Selected Poetry of the First World War
Wordsworth Poetry Library Wordsworth Editions
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Today’s young generation is growing up knowing an unsettled world where war and hatred feature every day in news bulletins. Soldiers and civilians are dying daily and bombs and bullets seem to be the only alternative language for some when the talking stops and battle commences. On a fairly crass pop music level comes the question: “War? What is it good for?” The answer: “Absolutely nothing.” But however nonsensical and tragic today’s wars and conflicts are, the First and Second World Wars, in stark comparison, were monumental in scale and devastation.
The First World War, the subject of this slim but fulfilling volume, is described thus in the introduction: “The Great War was senseless; senseless in its outbreak, senseless in its prosecution, senseless in the slaughter of what became a lost generation.”
If anything good came out of the First World War, it surely must be poetry, but not just comfortable observational poetry from a safe distance, some of which is very powerful. The poems written by soldiers in trenches, in amongst the mud and carnage, on sick beds, on death beds and in quiet moments when sad and horrible memories came flooding back, are potent, full of truth and emotion. These poems are also warnings about the futility of war.
R. H. Beckh’s “No Man’s Land”:
“Then out we creep thro’ the gathering gloom/of NO MAN’S LAND, while the big guns boom/right over our heads, and the rapid crack/of the Lewis guns is answered back/by the German barking the same refrain/of crack, crack, crack, all over again.”
Rupert Brooke’s “The Dead”:
“Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!/There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old/but, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.”
Leslie Coulson’s “War”:
“Where war has left its wake of whitened bone,/soft stems of summer grass shall wave again,/and all the blood that war has ever strewn/is but a passing stain.”
Julian Grenfell’s “Prayer for Those on the Staff”:
“Fighting in the mud we turn to thee,/in these dread times of battle, Lord,/to keep us safe, if so may be,/from shrapnel, snipers, shell and sword.”
Ivor Gurney’s “Strange Hells”:
“There are strange Hells within the Minds War made/not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid/as one would have expected – the racket and fear guns made.”
The book features much of Wilfred Owen’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s work, as well as lesser known poets and some – Anonymous – from poets long forgotten.
I urge young and old to buy this book, then to find a quiet place to read and reflect on the waste of money, time, energy, words and, above and beyond all of that, the waste of life in pursuit of dubious or downright stupid, unnecessary wars.