War Poetry

Battle of the Somme

On this, the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, I thought it might be both appropriate and respectful to read a short selection of British poetry written during the Great War…

‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke (written 1914), from 1914 & Other Poems (1915)

‘The Soldier’ by Brooke is an instantly recognisable poem. It is one of a collection of sonnets written early in the war, collected under the title of 1914 & Other Poems. These achieved popular acclaim after The Times Literary Supplement printed two in full in the spring of 1915, ‘IV: The Dead’ and ‘V: The Soldier.’ The latter was subsequently read from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday. These poems were composed before the poet reached the Front and had an opportunity to witness the horror of industrial warfare. The language is romantic, in the literary sense of the term, idealistic and patriotic, with much repetition of ‘England.’  Death is presented as romantic and heroic in opening three lines, and perhaps not so bad in the end, as the soldier lies ‘under an English heaven.’ Brooke was commissioned in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in February, 1915, but died of blood poisoning on April 23 after a mosquito bite became infected. He was twenty-seven.

Rupert Brooke

V The Soldier

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;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

     Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

     A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

          Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

     And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

          In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

‘The Death-Bed’ by Siegfried Sassoon (written 1916), from The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917)

This was written in hospital in France in Summer 1916 after Sassoon was shot during the Battle of the Somme. It was, however, rejected for publication in the traditional English literary journals. Like Brooke, Sassoon was an intellectual (both had gone to Cambridge), but unlike Brooke he had been at the sharp end, as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. This is a very different representation of a soldier’s death to the one imagined by Brooke. Relatives gather round the bed, but ‘You may save him yet’ is merely a false hope. ‘He’s young’ is emphasized, and ‘He hated war,’ but he will still die ‘When cruel old campaigners win safe through.’ This is directed at the politicians, generals and profiteers who Sassoon believed were incompetently running the war and unnecessarily prolonging it. ‘But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went’ is an incredible piece of writing: here, death is random, arbitrary, pointless. The death leaves a silence in the safe English night, but in the distance we still hear the guns (at its closest point, England is only twenty-odd miles from France), reminding us that this scene will be endlessly repeated until all the young men are dead.

Sassoon

The Death Bed

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped

Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls;

Aqueous like floating rays of amber light,

Soaring and quivering in the wings of sleep.

Silence and safety; and his mortal shore

Lipped by the inward, moonless waves of death.

Someone was holding water to his mouth.

He swallowed, unresisting; moaned and dropped

Through crimson gloom to darkness; and forgot

The opiate throb and ache that was his wound.

Water—calm, sliding green above the weir;

Water—a sky-lit alley for his boat,

Bird-voiced, and bordered with reflected flowers

And shaken hues of summer: drifting down,

He dipped contented oars, and sighed, and slept.

Night, with a gust of wind, was in the ward,

Blowing the curtain to a gummering curve.

Night. He was blind; he could not see the stars

Glinting among the wraiths of wandering cloud;

Queer blots of colour, purple, scarlet, green,

Flickered and faded in his drowning eyes.

Rain—he could hear it rustling through the dark;

Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;

Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers

That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps

Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,

Gently and slowly washing life away.

He stirred, shifting his body; then the pain

Leaped like a prowling beast, and gripped and tore

His groping dreams with grinding claws and fangs.

But someone was beside him; soon he lay

Shuddering because that evil thing had passed.

And death, who’d stepped toward him, paused and stared.

Light many lamps and gather round his bed.

Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.

Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.

He’s young; he hated war; how should he die

When cruel old campaigners win safe through?

But death replied: ‘I choose him.’ So he went,

And there was silence in the summer night;

Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep.

Then, far away, the thudding of the guns.

