By Dr Jennifer Minter
On August 3rd, Germany declared war on France and invaded Belgium, and the British cabinet authorized the mobilisation of the army. The next day, George V and his privy council formally proclaimed a state of war. The whole of the British Expeditionary Force was sent to France. The First World War was the first in which ordinary educated English civilians took part, either by voluntary enlistment or later conscription.
The English poetry of the First World War can, roughly, be divided into two periods: the early period, from the outbreak of war to around 1916, the Battle of the Somme; and the later period, from 1916 to 1918 and the Armistice. The two periods are very different in mood. In the earlier period, the poets, like the mass of non-combatants believed in a simple, heroic vision of a struggle for the right, of noble sacrifice for an ideal of patriotism and country.
Rosenberg is best known for his trench poems. In “The Dead Heroes,” written in 1917, before he enlisted in the war; we get a glimpse at Rosenberg’s early patriotism. While it lacks the self-referential and personal quality of Brooke’s war sonnets, it is similarly enthusiastic.
After two years of intense warfare, and as the deaths mounted and the horrors multiplied, the mood darkened. On the Western Front, it became a war of attrition, in which huge offensives were planned, again and again, and failed at a shattering cost in material and lives. The carnage and suffering were ceaseless and, to those taking part with rifle and bomb, increasingly pointless and full of horror. In 1917, The Old Huntsman by Siegfried Sassoon made an impact on civilians because of the originality of its themes and on soldiers because of their authenticity; Wilfred Owen said of it, ‘Nothing like his trench-life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written’.
As an impressionable 20-year-old soldier when he enlisted in the war , Owen closely identifies with the young soldier who becomes acutely aware of the gap between the boy’s innocence and the official views and values about war that conceal its brutality and that prey upon the boy’s innocence, vulnerability, manhood and enthusiasm. As the boys are turned into damaged men, far sooner than they should have, men like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg, become all too aware of the magnitude of the government’s “lie”.
By focusing on the sheer horror and terror of war, Owen, echoing his literary mentors, criticises both the political establishment and the clergy. Echoing Sassoon, one of his literary mentors and idols, Wilfred Owen’s war poetry questions societal traditions and the official outlook of war that is perpetuated in war-time propaganda.
In poster after poster, young and innocent, passionate and naïve boys, are conditioned to enthusiastically embrace the chance to fight. The war is presented as an adventure that will test their mettle and their patriotism. In many of his poems, criticises this representation of youth. In poems such as Smile, Smile, Smile and Insensibility, Owen draws upon well-known posters stressing the defence of homeland as the most honourable feat of the warrior. In “Smile Smile Smile”, Owen parodies the smiling solders who are pictured with “broad smiles”. The newspaper narrative relayed, ironically suggests “the greatest glory will be theirs who fought … Who kept this nation in integrity”, a view that mocks the traditional values and in doing so, challenges the official notion of heroism. In this poem, Owen is particularly critical of the focus on a generation of youth who are encouraged to “smile” in the service of their country. Insensibility also consists of references to war-related propaganda encouraging the soldiers to enlist. The posters insinuate that the young men will be well-rewarded and patriotically fulfilled should they serve their country and “fill the gap”. The repeated refrain, “Happy” sarcastically challenges the notion of a romantic and out-dated version of heroism: “Happy are men who yet before they are killed”; Owen suggests that all the soldiers can hope for is to be spared as much pain as possible and who become unaware of their suffering. “Happy are those who lose imagination” and who become as numb as possible to the terrible tragedy of the war that engulfs them. “Anthem of the Doomed Youth” depicts the number of youth and the young who enlisted in the war. The joyful connotation of “anthem”- an exciting and uplifting song recognised and identified by a group – is juxtaposed with the references to inevitable tragedy of those “doomed youth” who are trudging relentlessly towards their fate.
Drawing upon his own personal experience, Owen represents officialdom in increasingly hostile and scathing terms. He realises that the soldiers are encouraged to enlist for superficial, impossible and intangible concepts of heroism and glory. He censures the authorities and media spokespeople who peddle lies and dreams of glory. Poems such as “Mental Cases”, “Anthem of the Doomed Youth” and “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo” not only challenge Jessie Owen about the glory of war, and the propaganda of the “old lies” that “it is sweet and right to die for your country”, but also challenge the traditional myths of the noble and valiant Greek stories, perpetuated by the idolised warriors and heroes such as Horace and Homer.
