18 April 2015

Soldier-poets of the Somme, 1916

The horrors of the trench, mud, heavy and inefficient weap­ons, tinned bully beef every day, dead horses poison gas and the sheer terror of waiting for death - these were the truths of the Great War. Perhaps all war was insane, but The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was war at its most insane, its most irrat­ional. If careful thinking and analysis were the basic elements of a moral life, what were these teenage volunteers doing, killing other families’ young teenage sons and being killed in turn.

In the past, the Battle of the Somme was certainly seen as the most famous battle of World War I, remembered for its endless blood­shed and its dismal territorial gains. In 2014 the BBC examined the literary importance of the Somme, noting that more writers and poets fought in it than in any other battle in history

Violets from Overseas: Portraits of Poets of the Great War, 
by Tonie & Valmai Holt, 1996

The BBC programme War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme details the experiences of the poets and writers who served in the battle. The BBC concentrated on the work of Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Robert Graves, David Jones and Isaac Rosenberg, young men who were informed and transf­or­m­ed by the battle. Taken together, their experiences allow us to see this dreadful historical event as though we were there.

An important memorial in Poets' Corner inside Westminster Abbey is dedicated to 16 Great War poets. The slate stone slab with the names of the poets inscribed on it was unveiled exactly on the right date: 11th November 1985, the anniversary of the Armistice. The Wilfred Owen inscription around the names is short and heart-breakingly simple: “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity”

Now Martin Randall Travel will be examining the poets’ words once again in late 2015. “Blending history and poetry, this tour reveals the true landscape of war: locations, topography, events, but also hope, fear, anger, pain and love, all viscerally manifest in the poetry of WW1. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, is taken as the starting point for the tour, with an exploration of the front line area and a study of the events of that day. This leads on to a wider examination of the nature of trench warfare and of the course of the war as a whole. Much has survived: trenches, shell holes and mine craters. The tangible remains of warfare and the pattern of cemeteries are now woven into the fabric of the modern landscape.

What sets this guided tour apart is the parallel exploration of the lives of those regular soldiers, volunteers and civilians who bequeathed to us the most emotionally potent body of poetry in English literature. This is not an exercise in literary analysis, however; the poems are placed in the context of the battlefield and of the lives (and deaths) of the many and varied individuals who wrote them. An actor reads the poems – sometimes at the site where they were composed, sometimes at the scene of the poet’s grave, sometimes at the place of his death or disappearance”. Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg are the stars of a much bigger cast.

The Randall Tour will show how until the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, poetry presented a patriotic and heroic vision, of noble sacrifice for king and country. After the Battle of the Somme, nobility gave way to despair, disillusionment and hopelessness.

World War One British Poets: Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg and Others, 
edited by Candace Ward, 1997

Interested readers might like to read the biographical details of the poets, in addition to examples of their work. Violets from Overseas: Portraits of Poets of the Great War, written by Tonie & Valmai Holt in July 1996. Or read The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by M.G Walter in 2006. Or read Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, written by Tim Kendall and published in 2014. A Deep Cry: First World War Soldier-poets Killed in France and Flanders, written by Anne Powell, gives the short-life-and-death stories of all the British poets killed in northern France and Belgium in WW1.  The BBC tv programme War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme 2014 is well worth watching.

Max Egremont's Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew (reviewed in Country Life, 31st Dec 2014) is meticulously structured and a tour de force. Part biography, part anthology, it follows the fortunes of 11 poets. Of these young men, only five survived.


In July 1918, the poet Wilfred Owen returned to active service in France after convalescing from shell shock. Owen was killed in action on 4th November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, just a week before the signing of the Armistice ending WW1.

Anthem for Doomed Youth
By Wilfred Owen 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

slate stone slab for WW1 poets (on left)
Poets' Corner inside Westminster Abbey


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, This post reopens the discussion of why starting in the twentieth century the art and poetry of war center on the horrors of battle, while earlier efforts focused more on the nobility of the battles and the principles behind them. I know there is some material out there that counters this idea, but there really seems to be an attitude shift starting with WWI.

It would be interesting to read letters from soldiers, in the sense that these are primary sources, but of course these could be edited or selected to conform to a later viewpoint--even the originals are selected in the way they survive or have been collected.

Perhaps as you hint the technology of war had something to do with this, but surely that had been slowly progressing over time, and certainly in the U.S. Civil War the huge casualties and carnage were the result of new technologies.

Liz said...

Thanks for mentioning the Martin Randall tour last week. I would love to combine it with my planned tour of WW1 sites in Northern France.

Hels said...


British governmental policy and public opinion seemed to be firmly against conscription for foreign wars. And so conscription did not come in until 1916, and only then because the number of volunteers was inadequate for the finishing the war.