‘To the Warmongers’ by Siegfried Sassoon (originally written in 1916), from Collected Poems (1947)

‘To The Warmongers’ returns to the theme of the people of the so-called ‘Home Front,’ whom Sassoon by this point despised for tolerating such carnage so patriotically and unquestioningly. It was written while he was convalescing at Denmark Hill Hospital, but considered too angry and uncomfortable for inclusion in his collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems (published by Heinemann in 1918). It is written in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, signalled by the opening line’s reference to hell – the image being I have returned from a dreadful place carrying a message that must be told (‘With loathsome thoughts to sell’). What follows is a list of horrors. He addresses the reader directly on line 7: ‘You shall hear things like this,’ and again on lines 13 to 16, presupposing (probably correctly) that a domestic reader sees pride and glory in the war, as in the manner of Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier,’ and anticipating the sentiment of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est,’ which Sassoon’s inspired and encouraged. But the poet’s vision is different to nationalist, militaristic orthodoxy as can be seen from the final four lines: he has a ‘curse’ which ‘shall not be unsaid’ (he is compelled to speak even though he does not want the experience or responsibility); his heart is wounded, probably permanently; and, most importantly, his testimony is that of an authentic witness because ‘I have watched them die.’  This is a very angry poem from a very tormented soul.

WWI soldiers

To the Warmongers

I’m back again from hell

With loathsome thoughts to sell;

Secrets of death to tell;

And horrors from the abyss.

Young faces bleared with blood,

Sucked down into the mud,

You shall hear things like this,

Till the tormented slain

Crawl round and once again,

With limbs that twist awry

Moan out their brutish pain,

As the fighters pass them by.

For you our battles shine

With triumph half-divine;

And the glory of the dead

Kindles in each proud eye.

But a curse is on my head,

That shall not be unsaid,

And the wounds in my heart are red,

For I have watched them die.

Sassoon had been awarded the Military Cross for bravery under fire. The citation read: ‘For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.’ (He was also recommended for the Victoria Cross.)

At the end of his convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty. Encouraged by pacifist friends Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer entitled ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,’ effectively deserting. He threw his Military Cross ribbon into the Mersey. This was forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by the anti-war Liberal MP, Hastings Lees-Smith. This is what it said:

Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.

I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

S. Sassoon

Technically, this was desertion and could be tried by a military court. In peacetime, a deserter could expect a long sentence in military prison. In wartime, the punishment was execution by firing squad. Sassoon was well aware of this. The statement ‘I am a soldier’ emphasises his right to speak from experience (he is not a left-wing academic sitting in a comfortable office); as with his poems, he is an eye-witness. Germany had invaded Belgium and France, allies of Britain, while there was a quite justifiable fear of German invasion. So Sassoon had volunteered to defend his country and to free her allies. But, he argues, Britain is now as much an invader as Germany, and is hoping to expand her empire by seizing Germany and her colonies. This is a moral argument: a war of defence is just and unavoidable, a war of conquest is not. Sassoon is talking about ‘War Aims.’ These are similar to United Nations Security Council Resolutions. British war aims should have quite clearly been: Liberate Belgium and France, stop the threat of German invasion. If the government stated these aims clearly then they could not exceed them. This is why America could not invade Iraq after the Gulf War; the UN war aims were to liberate Kuwait not conquer Iraq. Sassoon believes that at time of writing (July 1917), the objectives of freeing France and Belgium and rendering Germany incapable of invading Britain could be achieved by diplomacy. His point was that soldiers were either dying for the wrong reason or for no reason at all.

‘I am not protesting against the conduct of the war’ elegantly reaffirms his main point. He is not objecting to the appalling conditions on the battlefields; his inference is he would still fight in hell if the cause was morally justified. He is also saying, I think, I am not a coward. He then finishes with a flourish, also adding a theme which is again familiar from his poems. This is an attack on domestic civilians, not just politicians and old generals. To Sassoon, they are either too hard-hearted, self-interested or stupid to understand and, by implication, this ignorance perpetuates the war as no-one protests.

He signs himself ‘S. Sassoon’ because his Christian name is German, although he was not of German extraction. (His mother was an opera buff and he was named for Wagner’s hero.) He was well aware how unpopular his opinion would be, and all through this declaration he is anticipating criticism and trying to counter the obvious accusations that will be used to undermine his argument. As we’ve seen in the recent EU Referendum debate, opponents frequently try to discredit those with whom they disagree, rather than entering into serious discussion, especially during a national crisis. A man with a German name would be called a spy, while he was also labelled, in some quarters, a traitor, a coward, and a lunatic.

