The Great War

The Great War is known to have inspired some of the most powerful and moving poetry—from both sides—ever written in reaction to combat and death. Literature which had been mired in nineteenth century conventions was liberated by innovative uses of language straining to describe the indescribable, indicating that inventions were not restricted to things, objects or weapons. Although not published until the Second World War, The Lord of the Rings by J. J. R. Tolkien was written in the trenches during the months-long Battle of the Somme. C. S. Lewis, the well-known Christian and fiction writer, served in the War and, as unlikely as it sounds, the beloved children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, was inspired by this tragic conflict. Lewis spent six months on the Western Front, an experience that inspired his conversion to Christianity. He said afterwards: “My memories of the last war haunted my dreams for years. Military service, to be plain, includes the threat of every temporal evil.” These two men eventually met in 1926 and became great friends, bound by their wartime experiences.

In Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, the theme of the triumph of good over evil through the unbreakable bonds of brother and sister hood is set against the backdrop of a strange and alien land. The four children enter through a passageway that removes them from their familiar home and propels them towards character tests that force them to prove their worth through combat. The reader accepts the notion of arming children but in terms of the war experience of Lewis, these brave young men and women are metaphors for the schoolboys who left the playing fields for the battlefields. There are animal characters aplenty in this enchanting but foreboding book but they are not the cute Disney type and are portrayed as far grimmer characters than they are reinterpreted for the films. The brave Beaver said to the naïve children, sounding rather like an experienced officer talking to raw troops: “Take my advice, whenever you meet anything that’s going to be human and isn’t yet, or used to be human once and isn’t now, or ought to be human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.”

Tolkien went to war with his friends from Oxford and he was the only one to survive. Out of his memories of mud and living beneath the surface of the earth, Tolkien created the Hobbit, Sam Gamgee, as an homage to the ordinary British soldier who fought so bravely. Faramir, the Captain of the Gondor spoke knowingly of war and its consequences: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all. But I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Tolkien was a signal officer in the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers stationed in northern France. Serving on the front lines, he was not unlike a forward observer and was extremely vulnerable to being picked off by the enemy. When he was off duty, he began writing, “by candle light in bell-tents, even some down in dugouts under shell fire,” as he later explained. But he was not writing his memoirs. Inspired by myths like Beowulf and King Arthur, Tolkien was attempting to explain the horrors of his experiences in poetic terms. His Hobbit heroes are those who rise to the occasion, and, like Lewis, Tolkien thought in terms of good and evil. He said, “I have always been impressed that we are here, surviving, because of the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” He envisioned the Hobbits as small as a signifier of the low rank of the enlisted men in the War who, as he said, displayed “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’ ” 

Meanwhile a future author named Agatha Christie was doing her patriotic duty as a nurse to the soldiers wounded on the Western Front. Her task and eventually her specialty was preparing the drugs for the wounded men. After training at the Torquay Red Cross Hospital as an assistant pharmacist, Christie became quite an expert on drug compounds and poisons—some drugs would kill and some would cure—it was all a matter of the proper mixture. After the War, Christie, an expert on pharmaceuticals, wrote over sixty mystery novels, two thirds of which involved murder by poison. Many of these mysteries were solved by a Belgium refugee, Hercule Poirot, a former police officer who fled from the German occupiers and who made a new life in London as a private detective. Another writer, of science fiction fame, H. G. Wells optimistically wrote The War that will End Warin 1914. His famous title was rewritten slightly as “the war to end all wars.” Although Wells would ultimate be proven wrong—another war followed twenty years later—he was right that the horrors of this very modern war would be like none other. This war changed everything. 

Perhaps the greatest outpouring in literature came from the poets of Great Britain, soldiers in the fields who suddenly began writing poetry under stress. The impulse to respond to a war with the written word can be attributed to the British educational system, which turned out a well-educated middle and upper class and a literate lower class. These men went to war with books, fiction, biographies, poetry, to keep them company. Books were passed around, eagerly read to relive the boredom between battles. The early decades of the century had no alternative means of entertainment or of information: there was no radio, much less television, news was managed by the government, via Wellington House. Photographers from newspapers were discouraged from working at the Western Front and many of the images we have of this war were taken by the soldiers themselves. The accounts of the Great War came from those who fought it–not from those who observed it and not from those who managed it. 

