Soldiers' poetry of the First World War

Wednesday 24 March 2010, 08:57

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Because of universal education, the First World War was a "literate" war. For the first time in history virtually all the soldiers who took part were able to read and write. And many of them, perhaps feeling sentimental, perhaps being shaken and appalled by what they had experienced, wrote poetry. Welsh newspapers - national ones like The Western Mail, regional ones like The Western Telegraph and local ones like The Penarth Times - happily printed these poems in their pages.

The soldier's poetry provided a vivid insight for readers back home. It was often little more than doggerel, not every Private being a latent Wilfred Owen, but it was invariably heart-felt. Take this example about the qualities of the British Tommy -
"He's the pepper and the mustard and the salt, you see,
And the Germans they will rue it.
He isn't only one of them but all the blessed three.
He's a perfect breakfast cruet."

Even when cynicism tinged the writing the Welsh papers were still happy to print the soldiers' efforts:-
"Now out here things are different
And life is fancy free;
We have no butter on our bread
Or cow's milk in our tea.
And all we have to bother us
Are bullets, bombs and shells,
Bully beef and biscuits
And awful nasty smells."
(Private C Maunder - The Penarth Times)

The local papers in Wales had circulations in the tens of thousands - poets like Siegfried Sassoon were read by a mere handful, if they were lucky. And sometimes their efforts resulted in poems of real quality:-
"Above your graves no wattle blooms
Nor flowers from English dells,
You men who sleep uneasily
Beside the Dardanelles."

Thanks to the lack of censorship, the Welsh newspapers of the First World War provide a fascinating insight into the lives and experiences of front line soldiers. They are essential reading for anyone with an interest in either the war itself or in poetry.

Have you been inspired by the soldier poets? We'd love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    As Phil says this was the first generation of "literate" poets. We were 44 years on now from the Forster Act of 1870 and all of these soldiers would have been second-generation scholars who would have read poetry in school. And although there are some fine pieces of free verse to be found by soldier poets of this generation, it's interesting how many still cleaved to traditional poetic forms. We always vaguely assume that cultivating rhyme and metre might inhibit a free untrammelled expression (and these were people writing in the grip of real stress) but the poets Phil quotes rhyme firmly and well - even "rue it" and "cruet". And even in the final and most moving quotation what emphasis is given by the rhyming weight on the word "Dardanelles".

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    Comment number 2.

    Indeed, how far away are we from Wordsworth's revolutionary poetry of the late 18th century, or Victor Hugo's parallel activities in France? (When Hugo used the phrase "Quelle heure est-il?" in one of his plays, it nearly caused a riot!) Sassoon is a perfect example of someone who used the common man's phraseology in his war poetry, to sometimes shocking effect ("Bert's gone syphilitic"). This is why the youthful Wilfred Owen, banged up in a loony bin in Edinburgh for having the common sense to be a little bit frightened of being killed, could not wait to meet Sassoon when the latter arrived there, having committed the crime of refusing to go back to the Western Front because he disagreed with the war.

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    Comment number 3.

    Deb, when you say that Sassoon used the phraseology of the ordinary man - and I agree, he did, particularly in poems like They and The General - in order to make his work available to all, was there the same purpose, perhaps, in the use of rhyme? He wasn't like Owen with his half rhymes and Welsh influenced cadences, his style was full on, standard rhyme. Hugely effective, of course, but aimed at the man or woman next door, not the academic. I wonder if that's true?

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    Comment number 4.

    Sassoon has always seemd to me a fascinating figure because of all the ambiguities: the MC hero who admitted later that he acted in blind panic. I wonder sometimes if the adoption of that almost jokey colloquial manner covered a very deep fear, even an inability to engage with war as profoundly as I feel Owen did, in poems as graphic as 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or as poignant as 'Strange Meeting' and 'Insensibilty'. And yet I'm left conceding the shocking impact of those last 2 lines of 'The General' (I'm quoting from memory):
    "He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack / Yet he did for them both with his plan of attack.'

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    Comment number 5.

    Thinking about it more, it may be that Sassoon was directly influenced by what the men around him were reading and writing. The poems he wrote during the war were quite different from the rather high-flown efforts of his youth, and his poetic style changed again when he returned to "normal" life. I suppose that some of his men sent poems home and, being responsible for censoring mail, he would have read these. Did it occur to him that he might get closer to them by emulating their style, albeit with greater skill in his use of language? Whether or not this is true, it does seem to be key to SS's universal appeal, particularly the way he seems to reach out to young people of today. We have quite a few students in the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, of which I have the honour to be Secretary. I hope Phil Carradice will not mind me mentioning that the website can be found at

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    Comment number 6.

    I find it interesting, to think that Sassoon was influenced by the reading habits of his men - rather than the other way around. Somebody once said that books were as common in the trenches - quite apart from things like the Wipers Times - as food parcels from Fortnum and Masons (I guess he was thinking about the officers - or maybe not). The one book, apparently, that nearly everyone had was Pilgrims Progress. Fascinating.

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    Comment number 7.

