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."
(Anon)

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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    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.'
    Chilling.

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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 www.sassoonfellowship.org

 

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