If early efforts focused more on the nobility of the battles and the principles behind them, it may have because many of the artists and writers were volunteers i.e they went off to war because they believed in the cause. Rupert Brook, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg etc all volunteered in 1914; Wilfred Owen and Herbert Read volunteered in 1915.

This might not have applied to the American Civil War because it was a civil, and not foreign war.

Hels said...


timing is everything! I have been to Menin Gate and Villers-Bretonneux myself, but until very recently I had never heard of the Poets of the Somme tour by Martin Randall. It will be sad and depressing, but well worth you going.

the foto fanatic said...

Those poems are so touching and dripping with pathos.

It's such a shame that WW1 wasn't the war to end all wars after all.

As John Lennon said - "Imagine".

Ann ODyne said...

long before this centenary, everything about WW1 has made me intensely sad, so this week I have to avoid TV because it is hammering the horror. the horses, oh the horses. It wasn't just Gallipoli [where Canada lost as many men] but the battle for the Hindenberg Line was a year long and my grandfather survived all of it, driving his truck of fresh ammo to the frontline men. He was Mentioned In Despatches for bravery, and his brother got a Military Medal for bravery in the LightHorse Brigade. Hamilton boys, their 2 other brothers also there and home again, a miracle all 4 back to their mother.
ABCTV should be running 'Blackadder in the trenches' series nightly. more real than govt archive spin.
Never forget that JWHoward, PM wanted to have rock concerts on Gallipoli beach to amuse the backpackers going there in contemplative respect for their great-grandfathers.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

I wonder if we modern parents would allow our school leaver sons to go to war, knowing what we know now about The War To End All Wars.

A few things in particular make me think the teenage lads were tricked. Firstly those who enlisted in July 1914 truly believed they would be home by Christmas that year. Secondly lads who were keen to go bumped up their age, if necessary, and forged their parents' signatures. Country boys came off their farms by the thousands, to travel to Europe, clean up those Huns and see the world.

The pathos was well placed.

Hels said...


I agree totally. Everything about WW1, that is intensely sad, has been on tv relentlessly. Both in history programmes and in drama. But are the programme designers really focusing on the "immoral wastage of young human life"? Rather I think they are stressing the volunteers' "heroic sacrifice for our country and our freedom".

Your grandfather and his brothers were very very brave, but your great grandmother might have been the luckiest mother in Australia.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if there were any German poets on the front lines who left their thoughts.
Jim of Olym

PS what about poets of all nations of WWII? I haven't seen anything from them....

Hels said...

Jim of Olym

I wouldn't have been aware of German writers and poets before reading Erich Maria Remarque's book All Quiet on the Western Front. He was conscripted into the German army in 1917, survived the war and wrote the book in the 1920s. It was filled with horror and loss.

I was also familiar with the playwright Berthold Brecht who was conscripted later in WW1 and served as a medical orderly.

Have you read German poets like Alfred Lichtenstein who died in battle in 1914 and Stefan George?

Joe said...

I recommend the book Isaac Rosenberg, written by J.M Wilson. His poetry is inserted into each chapter, according to year and theme.

Hels said...


no I have not read the book. And until I saw his 1915 self portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, I had no idea that Rosenberg was a skilled artist as well. What a tragedy that he too died on the Western Front in 1918.

iODyne said...

this morning via ABC news online:
'Prince Harry, who serves with the British army and is currently on secondment to the ADF, read a poem by Alan Herbert, a British soldier who fought in Gallipoli in 1915 and was then evacuated wounded back home.'

"Gather strength for what the morrow brings; For that may be the end; It may be that we shall never swim again."

Hels said...

Sir Marshall

I wonder if A.P Herbert (1890–1971) was discussed and analysed in the various references on soldier poets from WW1. I cannot find his name in that context.

He was a very fortunate lad. His two brothers died in war but Alan went on to make a fine career for himself in literature (novels and plays) and in Parliament. Good on Prince Harry for selecting a learned, thoughtful poet.

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew said...

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew (2015)

Biographer-novelist Egremont focused on the 11 soldiers who wrote the best and most famous war poetry. He presented their poems chronologically, in five sets of poems written in each of the war’s five years and a final set of postwar work. He prefaced each set with an account of what happened to the poets during the time in which they wrote them. They were variously shot, gassed, shell-shocked, retired from the front, and driven mad. Six were killed, and line soldier Ivor Gurney, as gifted a composer as a poet, spent most of his postwar years in mental asylums. Hardly supplanting comprehensive anthologies like Tim Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War (2013), ­Egremont’s group-biography-cum-anthology impressively accounts for how (the allusion is to Wilfred Owen) the pity came to be in the poetry.

Hels said...

Thank you. I will add the reference to the post.

Country Life said...