In many ways, the authorities are drawing upon this romantic and patriotic representation of the noble warrior from Greek traditions which is challenged by Owen’s war poems. In much of Greek literature, soldiers are portrayed as heroes – honourable, courageous and noble. In Homer, the heroes are larger than life; they share mythical and legendary characteristics and the feats are god-like.
Characters such as, Hector, Patroclus and Achilles as portrayed in Homer’s Illiad, are typically valiant heroes who are prepared to defend their cities, their honour, their homelands and their families to the death. There is no greater honour, according to Hector, of seeing his son grow up to be an even more valiant warrior. Throughout the Illiad, Homer describes Hector, the leader of the Trojans, who defends their land against the Greeks, as “noble” and “bronze armoured with its crest of horsehair” with the “flashing helmet”, who fights victoriously and valiantly. He leads the “finest of the Trojan troops” into battle and becomes a “mighty source of terror”. He confronts battle like a “whirlwind”. He “glistened with fearful bronze and held a spear in each hand”. Homer suggests that so valiant is Hector that only the “Gods” would have the power to withstand his ferocity. He is bold and confident in his authority, and the Trojans heed his every command, as they scale the walls and pour through the city gates.
The noble Patroclus who comes to the defense of Achilles is sacrificed because of his similar warrior spirit. He nobly and bravely begs for “what would be his own evil death and fate”. Achilles is described as the “peerless son of Aeacus”. He alerts all the Myrmidons to “arm themselves” and they “streamed forth like ravenous wolves”. Even when Hector realizes that the battle has swung in favour of the Myrmidons, he still battles on and refuses to back down. “he kept on fighting and tried to save his loyal men”. He is carried on by the “swift-footed horses”.
The Gap Between the Official View and Lived Realities (Demoralization and Moral Confusion)
The gap between the “smiling” representation of youth and the romantic representation of the noble warrior is clearly evident in many of Owen’s poems as he depicts boy-soldiers who have become thoroughly demoralized and desperate. In “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”, “the mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled”- these boys are now “wretches”, so demeaned that they are the opposite of what was once the God-like glorification of soldiers. The soldiers are psychologically and morally confused about their values; “smiling” in a place of horror. These boys’ morals have been turned upside down and have become desensitized to death, making it more and more normalized to kill, “where death becomes absurd and life absurder/ for power was on us as we slashed bones bare/ not to feel sickness or remorse of murder”. The soldiers are no longer the ‘Hector-type’ war hero, they are now dehumanised wretches.
The Depiction of Those in Position of Authority
A further aspect of the war-poets’ criticism of officialdom is the marked differences in the representations of Generals and Sergeants and the soldiers. Both Sassoon and Owen depict the different and diverging experiences of the soldiers, or cannon fodder, who experience the horror of the trenches, and their superiors who have a more comfortable and removed experience of war. Owen depicts the haughty and disdainful attitude of the Sergeant, who merges with the “Field Marshal God’s inspection” as he censures the unkempt nature of the soldier.
This stark difference is more clearly accentuated in Sassoon’s body of work. In an ironic and confrontational tone, Sassoon, as in “Base Details”, divides the military world into two camps—combatants and staff officers—to mock the “scarlet Majors at the Base,” who “speed glum heroes up the line to death.” “If I were fierce, and bald, and out of breath,” it begins, ironically proposing a sympathetic identification that the remaining lines’ horrified comedy explodes. Sassoon works with implied comparisons. His typical base officer is “out of breath” because he is comfortable and out of shape, at odds with trench soldiers, who constantly face deaths that would render them “out of breath” in their own way. The officers are “scarlet” because their uniforms feature that colour and because they are flabby and breathless, unlike line soldiers, who turn scarlet when their blood pours out. Throughout “Base Details” maintains its furious tone, refusing any deference to the officers, who live “in the best hotel,” “guzzling and gulping” well out of harm’s way.