As a high profile conscientious objector, Sassoon, was a problem for the War office. He was already a renowned poet and publically known as a war hero. He was set on the path of suicidal martyrdom, but the War Office erred on the side of caution in an attempt to prevent a political crisis. Sassoon was encouraged to withdraw his statement, but like a good soldier he dug in. He refused to attend a medical board until his close friend and fellow intellectual, Robert Graves, persuaded him that he would never be court martialled, but instead that it was either the medical board or an asylum. This period is covered in Sassoon’s work of creative non-fiction, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), the second volume of the Complete Memoirs of George Sherston trilogy, and in Graves’ autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929). Sassoon later felt that Graves has deceived him, and their friendship never recovered. Graves was sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, his rebellion spun by the War office as ‘shell shock.’ Here he met Wilfred Owen, who edited a hospital magazine called The Hydra to which Sassoon contributed several poems, and was treated by the Freudian psychologist and academic, Dr. William Rivers. This complex dynamic and its consequences is covered in the beautiful historical novel, Regeneration by Pat Barker (1991).

‘Sick Leave’ by Siegfried Sassoon (originally written in 1917), from Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)

This poem was originally entitled ‘Death’s Brotherhood.’ It was first published in the English Review in January 1918. ‘Sick Leave’ was the seventh poem written during Sassoon’s time at Craiglockhart, and another thirteen would follow before his discharge at the end of November, 1917. ‘Sick Leave’ is particularly haunting. The poem dramatizes Sassoon’s inner conflict between his pacifism and his loyalty to his fellow soldiers. He is also relieved to be safe and alive, while suffering from what is nowadays referred to as ‘survivor’s guilt.’ It is a gothic poem. He sees, or imagines that he sees – he is almost certainly shell-shocked by this point – the ghosts of dead comrades around his bed. They have searched for him in France, but not found him on the Line. Safety is suddenly ‘bitter,’ and he awakes ‘unfriended’ – his friends are dead and their ghosts reject him for his escape, which he views as a dereliction of duty. As he realizes it is raining, his thoughts travel to his men, cold and wet in the trenches. When are you going back?  the ghosts seem to ask. ‘Are they not still your brothers through our blood’ suggests that their deaths mean nothing unless they somehow bond and sustain those still alive and fighting, not for King and Country but for their lives. Although officered Home Service (a safe desk job) during this period, Sassoon voluntarily returned to the front and was shot in the head shortly afterwards.

The Hydra

Sick Leave

When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm, —

They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.

While the dim charging breakers of the storm

Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,

Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.

     They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.

      Why are you here with all your watches ended?

     From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;

And while the dawn begins with slashing rain

I think of the Battalion in the mud.

 When are you going out to them again?

Are they not still your brothers through our blood?

‘Lamentations’ by Siegfried Sassoon (written in 1917), from Counter-Attack and Other Poems (1918)

Like the poem ‘Base Details,’ in which old majors read the Roll of Honour before they ‘toddle safely home and die—in bed,’ this is an angry satire on conventional military and Home Front values, contrasting a very honest depiction of the anguish of grief with a glib patriotic dismissal. The delivery of the punchline is deadpan, with more than a hint of the gallows humour of the men in the trenches. Sassoon survived the war, dying in 1967 at the age of eighty.

Lamentations

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.

From the blind darkness I had heard him crying.

And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face

A sergeant watched him; it was not good trying

To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.

And, all because his brother had gone west,

Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief

Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling

Half-naked on the floor. In my belief

Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen (written in 1917), published posthumously in 1920. From The Complete Poems and Fragments by Wilfred Owen, edited by Jon Stallworthy (1984)

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori’ is a quotation from the Horacian ode III.2 on virtue, in which Horace extols endurance, valour, and patriotism. The ode begins: ‘Angustam amice pauperiem pati robustus acri militia puer’ which translates from the Latin: ‘To suffer hardness with good cheer/In sternest school of warfare bred/Our youth should learn.’ ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ means ‘What joy, for fatherland to die!’ This was written on much patriotic bric-a-brac in England during the war. You can see Sassoon’s influence on Owen here: this is another witness’s account of the reality of war (as opposed to the patriotic dream), although Owen’s imagery is more elaborately poetic, at the same time breaking up the classical language with soldier’s slang, such as ‘Five-Nines’ which refers to 5.9 calibre explosive shells. Owen is also haunted by his experiences, referring to ‘all my dreams.’ He too addresses the reader very directly, but not in anger like Sassoon but as ‘My friend.’ His final image is of children, because it is youth that dreams of glory on the field of honour, not old age, and it is youth that dies. He calls Dulce et decorum ‘the old lie’ because this is one war among many – Owen saw the experience as timeless and transcendent, imagining himself to be an insignificant figure in some vast, endless, universal conflict. By ending with a patriotic slogan he completely negates it.