    I think that Siegfried Sassoon was deeply affected by the culture in general of the men he was responsible for because he was deeply affected by them as people.
    His poems clearly show he quickly developed a profound affinity for them. As a poet he sinks himself into the atmosphere of his surroundings and much of what dominates for him is the people for whom he is always raw-nerved sensitive. His almost involuntary uprising of compassion is an empathetic response rather than a distant sympathy; the poem 'Banishment' written when away from 'his men' says:
    'They smote my heart to pity, built my pride.
    Shoulder to aching shoulder, side by side,'
    'Their wrongs were mine; and ever in my sight
    They went arrayed in honour.'
    In some ways maybe these soldiers struck a chord with parts of his own up-bringing which wasn't 'standard posh' and he wasn't 'standard posh educated' either. Although clearly of a privileged class, he doesn't really fit the mould and always comes across as a bit of a hybrid to me anyway. It's obvious he has a sense of belonging and feels at ease with these people and its thus natural that their idioms permeate his writing at this time; he has immersed himself in them.
    Another poem 'Dead Musicians' talks interestingly of shifts of culture, connections and atmosphere and different, as it were 'rhythms' for different times. Sassoon says that in earlier years (before the war) Beethoven, Bach and Mozart 'built cathedrals in my heart' and from them 'the substance of my dreams took fire'. But with reference to them and his experience in the war he says:
    'You have no part with lads who fought
    And laughed and suffered at my side.'
    He explains:
    'For when my brain is on their track,
    In slangy speech I call them back.
    With foxtrot tunes their ghosts I charm.
    "Another little drink won't do us any harm."
    I think of rag-time; a bit of rag-time;
    And see their faces crowding round
    To the sound of the syncopated beat.'
    For me, SS is par excellence a writer of great intimacy, and his war poetry succeeds because it makes us intimate with the actuality of war; at any rate that war. I think it's this intimacy, this immediacy that cuts it with every new generation of students.

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    Comment number 8.

    That line "In slangy speech I call them back" is telling, isn't it?

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    Comment number 9.

    The idea of Sassoon being influenced by the reading habits of his men is an intriguing one I had not thought of. In regard to the ordinary accessibility of the language in his poetry, it's also possible that the mere impact of the violent and immediate events around him made him write in a more "natural" way. Either consciously or unconsciuously, he sensed that high-flown verse did not suit the situation. I think some scholars see him as therefore a more efective war poet than Wilfred Owen, who in spite of his visionary power, retained suggestions of the romantic. There's also the fact that Sassoon was a very "pictorial" writer who said himself that he found it difficult to deal with abstract ideas and liked a scene in front of him to give himm inspiration. The contemplation of the details of a scene, untrammelled by abstract speculations, particularly if it is a disturbing scene on a battlefield, may have demanded the use of simple, powerful languagew to convey setting and events effectively.
    With regard to rhyme, Sassoon was influenced in early life by Victorian poets who were conventional in regard to the structure of their verse. In later life he tended to associate with authors such as Gosse and Bennett who, though important writers, were hardly the ground-breaking avant-garde smashing to pieces conventional forms.But I've often wondered what would have happened if he had been subjected to the experimental influences that someone like Isaac Rosenberg experienced when young. Occasionally, there is a hint that he might have liked to push his poetry further - he commented that he and Owen were discussing technical dodges in language while at Craiglockhart. Maybe he was just never in the right circles to give him encouragement to break conventions entirely.

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    Comment number 10.

    Yes, much of the war poetry consists of cameo shots, which is often how it brings you right into it, don't you think? - you can see it, feel it instantly; and as such it also includes a lot of conversation - another obvious reason for the colloquial language -
    '"Good morning! Good morning!" "he's a cheery old card"'(The General);'"The war'll be over soon." "What 'opes?" "No bloody fear!"'(Twelve Months After); 'O Jesus, make it stop!' (Attack); "God blast your neck!" (The Rear-Guard); '"O Christ, they're coming at us!" And then the rain began,-the jolly old rain!' (Counter-Attack);'"They snipe like hell! O Dickie, don't go out" (Died of Wounds); '"The Colonel writes so nicely."' (The Hero); '"Pass it along, the wiring party's going out" - And yawning sentries mumble,"Wirers going out."'(Wirers); '"Fall-in! Now get a move on" (Curse the rain) "Christ, ain't it lively, Sergeant? Is't a battle?" More rain. "Lead on, Headquarters." (That's the lot) "Who's that?... Oh, Sergeant-Major, don't get shot!"'(Battalion-Relief). The fragmented images and snatches of verbal exchanges contribute to how vivid it all is (like a play).

    But another factor is that it is really violently angry in a lot of places; so it's often slamming stuff and certainly not considered or reflective; nothing gentle about it; he's not doing philosophy, he's either exploding with passionate fury 'I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls'(Blighters) or quietly seething in caustic sarcasm 'What greater glory could a man desire?'(Memorial Tablet) (and you just can't do anger in complicated vocab. very easily!). But somehow the rhyme and the form also make the passion more effective, not less; perhaps because it feels tighter (and thus more 'uptight'?) that way? And the simplicity is so powerful; it's clean, stark and horrific.

