Doomed Youth: Soldier Poets of the First World War
Poetry in the Trenches.
It is fearfully hard now to fully comprehend the bravery of the men who, with their primitive firearms and lack of protective equipment, fought in the trenches of the First World War. That some of them could write letters home or poetry in the face of constant bombardment simply serves to make them even more heroic. For me, the passion of their unique poetry will be forever linked with their dogged courage in the face of imminent, and unimaginably squalid, death.
Of the three poets whose work has most moved me, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, only Siegfried Sassoon survived the Great War, as it has since been termed. His condemnation of the ineptitude of the officers, usually taken from the British upper classes, directing that war, his first hand and furious knowledge of their flawed strategies and their arrogant and profligate wasting of men's lives left him emotionally scarred and eternally embittered.
Wilfred Owen: killed in action 1918
Arguably Wilfred Owen has become the most famous of all the young poets that went fatalistically into the First World War. His 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' was written whilst he was back in England on sick leave recovering from the shell-shock which had resulted from his being lifted into the air by a mortar bomb and dumped amongst what was left of a fellow officer.
At that time psychological conditions were still poorly understood and shell-shock was considered merely a lack of moral fibre and therefore shameful and 'unmanly'. Despite the fact that most soldiers suffering from this condition remained totally unfit for service ever again, Owen stubbornly returned to the Front.
Although his early poetry was somewhat romantic, his experiences in the trenches and, more significantly, his meeting Siegfried Sassoon at the sanatorium as he was recovering from his shell-shock, heralded a change of direction in his writing style. Owen idolised Sassoon and from this time his poems take on a more hard-edged and experiential flavour. They became the most honest form of war reporting at a time when many of the more unpalatable facts were kept hidden and replaced instead by the jingoistic propaganda thought necessary for public morale. Indeed many of Owen's poems were quite shockingly graphic for the time and much of that is considered to be because of Sassoon's insistence on honesty.
Owen died only seven days before the war ended in November 1918, winning the Military Cross posthumously for his conspicuous bravery. His timing, so faultless in poetry, was unbearably and poignantly askew in real life and it seems even more tragic that his most powerful poems, such as 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' were only published after his death.
Siegfried Sassoon, having became Owen's patron during the war, continued to edit and promote his work after it had ended. Today, ironically, Wilfred Owen is usually considered to be the better poet of the two.
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen.
Rupert Brooke: died of sepsis 1915.
Rupert Brooke's poetry is quite different from the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in its idealistic lyricism and often wistful longing for England and its countryside. In Brooke's war poetry there is no gory realism, no painful truth to face, no sharp anger at the monstrous loss of life and this is perhaps because his time as a combatant was very limited.
Once dubbed 'the most handsome young man in England', Brooke had had a gilded youth. An intellectual and a friend of many literary giants his confusion at his sexual identity led to emotional instability and breakdown. He diverted himself by travelling a great deal at this time, perhaps seeing it as a possible cure for his dilemma, or maybe just to outrun his demons.
But time was running out for all the youth, gilded or otherwise, of that generation and at the age of 27 he was persuaded to join the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in October 1914 by Winston Churchill. His war was short-lived as he succumbed to an infected mosquito bite off the island of Skyros the following April just as he was about to be deployed at the infamous landings at Gallipoli. His grave is still there, neatly tended on a peaceful hillside on Skyros and the first lines of his famous poem 'The Soldier' now seem to have been eerily prophetic:
'If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England'.
It seems strange that his grave however bears a different inscription. The actual inscription reads:
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
and it is a quote written by Wilfred Owen in a 'Preface' to his own poems.
Siegfried Sassoon: died 1967
For me the poems of Sassoon are both the most stark and the most accessible of all the poetry of the First World War. Despite having been written over ninety years ago they have a modern feel and the scorn and anger felt by this brave and remarkable man for the senseless waste of life that epitomised that war still burns fiercely in them.
Like Brooke he went to Cambridge University though he left without a degree. Having a small private income he had no need to work so followed instead the natural inclinations of a gentleman of that period, playing cricket, hunting foxes and dabbling with writing. When war loomed however he immediately enlisted.
It would almost seem that the horror of what he saw in the trenches developed a death wish in him. As if expecting to be killed at any moment and wanting to get it over with, he was often insanely, and frequently unnecessarily, brave. His men called him 'Mad Jack' and felt that he brought them luck as he continued to survive despite everything. His exploits won him the Military Cross and his name was put forward for the Victoria Cross.
However this award was to elude him, probably because he was something of a loose cannon (no pun intended) to the military authorities prosecuting the war. It is unlikely that he cared about not receiving the Victoria Cross as he even threw the medal ribbon of his Military Cross into the River Mersey in Liverpool.
In 1917 his undeniable courage finally led him to openly rebel against what he saw as an extended war of aggression rather than one of national defence. After a period of leave he declined to return to the Front and wrote a letter entitled 'Finished with the War: a Soldier's Declaration' which was read out in Parliament. Sassoon's declaration called into question the motives of the British war leaders, maintaining that they were bent on conquest rather than protection of the nation and to this end they were callously squandering the lives of millions of men unnecessarily.
His feelings for the military hierarchy are plainly shown in the poem 'The General' which lays full blame on them for the many bungled attacks that resulted in so many deaths.
In answer to this public denouncement by Sassoon the military elite reacted with great cunning. Rather than have a high-profile, and potentially very damaging, court martial they simply declared Sassoon unfit for duty on the grounds of shell-shock and consigned him to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. It was hardly an honest diagnosis but even this was to work against them as Sassoon continued his subversive activities against the way the war was being handled and took to writing poetry about the murderous and wasteful realities of the Front. It was also whilst he was here that he met Wilfred Owen whom he encouraged and mentored to do the same.
Eventually Sassoon was returned to the Front only to be shot in the head in a so-called friendly-fire incident. He survived this wound but it was the end of Sassoon's war. For the rest of his life he continued to write and generously support other creative people, becoming a close friend to many of Britain's leading writers, poets, actors and even musicians.
In 1985 his name was included on the plaque in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey in London which commemorates sixteen of the Great War Poets. The inscription on the plaque was once again the touching words of his friend, Wilfred Owen.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
We will remember them ...
As the haunting lines of Laurence Binyon's 'For the Fallen' says:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
And for many of us this is true. Despite the passing of the years we do continue to recognise the sacrifice of these exceptional men and to weep at the pathos and courage of their poetry.