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100 Years Later: Examining World War I Poetry

100 Years Later: Examining World War I Poetry

We are now nearing the 100 year anniversary of the First World War. It was a brutal conflict, an unnecessary conflict, a conflict which has defined the 20th century. In setting the scene, should one first explain the complex nature of European alliances or the competitive arms races that these powers enrolled in? This version will be about neither the assassination of Franz Ferdinand nor the German invasion of Belgium. This is a tale told through the poetry of the soldiers who fought this war for four bloody years.

The First World War is arguably the first modern war - one that called for individual soldiery rather than line formations and set piece battles. The effect of modern combat on soldiers was immense, fraught with physiological torments, widespread disease, and death, on a scale not yet seen in human history. For the soldiers called to formation in August of 1914, the drab realities of trench warfare quickly erased any gallant dreams of battle. With fervent hearts and eager hands, the British Expeditionary Force rushed forward to defend their French Allies and prove themselves honorable and professional soldiers. The poem below was written by a British soldier while crossing the English Channel. His bravado and steadfast resolve in a righteous cause was common among soldiers in the first months of the war. “From Men Who March Away” expresses the sense of duty that the soldiers possessed, drummed up by idealized sacrifice for King and Country.

From Men Who March Away

In our heart of hearts believing,

Victory crowns the just,

And that braggarts must

Surely bite the dust,

Press we to the field grieving,

In our heart of hearts believing

Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us

Men who march away

Ere the barn-cock say

Night is growing gray,

Leaving all that here can win us;

Hence the faith and fire within us

Men who march away

                                                        Thomas Hardy

  September, 1914


This poem reveals that the soldiers were expecting their fathers’ war, not the stalemate trench warfare they got. Old school notions of military honor, patriotism, and heroism were met with weapons that could kill from a range of 1000 meters, machine guns, and gas. The “men who march away” were prepared for 19th century engagements, and blissfully ignorant of the realities they would face.

World War I challenged both generals tasked at winning and soldiers fighting. Horrific death and carnage became ingrained in soldiers’ daily lives as a they sat in the trench waiting for the next whistle calling them to attack or defend. A war of attrition, resources, and resolve would ensue. In the meantime, as the death toll mounted, did the fighting men still believe in the cause? Did they see their enemy with such hatred as before, or was had this become an argument of Kings and Kaisers?

Christmas Eve, 1914. British, French and German soldiers were celebrating the highest of holidays within their respective trenches, making the best out of the situation they found themselves in. Indeed, early in the war, soldiers on all sides often wrote home telling loved ones that the war would be over by Christmas -- they assured it. Yet, on that cold and holy night soldiers of the great European armies found themselves huddled together around makeshift Christmas trees, dressed with whatever tinseled items they could find, bullets, mess tins, etc. Then, a peaceful yet stern voice, was heard from across no man’s land.

“Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!”

“Alles schläft; einsam wacht”

The British soldiers joined in.

“Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.”

Together with the French.

“Cet enfant sur la paille endormi”

“Holder Knab' im lockigen Haar,”

“Sleep in heavenly peace”

“Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!”

“C'est l'amour infini !”

“Sleep in heavenly peace”

“Schlafe in himmlischer Ruh!”

“C'est l'amour infini !”

So began the Christmas Truce of 1914. Men of both sides arose from their trenches, put down their rifles and approached their enemies with jovial season’s greetings. Football matches naturally emerged, cigarettes traded, schnapps, whisky and vin chaud consumed. The officers arranged for the bodies of the dead to be removed from usually impassable no mans land to be returned to their families. The principle of “Live and let live” became a rather common practice along the western front within the first year of the war. However this was not without reprise from the Generals on both sides. Many officers were reprimanded and demoted due to the incidents on the front on 24/25 December 1914. The high commands wanted to make it clear to their armies that the men in the trench across from you were THE ENEMY! Many soldiers, especially the new recruits brought to fill the boots of the dead went along with this idea. Others did not.

In this poem, a British soldier addresses his enemy and reflects on the arbitrariness of the conflict at hand. Musing on the day in which reconciliation and peace will be upon the two.

To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And his and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other’s truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm

The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

C. H. Sorley

Killed in Action 1915

Enter, French Author Romain Rolland. Staunchly opposed to the war, Rolland fled to Geneva to avoid censorship by French authorities. While in Switzerland, he published Au-dessus de la mêlée or Above the Battle in 1915. This work would contribute to him winning the Nobel Prize in literature that same year. Rolland had an incredible way with words, in many regards he was a visionary. The war raging in Europe was entirely in contrast to the internationalist spirit that had led the continent during La Belle Epoque. He preached a message of love and hope, he envisioned a world without the hatred that so swiftly swept across Europe. Rolland’s message resonated with the bewildered soldiers questioning the motives of war, their superiors, and the true sentiments of their counterparts in the trench across from theirs.

He wrote,

“...Entre nos peuples d’Occident, il n’y avait aucune raison de guerre. En dépit de ce que répète une presse envenimée par une minorité qui a son intérêt à entretenir ces haines, frères de France, frѐres d’Angleterre, frères d’Allemagne, nous ne nous haïssons pas. Je vous connais, je vous connais.”

Au-dessus de la mêlée 1915

Rolland offers that there is no reason for war. The fraternal societies of France, England and Germany do not hate one another. They were led astray by a minority, by their governments. Regardless, millions would die and few advances would be made by either side. Attacks were met with counter-attacks. Some had had enough of the carnage and revolted against their insipid leaders. Others were forced to the front from their villages in colonial territories. Had they been naive in their previous dedication? No one would have know what they were to experience.

In this short poem, Rudyard Kipling is quick to place the blame of the war on the previous generation. It is they whose actions led Europe into this conflict.

Common Form

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.


It is estimated that between 9 and 15 million people died during the war, combatants and civilians included. Poetry and creative expression show the progression of soldiers from staunch patriots ready to defend their homelands to empathetic pacifists and internationalists. Poetic arts must have been a great release from the monotony and carnage of trench warfare. It was their freedom, it was their escape. Yet even after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th Month of 1918, soldiers could not entirely escape their experiences in the battlefields which we distantly remember. Ypres, Verdun, Passchendaele, Belleau Wood, the Argonne, Neuve Chapelle. The Soldiers would return, heros perhaps, though not the same men. Scared from their parents’ experiences, their sons and daughters would experience war in their lifetime as well.

Back

They ask me, where I’ve been,

And what I’ve done and seen.

But what can I reply

Who know it wasn’t I,

But someone just like me,

Who went across the sea

And with my head and hands

Killed men in foreign lands...

Though I must bear the blame,

Because he bore my name.

Wilfrid Gibson

Works Cited

Gardner, Brian. Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914-1918: An Anthology. London: Methuen, 2007.

Goldberg, Nancy Sloan., and Scott Bates. En Lhonneur De La Juste Parole: La Poésie Française Contre La Grande Guerre. New York: P. Lang, 1993

Hart, Peter. Fire and Movement: The British Expeditionary Force and the Campaign of 1914. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.


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