Now that the last of the veterans of the First World War have died, we are left with black-and-white movies, sepia photos, and a wide variety of art-work. Then we have the literature, especially the poetry, and this remains perhaps the most poignant testimony both to the nature and the impact of the conflict on the western front, if not elsewhere. And yet, it wasn’t until the era of the Cold War and Vietnam that the work of the soldier-poets of the trenches was fully recognised. Fifty years after a premature death in Flanders which prevented him from becoming the greatest poet in the English language since John Keats, a third generation, myself among them, discovered the power of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry as a ‘weapon’ against the warmongers of the late twentieth century. I still use my anthology of ‘1914-18 in Poetry’ from which I learnt, by heart, many of his poems. They are anthems which still reverberate in my head, have shaped my adult values and formed the essential documents in my teaching about the Great War over the past thirty years.
The Poetry and the Pity
Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was a lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. His strongly Christian parents had always hoped he would enter the Anglican priesthood, and his Biblical upbringing had an obvious influence on his poetry in both its phraseology and theology of the justification of war. In October 1915 he returned to England from his role as a tutor in France, in order to enlist as an officer in the Manchester Regiment. Very early in 1917 he was on the front line of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers. His letters to his mother reveal how shocked he was to discover the horror and muddle of war at the front in wintertime. In May he was invalided home with neurasthenia and sent to Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland. There, on 17 August 1917 he met Siegfried Sassoon, a much-published poet, who encouraged Owen to continue writing his war poetry. Although both poets came close to accept the principle of pacifism, both insisted on returning to the front to remain as leaders and spokesmen for the ordinary men in the trenches.
Just before the Shropshire lad left England to rejoin his company at the front, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish. He thought of it as a kind of counter-propaganda, as his scribbled preface to it reveals:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful.
Owen’s best and most typical poetry is in harmony with this Preface. He stresses the tragic waste of war, and his characteristic attitude is one of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonizing and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, whether British, German or French, could have achieved if only they had lived. Pity, in Owen’s use of the word, was not self-pity. The sacrifice of the Cross represents the crossing-out of the capital ‘I’. Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually rid them of all mention of himself; his poems, like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘, present universal pictures of typical scenes of the Western Front, like the horror of soldiers suffering a gas attack. He is concerned with the plight of individual soldiers when they are typical of the plight of doomed soldiers as a whole. Unlike Sassoon’s ‘young man with a meagre wife and two small children in a Midland town’, Owen’s men are unknown, unidentified, like the dead young man in ‘Futility’. This poem arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts are held in balance. Two types of tension give his poems their cutting edge. He seems unsure about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to war. He carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning; the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Just as the rural poverty he experienced in helping the Oxfordshire vicar before the war made him doubt conventional Christianity, so his terrible experiences in France made him doubt any form of Christianity. Even ‘Exposure’, written during his first tour of duty in Flanders, admits that ‘love of God seems to be dying’. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘, his subconscious debate rises less respectfully to the surface, when he asks ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’ The bells represent the strong religious associations, while the phrase ‘die as cattle’ summons up the contrasting atmosphere of an abattoir. ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo‘, written in November 1917, still professes a belief in God:
I, too, saw God through mud –
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
Other poems also profess a belief in an afterlife in which the the dead soldier is ‘high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making’ and a shared conviction with ‘some’ who ‘say God caught them even before they fell’. However, his poem ‘Greater Love’ expresses doubt as to whether it is possible for a good god to exist while such torturing agonies continue. It describes the dead as:
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care.
A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at by his best poetry but rarely expressed directly. ‘Exposure’ briefly states the case against pacifism:
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
Dulce et Decorum Est has often been misquoted by the ‘white poppy brigade’ as evidence of his pacifism, but the ‘old lie’ that he refers to is not that soldiers should be prepared to die for their country, but that in doing so they were doing something ‘sweet’ or ‘decorous’. War, as he observed it in the face of a gassed comrade, was anything but…
Christ in no-man’s land
However, in his letters, Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:
Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill…
Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and in French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.
Other poets, both civilians and soldiers, were moved to similar expressions of pity or protest based on Christian principles. Sassoon’s simple prayer of protest, ‘O Jesus make it stop’ echoed millions of cries from the trenches, while Kipling, his attitude to the ‘Great War’ changed by his son Jack’s death at the Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. Like Jesus, the soldier in his poem prays that the cup of suffering might pass, but it doesn’t, and the soldier drinks it sacrificially in a gas attack ‘beyond Gethsemane’.
Ultimately, Wilfred Owen does not blame God for the suffering of the soldiers he seeks to represent in his poetry. In July 1918 he wrote to his mother from the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, that he wished ‘the Boche’ would ‘make a clean sweep of ….all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading John Bull on Scarborough sands’. Owen condemns ‘the old’ in ‘the Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ in which he rewrites the story of Abraham and Isaac, envisaging the old man killing his son rather than obeying God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Another special target for Owen’s satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. In ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ Owen attacks the militarist chaplains:
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
On October 4th, 1918, after most of his company had been killed, Owen and his corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners. He was awarded the Military Cross for this feat. However, just one week before the Armistice, on 4 November 1918, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge to lead his company over a canal in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. His mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day at home in Oswestry, with the church bells ringing out in celebration of the cease-fire.
