Ross Keel has been learning about some of the war poetry which can be found on The Ogilby Muster…
Mention the phrase ‘war poetry’ to people and many a different response will be conjured. Whether it be a famous line from John Mcrae’s iconic ‘In Flanders Fields’, or Wilfred Owen’s evocative ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, the poetry of the First World War still retains a prominent place in the national memory. Though many of the thousands of poems written during this time may not be remembered by name, the lyrical content still arouse emotion over one century later and provide a key insight into the experiences of a soldier.
With literacy standards rising throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, poetry became more accessible to a wider range of people, both as a reader and writer. Many poems were published in so-called ‘trench magazines’, such as ‘The Wipers Times’.
Established in 1916 by soldiers from the Sherwood Foresters whilst stationed in Ypres, it published a mixture of satire and poetry. However, such was the avalanche of entries submitted by soldiers, the paper had to publish a notice discouraging people from entering poetry.
Though many early poems championed glory and romanticism, these ideals soon gave way to realism, as soldiers experienced many an hour stood in a muddy, rat-infested trench.
Writing in this fashion was Jo Wright, 2nd Battalion Essex Regiment:
The Burden of the Pack
A little rum cheereth the whole day
Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth
is the front line trench.
Hell from above, beneath, is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming.
For whom Fritz health, he chasteneth, & strafeth every battalion he receiveth.
Leave deferred maketh the heart sick
And if any exert thee to pack thy trouble into a kitbag that is old,
thou shalt demand of him “some” bag.
Pender unto the foot slogger the praise that is the foot slogger’s.
Yea! All the hearts of the field come to devour the beetle that crawleth, the rat that runneth & that other abomination that hoppeth in his steps…
For many of those enlisting, this would prove to be their first experience of life away from home. Teaming homesickness with the reality of spending time in unimaginable conditions, it is not difficult to understand why many pined for home comforts. Amongst those included Lieutenant Alec de Candole. Lieutenant de Candole enlisted into the 4th Battalion Wiltshire Regiment in April 1916, aged 19, having recently left Marlborough College. After two years away from England, he wrote the following:
When the Last Long Trek is Over
When the last long treck is over,
And the last long trench filled in,
I’ll take a boat to Dover,
Away from all the din;
I’ll take a trip to Mendip,
I’ll see the Wiltshire downs,
And all my soul I’ll then dip
In peace no trouble drowns.
Away from the noise of battle,
Away from bombs and shells,
I’ll lie among the heather,
And watch the distant plain,
Through all the summer weather,
Nor go to fight again.
The thought of getting home helped many to get through the war. Sadly, Lieutenant de Candole would never set eyes on the Wiltshire downs again. Having written the poem on the 2nd September 1918, he was to die just two days later during a German bombing raid on the French town of Bonningues, west of Arras.
However, amongst the most difficult words to read are those of prisoners of war. Included in the 192,000 British prisoners captured during the First World War was Private John McGrath of the Manchester Regiment. Captured at Guillemont on the 30th July 1916 alongside 50 of his comrades and two officers, McGrath remained a prisoner in Germany for two years. He kept a diary for the duration of this period, in which he wrote the following poem:
We are the Boys of Hardship we stick
We went to France to do our bit
The more we do the more we may
It makes no difference to our pay
Now we are in Germans hands
We always fail to understand.
Why our rations are so small
We might as well have none at all
We are the soldiers mild and meek
We starve with hunger all the week
What with sand storm stews and rotten meat
That all we soldiers get to eat.
Also taken as a prisoner of war was Percy Edgar Pope, 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment. Captured in 1914, Pope spent two years in Dettingen camp in Germany. During this time, he also kept a diary, in which he drew sketches and wrote poetry. Though starting off with the same despair as McGrath’s poem, Pope finishes with a rather more optimistic hope for a better future.
A Thought for the Evening
Fair hope is dead and light
Is quenched in night.
What sound can break the silence of despair?
O doubting heart,
The sky is overcast,
Yet stars shall rise at last,
Brighter for darkness past,
And angels’ silver voices stir the air.
Possibly the hardest hitting of all written during this period are the ones written from a place of loss, with death being an inescapable aspect of life on the front line. Robert Graves’ ‘The Dead Fox Hunter’ is one such example of this. Fighting during the Battle of Loos in 1915 with 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, Graves discovered the body of his Commanding Officer, Captain Arthur Samson MC, at the head of a charge towards enemy lines. The poem graphically depicts this harrowing experience. Images of Graves and Samson can be found within the Royal Fusiliers collection, as can those of Graves’ friend and legendary poet, Siegfried Sassoon.
World Poetry Day provides people across the globe with the opportunity to celebrate the unique creativity and opportunity for expression provided by the written verse. Putting their emotions onto paper provided many a soldier with an outlet to creatively express their experiences during the First World War. Preserving these works, therefore, ensures that their experiences will remain in the public memory for many a generation.
All poems quoted in this blog post can be found on The Ogilby Muster through the links provided.
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