"The Second I Saw You" by Lorna Beckett

Rupert Brooke was brilliant and mesmerisingly attractive. But his attitude to women was, even then, old fashioned. Phyllis Gardner spotted Brooke on a train in November 1911. A fervid romance lasted from autumn to Christmas 1912, with naked gambollings in the Cambridgeshire meadows. Gardner waited for him to propose marriage; he didn't. Brooke waited for her to get into bed with him; she didn't. In that year, the poet had broken Ka Cox's heart, chased Elisabeth van Rysselberghe out of lust and instantly hit it off with the actress Cathleen Nesbitt.

Brooke died on the way to Gallipoli in WW1 in 1915. He was 27.

When Phyllis Gardner died from breast cancer in 1939, she was found with a bundle of letters from her to him, and a bleakly honest memoir of their relationship written in 1918. She never married, took up dog breeding and is remembered for her 1931 book The Irish Wolfhound.

James Fergusson
Country Life
24th June, 2015

Hels said...

Poor Phyllis Gardner ... what a sad life she led.
Rupert Brooke might have been the most handsome and the best written of the war poets, but it seems that he was not a very sensitive lover.

Ann ODyne said...

hello Mr Ferguson [above] your reference to 'naked gambolling in meadows' makes this old cynic think of all the ants and bitey things. I do however, adore your 'rural porn' Country Life magazine which gets to Australia 3 months after publication at twice the cover price and the same cynicism has me thinking that 'Gillian' of Last Tango In Halifax is closer to the reality of country life. I type this from an Australian version of her situation.

Hels - Australian painter [of war + soldiers] Stella Bowen was another woman having a rotten time with a creative man Ford Madox Ford aka Hueffer

Hels said...


I know that relationships end and hearts are broken, that war takes millions of young men away, that civil society never really recovers from a world war. Phyllis Gardner was only with Rupert Brooke from autumn to Christmas 1912! And while she dedicated the rest of her life to their brief love, he seemed to fall passionately in love constantly; he was having a great time in the Cambridgeshire meadows with LOTS of excitable young women.

Was Gardner romantic and self destructive? I would say so. Was Brooke insensitive? Definitely. Did his death as a soldier in 1915 deprive the world of his beautiful poetry and gorgeous looks? Yes...what an appalling waste.

Re Stella Bowen, I hope she was a bit smarter than Phyllis Gardner.

Pallant House Gallery said...

With the outbreak of WW1, artist-poet David Jones (1895-1974) enlisted with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and served on the Western Front until 1918. His experiences in the trenches were to prove important in his later painting and poetry, especially his involvement at Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. After the war he continued with his paintings and engravings, but he could not publish his first wartime-experience literary for a few years.

A David Jones retrospective will continue at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester until 21st Feb 2016.

Hels said...

Pallant House Gallery

Many many thanks. I might have recognised a Jones painting or engraving, if I saw it. But I had not seen his war poetry. The BBC programme "War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme" included Jones, of course (see in this post), but his war poetry came late. "In Parenthesis 1937 is still available. This is the work that made his name as a writer: a hard-to-classify prose-poem, dramatising, distilling and mythologising his experiences on the Western Front during the First World War".

Doyenne of History said...

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War (2016) was edited by Heather Webb and published by William Morrow. “November 11th 1918. After four long, dark years of fighting, the Great War ends at last, and the world is forever changed. For soldiers, loved ones and survivors the years ahead stretch with new promise, even as their hearts are marked by all those who have been lost. As families come back together, lovers reunite and strangers take solace in each other, everyone has a story to tell. In this moving anthology, nine authors share stories of love, strength, and renewal as hope takes root in a fall of poppies".

Hels said...

Thank you. I hope the book does very well, especially since I am writing about The Great War a lot this month.

Nigel Jones said...

Almost a century after he was killed in the final week of the First World War, the poet Wilfred Owen remains for many in Britain the personification of the conflict. Thanks to his ubiquitous presence on school curriculums and in both highbrow and popular culture, the “poet of pity” is far more famous than, say, Field Marshal Douglas Haig or David Lloyd George.
Historians huff and puff in vain about this, pointing out that sensitive souls like Owen and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon were untypical of the mass of their comrades, who grimly buckled down to the task of fighting the war without writing poetry about the casualties incurred. To the modern, pacifically inclined mindset, though, Owen’s poetry represents the only sane and rational response to the slaughter in the trenches.

Wilfred Owen, by Guy Cuthbertson
Yale University Press

Hels said...


Excellent reference. The words Cuthbertson used - poet of pity, huff and puff about fighting in the war, sensitive souls, trying to ignore the millions of casualties - are not just in common usage now. I am sure there were many people back in WW1 who were equally horrified about the slaughter in the trenches, on both sides. So Owen could very well have had a timeless set of values.