By graphically portraying the horror of the war, poets like Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg show the dehumanizing consequences and the toll of war, both physically and psychologically.
In numerous poems, Owen describes soldiers who are both physically damaged: many have lost limbs and are stripped of their manhood. In this dehumanized world, they are psychologically damaged, traumatized and emotionally paralysed. Boys are turned into damaged men, far sooner than they should have; in very demoralizing circumstances, men are turned into beasts, animals and “hags”. The visual imagery, in “Dulce et Decorum est” describes the soldiers as “like hags, like animals”. These images demonstrate that not only are soldiers stripped of their innocence, they are stripped of their humanity; their dirty and ragged appearance has negative connotations that reflects their haunted and ugly state of mind.
The men who survive the horrors of war become accustomed to the brutality. The soldier’s feet are depicted as “blood-shod”, covered in blood as they have no boots; their feet are “shod” just like horses’. Once again, the dehumanising language likens soldiers to beasts of burden, not men. The alliteration “knock-kneed” creates auditory imagery indicating that the soldiers are stumbling, that they are tired, but are forced to trudge on. Soldiers are “drunk with fatigue”, not only because they are staggering, are uncoordinated and look filthy, but also because of the way they feel: confused and alert. In “Anthem of the Doomed Youth”, the soldiers are to “die as cattle”; this simile conveys the inhumanity of these soldier’s deaths –like “cattle” a metaphor for the youth dying like animals for food. They are dying without really knowing why, they are headed off the slaughter, no questions asked. The “monstrous anger of the guns” personifies the guns, attributing anger, a human emotion, to the guns which are machines.
Despite the overarching positive connotations within the Illiad, there are similarities with the descriptions of Hector and Achilles which show inhumane, animalistic descriptions to convey the brutality of the confrontation. Homer, too, often describes the combatants at war as “two lions (that) fight over a slain deer”, which also has dehumanising overtones. Or, again, the soldiers and men fight viciously, going forth like “ravenous wolves”.
In “Dead Man’s Dump,” by Rosenberg, the graphic nature of the destruction of war surfaces. The poem begins with the persona on barbed wire patrol. As the wagon rolls across the fields crushing corpses on its way, Rosenberg considers the scene. The rusty barbed wire in the wagon appears to him as “many crowns of thorns” and the rusty stakes “as sceptres old.” In these images, the sacrificial nature of the soldiers and the ineffectual rule of the governments become clear. The bodies of the soldiers are both “friend and foeman,” and their similarity in death emphasizes their similarity in life, thus questioning the ultimate sense of the conflict.
Subsequently in the poem, Rosenberg makes no distinction between “friend and foeman” and considers their joint plight. During the course of “Dead Man’s Dump,” Rosenberg muses upon the dead soldiers in general and in particular, sympathizing with the group in its entirety while maintaining the individuality of each soldier by singling out the fate of specific individuals: the soldier who dies with his brains splattering the “stretcher-bearer’s face” and the soldier who dies with arms stretched out toward the wagon just before its wheels “grazed his dead face.”
Psychological after effects
Not only are the soldiers exposed to horrifying physical damage and death but Owen’s soldiers suffer from the traumatic consequences of the loss of limbs, from debilitating poisonous gas attacks, and from the loss of comrades. The horrors of the ghastly battlefield landscapes become a familiar routine. Owen personalises his experience, as in “Dulce et Decorum Est”, told in the first person, focusing on the never-ending nightmare of muddy trenches and unpredictable gas attacks. He uses direct speech, which shows the influence of both Sassoon and Thomas Hardy, to depict the sudden and urgent threat to life. “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!” The exclamation marks reflect the urgency of the men who begin “fumbling”, trying to fit their helmets on “just in time”. However, the image of “someone” who has not managed this life-saving gesture becomes etched in Owen’s mind. The man is “yelling out and stumbling. And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime”. The narrator uses a simile to capture the drowning soldier who, “as under a green sea” begins to die. It is this image that will continue to haunt the poet-narrator as he comes to terms with his own experiences.
Set amidst a gas attack, the poem, filled with the vivid and grotesque imagery, explores the intense agony of a world gone suddenly insane. Likewise, in “Mental cases” Owen also explores the psychological trauma that grips the survivors who watch their friends die.
