Many have tried to find ways to comprehend and to transcend the catastrophes of war. Remembrance or Armistice Day, began as a solemn acknowledgement of the tragic loss of life in the First World War. It has been observed throughout the Commonwealth and other nations since 1919, where people pause to remember their lost generation. This is the centenary of 11 November 1918 when the war in Europe finally came to end.
Both during the war years and afterwards many combatant poets brought the ‘aesthetics of direct experience’ to bear on imagining the war in a way far removed from the older generation which sent them to fight and die. Soldiers developed their own form of this genre. Their soliloquies were sad, evocative, often moving, and rarely either simply patriotic or straightforwardly pacifist.
What the English combatant poets saw showed them as extraordinary, often tormented casualties of their age. But they were strong enough to make a world that stands alone, bound by their feelings and vision. And the war spawned a wealth of artistic output from a miscellaneous collection of soldiers who fought on its battlefields.
Rupert Brooke saw war as a joyous simplification of his and his country’s destiny. Britain was aiding France and Belgium which had been invaded by Germany, the disruptive new usurper and challenge to the empire. This was a war to defend the old world. Brooke was a product of Rugby school which instilled a belief in the nobility of patriotic sacrifice. His first-volume of verse was published in 1911, the first of the poets to see action in 1914 when he took part in the unsuccessful defence of Antwerp, and as a member of the Royal Navy sent to the Mediterranean where he died of septicaemia on 23 April 1915, aged 27 years, on a ship en route to Gallipoli and buried in an olive grove on the Greek Island of Skyros. On his death Winston Churchill declared that ‘we shall never see his like again’. The British imperial dead numbered over a million, and sending the bodies home was logistically impossible. Brooke immortalised himself in his own poignant verse in The Soldier:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
He is best remembered for several sonnets that exude idealistic patriotism, a rhetoric of romantic chivalry from Tennyson to Haggard. The first, ‘Peace’ describes the war as a remedy for the empty lives lived by those of his generation. The press proclaimed Brooke a cult hero, a focus for the nation’s grief and a tragic embodiment of the generation who died between 1914 and 1918.
At the Somme and Passchendaele Brooke’s version of war seemed a distant memory. Robert Graves, Sassoon and Owen would not make horror and anguish endurable, to give comfort by softening what was too awful for words. War poetry was by 1917 an established genre, its best-sellers now mostly forgotten apart from Canadian John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ published in Punch in 1915, which the British government used to encourage recruitment.
Charles Sorley wrote poetry at Marlborough school, and early in the war expressed unease at Brooke’s war poetry for turning duty into high sentimental melodrama. The earlier, lighter Brooke’s poems were better, he wrote, for sonnets appeared ‘far too obsessed with his own sacrifice’, with ‘preserving his own world’. In ‘Two Sonnets’ Sorley, killed by a sniper in October 1915, describes death as ‘no triumph, no defeat: only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clear, a merciful putting away of what has been’. Prominent among other British war poets was Siegfried Sassoon who studied at Cambridge University and then lived the life of a country gentleman, hunting and playing cricket while publishing small volumes of poetry.
He enlisted in 1915, and impressed many with his bravery in France which earned him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for near-suicidal exploits. Awarded the Military Cross, his brother was killed at Gallipoli. Siegfried suffered from fever in 1916, returned to the front where he was wounded in 1917 and brought home. Disgusted by civilian ignorance of the war, meetings with pacifists, especially Bertrand Russell, reinforced his growing disillusionment with the war. A realist who understood the horror of war, his poetry is vivid, and often satirical, expressing his bitterness towards hypocrisy and romanticism.
Sassoon was diagnosed with shell-shock at an Edinburgh hospital where he met Wilfred Owen. The meeting of the two poets revolutionised Owen’s style and his conception of poetry, characterised by his anger at the cruelty and waste of war.
He became a prophet of the twentieth century. It is no accident that Benjamin Britten turned to Owen’s ‘Anthem for doomed youth’ (1917) as the sacred text around which he framed his War Requiem, written after the Second World War but as much a meditation on the First.
Wilfred Owen returned to France in 1918 where he wrote to his mother ‘I cannot do a better thing or be in a better place’. The end came on 4 November 1918 as Owen tried to cross a canal on a raft under heavy fire, the heroism perhaps encouraged by a sense that victory was near. Confirmation of Owen’s Military Cross occurred four days after the twenty five year old was killed.
Isaac Rosenberg grew up in an increasingly anxious Britain. The country still had the empire but faced civil unrest at home and competition abroad. Painter and poet Rosenberg had come to dislike this new world of the army. His work was experimental in character, strongly influenced by his Jewish background, and his best-known poems deal with his experience in the trenches. ‘Believe me’, he wrote in 1916, ‘the army is the most detestable invention on this earth and nobody but a private in the army knows what it is to be a slave’. The historian of his division later wrote ‘The whole country-side was a churned-up, yeasty mass of mud. The weather was awful. Constant rain was varied by spells of intensely cold weather and some very heavy snowfalls. Mud and dirt were everywhere’. Rosenberg born in 1890 was killed at dawn on 1 April 1918 by a raiding party.
The neo-Romantic poems and death of Rupert Brooke contributed to his fame and cult status. Back in Australia where families were far removed from the main theatres of military operations, there is a touch of a very different popular hero in C.J. Dennis’ creation of the larrikin war hero in The Moods of Ginger Mick created by the events at Gallipoli. Ken Inglis argued the tremendous success of The Sentimental Bloke in 1915 is derived in no small measure from Dennis’ perception that ‘many Australians shared his hazy romantic attraction to the larrikin type’. The Moods of Ginger Mick was a triumph, earning Dennis the title of ‘the Anzac laureate’ to add to his earlier ‘laureate of the larrikin’. Published in one form as a pocket edition for the trenches, it was received enthusiastically by the troops, who in H.M. Green’s words took it ‘to their hearts and haversacks’.