Why the war poets matter

November 2018

After the war

Why the war poets matter

Too many now view them as upper-class, unrepresentative snobs. They are much more than that.

James Heartfield

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Almost exactly a hundred years ago, Wilfred Owen, a schoolteacher and second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment during the First World War, was killed during an attack on German positions near the village of Joncourt, in northern France. Owen was awarded the Military Cross – posthumously – but he is best known for his anti-war poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’.

The poems are very strong, and, along with the work of Owen’s friend Siegfried Sassoon, also a poet and a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and other works by Ivor Gurney and Robert Graves, they added up to a harsh condemnation of war and the propaganda of war. The ‘war poets’, as this group are now routinely known, have become a staple of English literature that most schoolchildren in Britain will study, and not a few abroad.

In the classroom, the war poets make for a great lesson. Children learn to step outside of one kind of account, the patriotic one, and then criticise it from the outside. When the class intones ‘the old lie’ ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ a shiver runs through them. The Latin phrase is the first line of an ode by Roman poet Horace, meaning ‘it is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country’. The line was used in many patriotic eulogies and sermons and was inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.

Owen’s death in the final few days of the war adds another unbearable irony. He had been invalided out of the war with shell-shock (still a controversial diagnosis at that time) and would not have had to return to France if he had not chosen to do so.

Since then many patriotic writers have complained that the viewpoint of the war poets has poisoned the study of the First World War. Historian Adrian Gregory protests that ‘the stupidity of war has been a theme growing since the 1920s. From Robert Graves, through Oh! What a Lovely War [Joan Littlewood’s bitterly ironic musical] to Blackadder Goes Forth, the criminal idiocy of the British High Command has become an article of faith.’ Gregory makes a good argument that Owen’s characterisation of ‘the pity of war’ sums up the received view of the First World War as a futile waste (1).

Poet Ian McMillan also takes issue with the way that ‘the pity of war’ telling of 1914-18 has distorted history. He writes:

‘A select group of well-educated soldier officers, including Wilfred Owen, came to view the war as one of pity and horror. This was a minority view but expressed through powerful and well-written poetry. In the 1960s a literary elite decided this was the most authentic view of the conflict because it chimed with their own anti-war feelings.’

As well as being castigated for undermining war’s more patriotic appeal, the war poets are cast as upper-class snobs. It is a bit unfair in Owen’s case – he was only a stationmaster’s son and a pupil-teacher, though he did attend classes at what would become the University of Reading. Perhaps the fabulous gadfly Siegfried Sassoon, a Cambridge graduate from a wealthy Jewish family, fits the caricature of the war poet better.

Those seeking to pull down the war poets have pointed to other writers at the time who, some argue, give a more authentic, less mannered account of the Great War. Among those being rediscovered are Fred Roberts and Jack Pearson, the editors of a trench newspaper called either the Wipers’ Times (because English soldiers could not pronounce Ypres), or sometimes the Salient News. As Joe Shute puts it in the Daily Telegraph, the Wipers’ Times was ‘loved by soldiers and was far better read than the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon’.

The Wipers’ Times was very good, though the humour is a little hard to see today. Where the war poets strike a sardonic, tragic note, the Wipers’ Times is mostly a very gentle satire, of the kind that you find later in The Goon Show or Monty Python. People’s names are inverted for comic effect (Teech Bomas, Belary Hilloc) and there is a scepticism about big questions, and lots of mocking of enemies and fair-weather allies. Conscientious objector Ramsay McDonald comes in for some mockery, too. It is all very English and, while rank-and-file soldiers might have liked it, it is unavoidably the work of a captain and a lieutenant, in a style we would now call ‘public school’ humour. Those who like the Wipers’ Times better than Owen and Sassoon, though, underestimate not the futility of war, so much as the absurdity of military bureaucracy.

What the critics of the war poets say about the difficulty some veterans of the First World War had with appreciating Owens and Sassoon carries some weight. Many soldiers preferred the patriotic poets to whom Sassoon and Owen were contrasting themselves. Poetry was, by modern standards, surprisingly popular then. People liked the patriotic poet Jessie Pope, who is today taught mostly as the bad example against Owen and Sassoon’s more intelligent insight. Jessie Pope’s ‘Who’s for the Game?’, which first appeared in the Daily Express in November 1915, is typical:

‘Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much –
Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
Who would much rather come back with a crutch
Than lie low and be out of the fun?’

