Wartime poems distort impressions of WWI horrors
Our knowledge of WWI has been formed, in large part, by the Great War poets. But a modern writer has suggested that their work could distort our understanding of the conflict. Is he right?
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, the national mood was one of patriotism and enthusiasm. ‘I felt like laughing with the excitement of it,’ recalled one soldier. ‘It was the whole country, the whole empire at war together.’ Another wrote: ‘We were happy that our country had gone to war. We were going to win fame and glory.’
We now know that the reality of fighting in the trenches was an appalling, devastating affair. Soldiers contended with mud, rats, lice and trench foot, not to mention the effects of mustard gas attacks, which left men in terrible agony, blind and deformed. Then there was the utter carnage: 200,000 lives were lost in a single day of fighting, and many more soldiers sustained lifelong mental and physical injuries. It was too much to bear for some. Nearly 4,000 men deliberately wounded themselves, usually by shooting their feet, in order to escape the horrors of war.
It is thanks in part to the war poets that we know about these terrible conditions. Perhaps the most famous poem of all is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, in which he describes a soldier who fails to put his gas mask on in time during a chlorine attack: ‘In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, he plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.’ Owen, a soldier himself, was killed on the front line just a week before the armistice was signed.
But some are now questioning whether these poets capture the true experience of war. According to the poet Ian McMillan, it was a ‘minority view’ among soldiers that the war was pitiful. Other poets wrote about everyday concerns, while trench magazines reveal poems filled with humour. The famous, tragic poems were barely even known in 1918, and only gained widespread prominence in the 1960s.
Words of war
These poems are mere works of fiction, some say, and tell us little about the realities of war. They did not resonate with audiences at the time, and were only resurrected decades after the war had finished. Our focus on them has meant that other poets, who wrote about other aspects of the war, have been eclipsed. Besides, some poems show that life in the trenches was not always so bad.
But humorous poems were just a coping mechanism, others argue, and do even less to convey the reality of war. It is thanks to poets such as Owen, who were open and honest at a time when men were supposed to be stoic and macho, that we have a testimony of war’s true misery. These poets were actual soldiers in the trenches; their accounts were based on what they witnessed, and their sentiments are corroborated by letters, photographs and newspaper accounts. Some were gassed or suffered shell shock, and many were killed.
- Can poetry aid our understanding of great historical events? Or are other types of evidence more important?
- Does art distort reality?
- Read Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in our expert links. Find out the meaning of the Latin phrase at the poem’s finale, and discuss in groups whether you agree with it or not.
- Imagine you are a first world war soldier in the trenches. Write your own creative piece, such as a letter or poem, describing your experience.
Some People Say...
“The pen is mightier than the sword.’Edward Bulwer-Lytton”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So, are these poets making it up then?
- No. We know from many other sources, such as photographs, official statistics, letters and reports, that the horror of war as described by the poets is realistic. The question is whether we should do more to resurrect other poetical voices from the war, and why the poetry only started to gain widespread attention in the 1960s.
- Poetry is a dying art form these days, it can’t move people the way films do.
- On the contrary, WWI poetry still has a deeply powerful effect on its readers, even decades after it was first written. Words from Laurence Binyon’s poem, ‘For the Fallen’ – ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.’ – are still heard each year at Remembrance Sunday services across Britain and the Commonwealth countries.
- Trench foot
- Many soldiers suffered from this infection of the feet caused by damp, wet conditions. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous, and would often require amputation. By the end of 1915, solders were under orders to change their socks at least twice a day. One soldier, Arthur Savage, recalled the ‘sheer horror of seeing men sobbing because they had trench foot that had turned gangrenous. They knew they were going to lose a leg.’
- Mustard gas
- Mustard gas was first used by the German army in 1917. Victims would experience vomiting, internal and external bleeding, blindness, and agonising deaths lasting up to five weeks. The writer Vera Brittain described its effects: ‘Great mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.’
- The Armistice of Compiègne was the agreement between Germany and the allies which ended the fighting, at 11am on the 11th November 1918.
- Other poets
- For example, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ wrote about rum rations. Female poets such as Charlotte Mew described the experience of working as part of the war effort.
- Anti-war feeling swept through the US and the UK as huge protests against the Vietnam War took place. Against this backdrop, two major anthologies of WWI poetry were published. Schools began to teach it for the first time, and it permeated the culture of the decade.