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.

Siegfried Sas­soon

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.

Rosen­berg wrote:

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

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