‘Goodbye to the Mobilised’ , by the official French war photographer Jacques Moreau. Between 8.5 and 9 million servicemen and women from all warring nations were killed in action during the first world war
True and Just?
The recent poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, believes Owen’s maxim about the ‘pity of war’ and the ‘truthfulness of true poets’ has held firm throughout the years, even in such wars, such as the Second World War, which are generally considered ‘just’. Poems about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or the Bosnian War of 1993, also contain these essential ingredients, as those in the anthology for which Motion writes his afterword, show. This is especially important when the language of war is changed in order to disguise its realities. In the age of modern media transmission, euphemisms such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ need to be challenged by the poet’s scribble, just as much as in the trenches of 1914-18, if not more so. Images can be used to mislead; poets must not do so, not if they wish to remain true to their art. They have a higher moral, human calling, if not a divine one. As Motion points out, poetry ‘shows us, whatever our faith, we compromise, betray or wreck ourselves when we take up arms against one another’.
Poppies for commemoration
That’s probably why Owen’s poems are not among the most memorable of the first world war. The ones which are used for the purpose of remembering nevertheless contain ageless truths. That is why they form essential parts of our Acts of Remembrance, our collective commemorations. John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ also reminds us that the ‘Great War’ was an imperial conflict, involving what were then known as ‘the dominions’, including Canada, where McRae was born. He went to Europe in 1914 as a gunner, but was transferred to medical service and served at the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres. His poem first appeared in Punch in December 1915. McRae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. When the flowers were the only plants which grew in profusion in Flanders in the spring of 1919, they became the symbol of remembrance for the British Legion, collecting funds for the injured ex-servicemen and war widows:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Left: Armistice Day in Toronto. Oil on canvas by Joseph Ernest Sampson
All her paths are peace…
Another poem we associate with Armistice Day ceremonies, especially the Royal Festival of Remembrance on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, held at the Royal Albert Hall, is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. However, like McRae’s poem, it was actually written in the early part of the war and published in The Times on September 21st 1914. It is based on the words and rhythm of the Authorised Version of the Bible in II Samuel, i, 23, 25:
….in death they were not divided…How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!
Born in 1869, Binyon was typical of the older generation of civilian poets who wrote about the war. He wrote the poem while working at the British Museum, which he did for forty years, becoming Professor of Poetry at Harvard on retirement. In 1916 he went to the Front as a Red Cross orderly. The poem’s fourth verse is used today all over the world during services of remembrance, and is inscribed on countless war memorials and monuments:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
One poem which is better known as a hymn, and not especially associated with the First World War, is ‘I vow to thee my country’, often sung to the tune ‘Thaxted’ by Gustav Holst, part of ‘Jupiter’ in his ‘Planets Suite’. The words, written by Cecil Spring-Rice (1859-1918), have been criticised as overly patriotic, especially the phrase in the first verse which pledges ‘the love which asks no question’ to the earthly country. This suggests a blind, uncritical, ‘my country, right or wrong, kind of patriotism. When he wrote it in Stockholm, between 1908-12, he was thinking of the notion of sacrifice, as he pointed out in a speech in Ottowa, on completing his revision of the poem in 1918:
The Cross is a sign of patience under suffering, but not patience under wrong. The cross is the banner under which we fight – the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Cross of St Patrick; different in form, in colour, in history, yes, but the same spirit, the spirit of sacrifice.’
His rewritten poem now became hymn, now set to Holst’s tune, published in 1925. The second verse about the heavenly kingdom was kept much as it was, but the first was altered significantly. The original poem had been belligerently patriotic, glorifying war. Leaving his role as British ambassador to Washington in January 1918, having encouraged Woodrow Wilson, the US President, to enter the war, Spring-Rice sent the new verses to an American friend with an accompanying note that read; ‘the greatest object of all – at the most terrific cost and most tremendous sacrifice – will, I hope, at last be permanently established, Peace.’ He died suddenly in Ottowa a month later.
Although England does not, yet, have a national anthem of its own, many people would like this hymn to be adopted in that role, both because of the tune and the second verse, which reminds us that, as Christians, and people of faith, we are subjects of two kingdoms, and that there are only ‘paths of peace’ in the heavenly one:
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffereing;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.
Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: Transatlantic Press.
Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns
Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War: Faber & Faber
- Selected Poems by Robert Graves – review (theguardian.com)
- Longer essay (on the poets of the WW I) (lucedelsole85.wordpress.com)
- Armistice Day/Veterans Day (blogs.loc.gov)
- Seamus Heaney’s last poem published (theguardian.com)
- Prompt 6 – The Pity of War (jacquemoreau.wordpress.com)
- World War I echoes in Britten’s ‘Requiem’ (hispanicbusiness.com)
- Never Forget (theheartofthechilterns.wordpress.com)
- Armistice Day Event To Remember Veterans and Civilians (ivoter.net)
- Wilfred Owen on WWI (badcursive.wordpress.com)
- Wilfred Owen Died 4 November 1918. (richardboundy.wordpress.com)