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  Inside Out North East & Cumbria: Monday January 26, 2004


Poetry reading
Recruit soldiers
RSC actor David Bradley and the graves of war
Watch David Bradley reading:
The Soldier
Watch David Bradley reading: Recruitment

Soldier-poets brought the reality of the horrors of the 'Great War' to life on the page. Inside Out visits the trenches to learn more.

The Great War is, in one context, a considerable misnomer. And as memories fade with the passing of successive generations, our perception of the sheer terror and trauma of that war fades too.

Inside Out, with the Royal Shakespeare Company actor David Bradley, went to visit the trenches with the poetry of E M Mackintosh providing the backdrop.

This was an attempt to capture the experiences of some of Mackintosh's fellow soldiers - the ones that did not return.

Ten million dead

Contemporary warfare is instantly captured on film, video-tape, CD and and broadcast to the world. Little is left to the imagination.

But things were very different in World War One.

Photo gallery
The 50th  Northumerland Regiment's memorial
Images of the Great War

Although the legions of men who were actually there in the Great War are now hastening toward single figures, memories stay alive through the poetry of men like Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, Wilfred Owen and E M Mackintosh.

The poetry written by these, and many other poet-soldiers during the war, gives us a chance to grasp some of the emotions, from pride to terror, that arose through a conflict that cost the lives of millions.

Ten million known casualties to be accurate - not, of course, forgetting the countless hundreds who still rest below ground.

Although popular thought at the time was that the war would be "over by Christmas", it went on for four torrid years from 1914.

The pride of war

Shakespeare's Henry V inspired the English archers at Agincourt.

And in the same way, the raw recruits drafted to the front in 1914 largely considered themselves fortunate to be fighting, and if they died, it would be an honourable death.

Charles Sorley, in his poem In Memoriam wrote, "There is no fitter end than this..." and in the poem by Alan Seegar - Rendez-vous, he wrote, "I have a rendezvous with death... I shall not fail that rendez-vous...".

The feeling of inevitability became evident on the page.

A squalid trench
A soldier's home, kitchen, lavatory and springboard to death

Siegfried Sassoon was the quintessential gentleman officer, and his heroic actions on the battlefields of Flanders were driven by vengeance for the death of his brother in Gallipoli.

His poetry was a brutally honest reflection of his personal war within the campaign.

Through the poem To My Brother, he proudly wrote of the death of his brother: "In the gloom I see your laurelled head and through your victory I shall win the light."

He shows his belief in the righteousness of the British cause for war: "they are fortunate who fight".

Poetry was something with which soldiers, with the gift of metered stanzas, were able to inform and inspire their colleagues and bring the brutal reality to the reader at home.

The despair of war

But Sassoon's feelings of the war were not echoed by all.

Wilfred Owen, in his poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" - "obscene as cancer" remonstrated against the horrors of the use of gas bombs.

A Northumberland Fusilier's lapel badges
Has this soldier's remains been put to rest?

His use of verbs vividly describes the state of panic in the trenches when the gas bomb struck:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!
An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

It was a poem of anger against an unnamed journalist who wrote "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori", meaning "it is sweet and honourable to die for one's country".

Second Lieutenant E M Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders was awarded the Military Cross "For conspicuous gallantry". He too was an eminent soldier-poet.

The enormity of war

He graphically brought to life the death of so many. The sheer scale of the conflict meant that it impacted upon nearly every family in Britain - there were very few who didn't lose a loved one.

"Recruitment" was a poem that gave pause for thought of the people who were shaping the war that became the slaughter of millions:

David Bradley in a trench
'More poor devils,
Like yourselves
Waiting to be killed by you'

Lads, you're wanted,
Go and help.
On the railway carriage wall
Stuck the poster
and I thought of the hands
that penned the call.

Fat civilians wishing they
Could go and fight the Hun;
Can't you see them
Thanking God they're over forty one.

Girls with feathers, vulgar songs,
Washy verse on England's need
God and don't we damn-well know
How the message ought to read.

Lads, you're wanted, over there
Shiver in the morning dew
More poor devils, like yourselves
Waiting to be killed by you.

But his life too came to an untimely end on November 21, 1917 at the French battlefield in Cambrai.

He is buried in Orival Wood cemetery, Flesquières, northern France (Plot I, row A, grave 26).

See also ...

Inside Out: North East
More great stories

BBC: History: World War One

On the rest of the web
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
First World War.Com
War Poetry
The Northumberland Fusiliers 1914 - 1918
The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
Land Forces of Britain, The Empire and Commonwealth

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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