I have always felt that there is a parallel to be usefully drawn between Sassoon the prophet and Owen the messiah, with Sassoon as essentially John the Baptist heralding the Christ-like Owen. Like Sassoon, Owen was a homosexual, and he was similarly a recipient of the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.’ He was killed in action on 4 November, 1918, during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week (almost to the hour) before the Armistice was signed.

Wilfred OwenDulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

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,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

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.

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen (originally written in 1917), from Complete Poems (1984)

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ was written while Owen was at Craiglockhart, with Sassoon acting as copy-editor. This is the best known of all the poetry of the Great War. It is a very complex poem, using the traditional form of a Petrarchan sonnet but employing the rhyme scheme of an English sonnet. This is a religious piece, a hymn for the dead as there does not seem to be one that can describe the war adequately. The imagery is Christian, while at the same time documenting the poet’s loss of faith, and the sounds of the deadly ordinance and the grief of the bereaved is used to replace the more traditional forms of worship and requiem: church bells, prayers and choirs. The poem opens with the image of the slaughterhouse and closes with the eternity of mourning a lost loved one. This is a beautiful piece of writing, yet not an angry one. Owen seems to have reached a state of acceptance, even forgiveness, in the process of writing. Owen was killed soon after the poem was completed.

Owen MS

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

     — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

     Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

     And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

     Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

     The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

WWI Soldiers

Even after a century, a soldier’s bones are still turned up every week by French farmers ploughing their fields. In all, 8.5 Million were killed on all sides. Today we mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The casualty figures, just for the first day, are staggering. May we never forget, may this never happen again, and may their souls rest in peace.

SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY

Contemporary Memoirs

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (UK 1933).

Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston: Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man; Memoirs of an Infantry Officer; Sherston’s Progress (UK 1937).

Edmund Blunden, Undertones of War (UK 1928).

Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (UK 1929).

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany 1929).

Fiction

Pat Barker, The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road (UK 1995).

H.G. Wells, Mr. Britling Sees It Through (UK 1916).

Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier (UK 1918).

Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong (UK 1997).

Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (US 1970).

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (US 1930).

Poetry

Rupert Hart-Davis, Editor, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon (UK 1990)

Jon Silkin, Editor, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (UK 1979).

Robert Giddings, The War Poets (UK 1988).

Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (UK 1975).

John Cruikshank, Variations on Catastrophe: Some French responses to the Great War (UK 1982).

John Stuart Roberts, Siegfried Sassoon (UK 1999).

History

Niall Ferguson, 1914: Why the World Went to War (UK 2005).

—, The Pity of War (UK 1998).

Max Arthur, Editor, Forgotten Voices of the Great War (UK 2002).

Lyn MacDonald, 1915: The Death of Innocence (UK 1980).

—, Somme (UK 1983).

—, To The Last Man: Spring 1918 (UK 1998).

Film

Oh! What A Lovely War (Directed by Richard Attenborough, from the stage play by Charles Chilton, UK 1969).

Johnny Got His Gun (Directed by Dalton Trumbo, from his novel, US 1971).

Regeneration (Directed by Gillies MacKinnon, from the novel by Pat Barker, UK 1997).

Deathwatch (Directed by Michael J. Bassett, UK 2002).

The Lost Battalion (Directed by Russell Mulcahy, US 2001).

A Farewell to Arms (Directed by Frank Borzage, from Hemingway’s novel, US, 1932).

Journey’s End (Directed by James Whale, from the play by R.C. Sherriff, UK/US 1930).

All Quiet on the Western Front (Directed by Lewis Milestone, from the novel by Remarque, US 1930).

War Horse (Directed by Steven Spielberg, US, 2011).

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