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People's poetry of World War Two

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 08:16 UK time, Wednesday, 14 July 2010

When you look at mainstream poetry of World War Two it is obvious that, unlike the Great War of 1914-18, the conflict failed to throw up any really great poets. Perhaps Alun Lewis in the forces and Dylan Thomas as a civilian came close but, as far as war poetry is concerned, there was no-one of the calibre and quality of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg.

However, when you look at people's poetry, the poetry or verse written by ordinary men and women during the conflict, there is no doubt that its quality is markedly superior than that produced in the earlier war. There are many reasons for this. Universal education had, by 1939, been around for nearly 70 years and the educational system was now able to ensure that virtually everyone had the means and, in many cases, the desire to express themselves in verse.

Poetic experimentation in the 1920s and 1930s meant that there was a growing acceptance of free verse as an art form. So men like Gwyn Elwyn Evans could happily and easily write:

In skies above an alien land
They gave their lives -
By the thousand;
Tens of thousands. [...]

When I am gone

Let it be said of me
'He flew with this illustrious band -
Bomber Command.'

During World War Two men and women served all over the world - unlike in the Great War when, really, the conflict was limited to France and the Middle East. Their experiences of new and strange places often manifested itself in poetry:

We sat on the dark veranda and drank our beer,
Held by the alien, stifling Nigerian night.
The dank foliage ambushed us, wet and horrid,
Darting the unseen fireflies nervous light.
(John S M Jones)

But, of course, World War Two was also the first real conflict to involve civilians on a huge, unparalleled scale. And it was, therefore, inevitable that they too should try to recount what was happening to them.

Even before the war began local Welsh newspapers such as The Penarth Times were warning about the dangers of things like gas attacks - and they were doing it, not in long dense leader columns where it would never have been read but in simple and highly accessible verse:

If you get a choking feeling and a smell of musty hay
You can bet your bottom dollar that there's phosgene on the way.
But the smell of bleaching powder will inevitably mean
That the enemy you're meeting is the gas we call chlorine.

Humour, certainly, was more prevalent in World War Two. The art of subversion, challenging authority and those who felt they had a divine right to rule or lead, reached new heights during the war, arguably becoming something of an art form. It led, inevitably, to the Labour landslide of 1945 and to the anti-establishment satire of the 1950s and 60s.

So serving soldiers could write about honour, companionship and death but they were, perhaps, at their best when they stuck their tongues in their cheeks and took a quiet pot shot at the men who had put them into their fox holes, gun turrets or submarines:

It's Churchill's fault we're stuck out here
With all the flies and sand,
Whilst he and all his cronies
Live a life that's grand.
(Ken Burrows)

The thought of imminent death or mutilation often brought out a sardonic and self deprecating train of humour - you couldn't help the situation you were in, you couldn't change it, but you could laugh at it:

You must remember this
That flack don't always miss
And one of you may die,
The fundamental thing applies
As flack goes by.

And when the fighters come
You hope you're not the one
To tumble from the sky.
The odds are too damned high
As flack goes by.

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  • Comment number 1.

    Phil, your piece on WW2 poetry reminded me of a book I read back in the 70s entitled “Freedom’s Battle, the War at Sea.” (Hutchinson.) It contained many examples of WW2 poetry and what stuck in my mind was a piece about the Mediterranean Fleet and how they were fond of sending signals in limerick form.
    Below is an example which refers to General ‘Electric Whiskers’ Bergonzoli, captured in N. Africa The signal was sent from HMS Penelope (often called HMS Pepperpot from the number of holes she’d had shot in her.) Penelope was renowned for her limericks:

    “Electrico B of Benghazi
    Tried hard to look tough like a Nazi,
    At his foes he would glare
    Through a jungle of hair,
    But they only guffawed and looked blasé.”

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi Rog, great poem from the sailors on HMS Penelope. I guess you'd have to pronounce "Nazi" as Churchill did, without the T sound, in order to rhyme with Benghazi. I have a profound respect for people like that who can take time to compose a limerick when they're being shot at from all sides.

  • Comment number 3.

    In terms of quantity, Phil, how does World War II compare with World War I? In other words, is it really that the quality is better, or is the relative quantity of dross the same?

  • Comment number 4.

    From what I've seen and read, Deb, it strikes me that there is still a lot of "dross," for want of a better word, in WW2 just like WW1. But overall - and I accept it's hard to make a judgement on what can only be a representative sample - it seems to me that the poetry of WW2 was easily better, in terms of structure and form, in terms of content and emotion. There was much less longing for the little old cottage in the country - which never existed for most of the men who fought in WW1 - and far more "this is what I see, this is how I feel." I think there were, perhaps, no great heights, as in WW1, no Owen, Sassoon etc, or even the people's poetry versions of them, but the overall quality was good. And the humour in WW2 was much stronger - far more satire, irony - even allowing for the wits of Wipers Times.


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