    Also he brings in so many ordinary human things that convey the atmosphere, like irritability - he portrays people yelling at others because 'for days he'd had no sleep', and in the poem 'Lamentations' it's the almost incidental image of the sergeant's 'puzzled, patient face' watching the howling soldier that drags you in rather than the soldier's grief, and the biting, cutting 'In my belief such men have lost all patriotic feeling' at the end takes your breath away; so much more powerful than trying to evoke the grief directly. As Robert said in the earlier post -this sort of stuff is 'shocking' and 'chilling'.

    About the violent anger, I read this again recently - I don't remember noticing how crazy it is before - it's extraordinary - and certainly very very angry....


    The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
    And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
    To cheer the soldiers who'd refrained from dying,
    And hear the music of returning feet.
    'Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought,
    This moment is the finest.' (So they thought.)

    Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob,
    Grim fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel,
    At last the boys had found a cushy job.

    . . . . . .

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

    Didn't we start by talking of the lack of censorship?!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I sometimes think of Owen and Sassoon as essentially complemetary for our reading about World War One and our picture of it: Sassoon the master of anger, that whole spectrum from shock to a profound and telling sarcasm; Owen so good, in poems like 'Futility' and 'Strange Meeting', on that profound sadness which lies almost beyond the immediacy of war.

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    Comment number 12.

    Yes, I feel the same way; Owen gives us the depths of sorrow - the truth, or reality of the Tragedy, and Sassoon the overwhelming, almost incoheherent bursting grief (expressed in his anger) of one man's personal experience of the actuality; sombre and passionate, weghty and explosive, deep sadness and inconsolable grief, wisdom and experience are comparisons that spring to mind.

    And others, too, made essential individual contributions to that extraordinarily cohesive body of poetry we know as 1st World War Poetry; poetry that I have never heard a teenager diss even if they profess to 'hate poetry'! (One of our kids said she wished she'd been able to study something more 'relevant' for GCSE poetry than the modern poetry that she was set. When I asked her 'like what?' she replied 'well, you know, like that 1st World War poetry' !). Which is a very interesting comment on how WW1 poetry goes on and on capturing the 'public imagination', and continues to be very relevant to us humans. And as a body it has indeed become a very powerful and important 'myth' although not in the way some militarists are seeming to use the word with reference to WW1 poetry, but rather, in the real sense of the world; a cohesive expression of a truth we need to know.

    And going back to where we started again and newly literate soldiers often choosing to express themselves in poetry; this shouldn't really surprise us - everywhere people join together, poetry of a sort seems to automatically spring up - witness football terraces - rhyming couplets abound! And songs have never ceased to be an absolutely integral part of popular life on all levels; I guess that those soldiers were making up (and adapting!) songs all the time, like all soldiers do. And almost everyone knew Psalms (at least) in the poetry of the authorised version.

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    Comment number 13.

    The psalms and hymns were important in the creation of "people's poetry," the poetry of ordinary men during WW1. But so, too, were the music halls where recitation of dramatic monologues(There's a one eyed yellow idol etc)was one of the highlights. Men of the WW1 - and the women, too - would have been used to verse, having been assailed by it on all sides.

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    Comment number 14.

    Was Sassoon the only "real" poet who was prepared to bring himself down to the level of the ordinary man? I suppose Kipling was a poet of the common people, but many educated writers would have found it difficult to make that kind of adjustment in their style.

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    Comment number 15.

    Yes, I'm sure Deb is right in this. Sassoon, as a poet of the poeple, probably is something of a rarity. If we think of Wordsworth, for example, for all his determination to use what he actually described as "a selection of the language" normally used by ordinary men, he, as the selector, comes through very much as the enthusiastic bourgeois champion of common men than as being actually of that group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Don't forget Thomas Hardy - one of SS's main influences; the 'Wessex wizard' of his poem 'At Max Gate' and a writer who shared with Sassoon a distaste for sophistication and academic 'cleverness'. 'The Man He Killed', an earlier anti war poem written by Hardy in 1902, is entirely in the speech of a foot soldier: 'Had he and I but met/By some old ancient inn,/We should have sat us down to wet/Right many a nipperkin!'

    People are what they are, I guess, and I never feel that Sassoon was being anything other than entirely natural - ie himself - in the colloquial language of his war poetry. Along with Hardy, he demonstrates a love of the 'direct' and 'simple', but it seems to me that this is a reflection of who he is rather than something he has adopted. One thing you could say of his upbringing is that it wasn't sophisticated or influenced by the academic; that it was emotional and intuitive rather than cerebral, and that his intelligence worked in this way; he is a poet of 'the people' maybe because he is not primarily an intellectual, and certainly not an academic.

    And for the rest of it, as someone whose emotions were very quickly and powerfully engaged with individuals who in some way were perceived as vulnerable by comparison to himself; in the trenches he was thrown into the society of the working class men under his command, for whom he was emotionally moved and engaged. It seems to me that he would quite naturally, therefore, be influenced by their speech and mannerisms. I think that, for Sassoon, although he also obviously loved to be alone, relationship is a very powerful dynamic (at least potentially).


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