SOLDIERS’ BRIEF LIVES SHOCKED INTO POETRY
These men of war turned men of words paint a compelling picture
“Good-morning; good morning!” the General said When we met him last week on our way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead, And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine. “He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both with his plan of attack.
As we commemorate the centenary of the ending of the Great War, we can also remember those war poets who so coloured our view of it. Theirs are the words that create that melancholy and sadness of the losses of that terrible conflict.
The war produced some of the century’s most powerful poets, their words providing a way of approaching the tragedy and the characters of the men who witnessed it. Britain had a flowering of outstanding poets, and more than a few in Australia were inspired by the dreadful experience.
Captain Siegfried Sassoon has come down to us as the “Mad Jack” of no-man’s land turned violent anti-war protester, according to First World War Poets by Alan Judd and David Crane. The book reports that behind his crude and limiting caricature lies a complex and introverted character.
Sassoon enlisted immediately war broke out. He was commissioned like Robert Graves into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and established a formidable reputation for courage, winning “an exceptional Military Cross” in 1916.
He was wounded the next year and invalided home, and he became increasingly embittered. He issued his famous protest against the war: “I am a soldier convinced that I am acting on behalf of other soldiers. I believe that the war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has become a war of aggression and conquest … I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong those suffering for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” They sent him to Craiglockhart, a psychiatric hospital near Edinburgh. “Dottyville”, he called it. He was passed fit for service in 1917 but another wound ended his war. At Craiglockhart he befriended Wilfred Owen, a fellow patient.
Owen, together with Isaac Rosenberg, stands higher than any others, according to Judd and Crane. “Owen’s presence makes a qualitative difference that shapes our perception on the war,” they write. Owen’s tragedy is that he was killed just a week before the armistice while trying to cross a bullet-swept Sambre Canal. “Of all the poets writing of the war, Owen has the most eloquent and moving protest against its horrors and yet as both poet and soldier, he never wished to be anywhere else but on the front.”
Owen wrote: “I came out to help these boys directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as a pleader can. I have done the first.”
His Dulce et Decorum Est starts:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turn our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
The writers say Rosenberg, with his melancholy image, is the poet who speaks most vividly of the suffering and the waste of war. Given the youth of so many who died — Owen was 25, Rosenberg 28, Rupert Brooke 27 — there is no escaping the sense of waste.
O ancient crimson curse! Corrode, consume. Give back this universe Its pristine bloom.
Too small for anything but the Bantam Division, Rosenberg was shuffled from unit to unit until he was killed by a dawn raiding party on April 1, 1918. His body remained unidentified.
Other war poets include Herbert Read, A.A. Milne (later to write Winnie-the-Pooh), Ford Madox Ford ( The Good Soldier) and John McCrae, a Canadian famous for In Flanders Fields.
As early as September 1914, Laurence Binyon wrote the poem for which he always will be remembered, For the Fallen. It would be a further four years of fighting and more than two million Allied dead before For the Fallen took on the full resonance and pathos of which no one could have dreamt in 1914. It has become our ode:
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 shall remember them.
Australia can claim Frederic Manning, whose masterpiece, The Middle Parts of Fortune, was published in 1929. It is considered one of the most famous novels to come out of World War I. Ernest Hemingway called it “the greatest novel of modern warfare”. Ezra Pound praised Manning’s poetry highly. When war began, his first attempts to enlist were rejected on medical grounds. He finally was accepted into the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and fought as a private at the Somme.
According to Australian Poetry Since 1788 by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray, Manning was posted to Ireland where he was court-martialled for drunkenness. He resigned from the army in 1918 because of his “dislike for the pretensions of the officer class”.
Another Australian poet, Leon Gellert, enlisted in the 1st AIF in 1914. He fought at Gallipoli, and after nine weeks in action he came down with dysentery and was evacuated to Malta. There he caught typhoid. He was discharged in 1916 as medically unfit after collapsing in a coma with suspected epilepsy. He re-enlisted four months later and promptly was discharged when his medical record emerged.
Gellert’s Songs of a Campaign (1917) made him at the time the outstanding Australian poet of World War I, according to Lehmann and Gray. Many of his poems were written in 1915, while the campaign in Gallipoli was under way. “He is an example of a man shocked into poetry by war, and then perhaps struck dumb by his experience,” the authors say.
Be still. The bleeding night is in suspense Of watchful agony and coloured thought, And every beating vein and trembling sense, Long-tired with time, is pitched and overwrought. Leon Gellert, A Night Attack