The English and Irish artists who depicted the war actually served on the battlefields and their paintings still resonate today. We see the Great War through their eyes and by their choice of color and by their careful selection of styles to express the new landscapes populated by new machines and suffering soldiers. Many of those young men who served in the trenches or on the seas or in the air were poets. Poetry was their chosen career and the Great War and its logical insanity, its ceaseless slaughter, its waste of lives not yet started came under their eloquent scrutiny. As Patrick Clancy noted in his article “Poetry of World War I:” Schooled in poetry, many British soldiers turned to writing poetry to record their reactions to the war. And as it turned out, World War I produced more poetry than any war before or since. Hundreds of volumes of war poetry were published,” Clancy noted and added, “according to John Lehmann, author of The English Poets of the First World War, There was a period, during and directly after the War, when almost any young man who could express his thoughts and feelings in verse could find a publisher and a public. Poets—including Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Alan Seeger (the rare American), Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, and many others—recorded all the various ways that soldiers experienced the war, from the first longings for glory to the final sickening confrontation with death.”  

Rupert Brooke was very young when he died of blood poisoning just before the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. He had already published a book of poems, Poems, 1911 and 1914 Sonnets and was considered one of England’s most promising up and coming poets. Despite his promise, Brooke did not hesitate to enlist on August 4, 1914. A year later on Easter Sunday of 1915, his latest poem, “The Soldier” was read aloud by the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Brooke wrote:

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 Soldier” is the fifth part of a group of poems that includes “The Dead,” the third section.  

“III. The Dead” By Rupert Brooke 

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old, But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold. 

These laid the world away; poured out the red Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene, 

That men call age; and those who would have been, Their sons, they gave, their immortality. 

The American poet Alan Seeger penned a longer poem the first line of which became famous and is still moving today for its fatalism and perhaps for its patriotism and certainly for its courage:

“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” By Alan Seeger 

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair. 

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath— It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill, When Spring comes round again this year And the first meadow-flowers appear. 

God knows ‘twere better to be deep Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep, Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath Where hushed awakenings are dear. . . But I’ve a rendezvous with Death 

At midnight in some flaming town, When Spring trips north again this year, And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

And then there is Wilfred Owen, who like Brooke and Seeger, died in the war.

“Anthem for Doomed Youth” By Wilfred Owen 

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. 

 These and other poets from the British Isles are known collectively as the “Trench Poets.” But there were those who chose not to serve and one of those, W. B. Yeats, an Irish poet wrote one of the most famous war poem, “An Irish Airman Sees His Death.” This poem was a reaction to the death of an Irish fighter pilot who was a very good friend of the poet. 

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

When the Great War broke out, the Irish were demanding Home Rule and the issue which stressed the Parliament and the government was put aside when the Home Rule Bill was suspended in September of 1914..for the duration. Some Irish men enlisted and served in the War, others stayed at home to continue the fights against English occupation. Generally speaking, the Irish did not feel that the struggle against Germany was their fight and were indifferent to the War. Yeats, who considered the War to be “bloody frivolity,” was a keen political activist, who rallied to the cause of a free Ireland and wrote a moving and powerful poem, “Easter 1916,” about the unsuccessful Easter Uprising against the British. After the War was over, Yeats refused requests to write poems about the War.

Not all of the creative voices were male, now were all of the accounts of the War from the perspective of the soldier. One of the most famous and lasting accounts of the experience of women during the conflict came from Vera Brittain. Her book, Testament of Youth, made into a motion picture in 2014, depicted the idyllic life among the British upper classes in the last years of innocence. Brittain, a member of a privileged and educated family, rebelled, as did Virginia Woolf before against the second class position of women and managed to get some education at Somerville College at Oxford before the war broke out. Brittain joined the nursing corps, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, and witnessed the horrors of combat at first hand. Her book, which was written with difficulty, was her attempt to come to terms with the loss of her fiancé, her brother and the young men she grew up with, including two of her closest friends. Finally in 1933, Testament of Youth was released, making a strong stand against war. Speaking of those who extolled the glory of fighting from a safe distance, she wrote, “I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case–to say nothing of 10 cases–of mustard gas in its early stages–could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes–sometimes temporally, sometimes permanently–all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” 

When it was first published in 1933, Virginia Woolf said that she was up all night to read this book and, thanks to Brittain, she recognized the connection between pacifism and feminism, the women’s perspective. In 1938, she wrote her own feminist manifesto, Three Guineas, against war in 1938. Brittain’s pacifist stance became unfashionable over time and when she died in 1970, she was nearly forgotten. Time has, however, resurrected this early and strong feminist voice and Testament of Youth regained its place in the pantheon of literature of the Great War–the first female voice to speak after the War.The Great War was supposed to be over by Christmas, a phrase uttered by every ignorant general since the invention of Christmas, but when it ended four long years later, the world had changed. Thanks to this war, the globe now had lethal gas, flamethrowers, mobile phones, and tanks that rumbled across the muddy battlefield, to name a few of the novelties inspired by this conflict. From weapons to uniforms to the human body itself, everything had to be redesigned.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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