There is much to mock in patriotic poetry (‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’, wrote Henry Newbolt), but there can be strong imagery too, like Rupert Brooke’s field which is forever England.

Ordinary soldiers told all kinds of stories about the war, or none. My great uncle Davy Poole liked to scare his nieces with his tale of serving in the camel corps with TE Lawrence in the Arab revolt. Davy swore (who knows?) that at one point he was in a tent, sat at a table with a pile of piastres, giving one to each Arab fighter who presented him with the head of a Turk. ‘What happened to the heads?’, my aunt asked. ‘They were thrown into a bag in the corner of the room.’ Davy liked the story because it was horrific. It made him look scary and big to those unworldly girls. But he was, I think, expiating his own horror, and maybe guilt, too, by telling it.

The strength of the war poets, though, is not that they are all that representative of the opinions of the time. It would be foolish to think that poetry ought to be representative. Their strength really comes from the way that they reworked the words and thoughts of the time and rose above the immediacy of war fervour. They were blessed, if that is not too grotesque a word, with a deeply poetic and literary moment, where words rose up to lead men on to extraordinary deeds.

Public opinion was not manipulated into a horror of the war; the war was horrific


In newspapers, church sermons, officers’ words of command and comfort, language was strained to find the metaphors and images that would carry men from one outlook to another. Mundane things were lent intense meaning by the conflict – mud, barbed wire and later poppies were heavy with it. It is marked that the poets of the 1930s, WH Auden, Louis Macneice and Christopher Isherwood, who were at least as good technically as Sassoon and Owen, still did not find that note of profundity that the war poets did, their sincere denunciations of militarism sounding weedy and snarky next to Owen’s posthumous warnings.

There is an argument that the war poets, in separating themselves from patriotic sentiment, were contemptuous of the ordinary soldier, gullible to the ‘Old Lie’. They could be contemptuous, too, of the ordinary people of Britain. In ‘Blighters’, Siegfried Sassoon fantasises about attacking music halls:

‘I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home”,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.’

And in ‘Fight to the Finish’ he dreams of bombing parliament:

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.’

Some would like to convict the war poets of upper-class snobbishness, but I think they are mistaken. Sassoon’s fantasies are savagely funny, by their overstatement, not malevolent (like Betjeman’s ‘Slough’).

Where the critics have a point is in thinking that the pity of war became itself a kind of orthodoxy. You can see it at the Imperial War Museum’s sombre, under-lit First World War gallery, or in its more recent addition of John Akomfrah’s African Soldier film (somewhere between Owen and Tarkovsky).

In the years just after the war, the War Office struggled to cope with an outpouring of grief at the 760,000 Britons who lost their lives in the Great War. Though they were not popular in 1914, towards the end of the war and afterwards pacifist campaigners were making real gains in public opinion by emphasising the terrible losses. This is where Adrian Gregory and the other critics of the pity-of-war view have a point. But what they fail to see is that public opinion was not manipulated into a horror of the war; the war was horrific.

British field marshall Douglas Haig did fight a war of attrition, pouring tens of thousands of men into the Western Front without any realistic plan of success. That he got the reputation of the ‘Butcher of the Somme’ is not the work of pacifist ideologues, but his own. The expenditure in human life made the war unbearable, and all across the world, peoples rebelled against it: in Dublin in 1916; in Russia the following year; and finally in Germany. That was what brought the war to an end.

It was knowing that they could not face down the growing sentiment of grief that Britain’s ruling class created the rituals of remembrance. In his guilt at the condition of the men who lived, Lord Haig gave his name to the Haig Fund (now just called the Poppy Appeal), which sells paper poppies to raise money for veterans. The king commanded the first Remembrance Day. It was an attempt to yoke people’s grief at personal loss to a public ceremony to honour the war. It was common at the time and since to call the killings a ‘sacrifice’ – which indeed it was, a vast human sacrifice to the God of War. When British prime minister Lloyd George laid his wreath, the note gave thanks to those who sacrificed ‘so that we might live abundantly’ – but who was it that lived abundantly after the First World War? Arms manufacturers like Alfred Mond, no doubt, but not those veterans and widows left with pitiful pensions.

The case against the pity of war is that it was a sentiment that could be turned around to a worship of war, by the official honouring of the war dead. That was not the war poets’ fault. They wrote, and wrote well, which is what they ought to have done.

James Heartfield is co-author, with Kevin Rooney, of The Blood-Stained Poppy, published later this month.

(1) The Last Great War, by Adrian Gregory, Cambridge University Press, 2008, p3

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