In “In all my dreams” Owen evokes a sense of entrapment within the never-ending nightmare of war, as each soldier becomes aware of the prison of isolation. The nightmares and dreams continue to haunt and separate the vulnerable and damaged soldier. Owen portrays images so repulsive that readers must grapple with the plight of desensitized young men who are fighting for a cause that they do not understand. Similarly, nouns referring to “people” or “men” have been omitted in “Mental Cases”; Owen intentionally labels the patients by their “cases”, suggesting that they are merely academic or medical items to be studied, further dehumanising the soldiers. Moreover, the derogatory term “cases” seeks to label and identify the men as commodities in an impersonal medical system; The use of the collective term “these” or “they” in third person display the otherness of the men, emphasising society’s inability to view these people not only as men but also as human.
The gods are omnipresent in Homer’s Illiad and throughout Greek myths and legends. They define the terms of the battle and control the destiny of men. The warrior-like traits of Homer’s heroes, and their gruesome actions are defended and justified because they are fulfilling their god-fuelled destiny. The gods are whispering to them, urging them on, encouraging them to commit increasingly courageous, valiant feats. Above all, the gods encourage them to believe that to die an honourable death is the most virtuous and worthy action they can undertake.
The ancient warriors are always aware that the “will of Zeus is stronger than the purpose of men”. Zeus puts angry boldness in the heart of Patroclus and then Phoebus Apollos comes to him “in the likeness of a valiant and strong man”. The gods are often goading the men, seeking to give them a false sense of confidence, often in the jaws of defeat. For the gods, the battle is the most important thing and defines a man’s spirit and his character. Zeus speaks to Hector: “This does not become you. Come now, drive on your sturdy steeds against Patroclus and you may even yet overpower him, and Apollo may grant you the victory”. Because of the blind faith in the gods and in their ability to control destiny, the Greek warrior believe that they are particularly noble and justify their warrior spirits as the product and design of the gods. They constantly refer to the Gods and to Zeus who appears to have overall charge and control. Victories, defeats, setbacks are explained as the will of the gods. For example, at one stage the Argives have been “subdued by the lash of Zeus”. At other times, the Trojans are aware that the war was held in “balance until the time when Zeus granted victorious glory”. Buoyed by Zeus’s support, Hector confronts the enemy: “And Zeus pushed him on from behind with his mighty hand and urged his soldiers forward with him” and in victory, he strikes an equally valiant enemy, “those who are always the bravest are now lying beside the ships struck down by arrows or wounded by spears”. When Ajax confronts Hector in battle, he is aware of his doom, owing to the support of Zeus for Hector. “He knew that this was the work of the gods and that Zeus who thunders on high had chosen victory for the Trojans”.
Contrastingly, the Gods appear completely absent in the poetry of the Great War wherein the church officials seem to blindly condone the violence. Wilfred Owen’s criticisms are directed at authorities who do not reinforce the peaceful message of the bible, but overlook the war and aggression.
Negatively connoted images relating to authority figures contrast with Homerian depictions of warfare. Rather, such images draw striking parallels with Euripides “Women of Troy”. Euripides criticises the tendency to blame the Gods for the evil of humankind. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, after meeting in the asylum of Craiglockhart, together recognized the injustice represented in using faith to promote warfare. Subsequently, they wrote poetry which criticized the religious and political hierarchy, countered the theology used in propaganda, and attempted to reveal the atrocities in battle. Although Sassoon’s poetry remained satirical of the use of religion, Owen recognized its power and used religion and a connection to God as a medium for building empathy for and understanding of those called to serve. Owen criticizes churches that preach peace and forgiveness whilst condoning a deadly war. Owen often makes a clear distinction between the precious merits of Jesus, the works of God and the priests and churches; contrasting their views and values against God’s word, emphasizing the hypocrisy of those in charge, who do anything but spread peace and forgiveness.
In “Anthem of the Doomed Youth”, the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” personifies the weapons of war, turning humans and predominantly, human institutions, choir members and churches, into inanimate weapons. This metaphor blurs the lines between a choir singing for the glory of God and country, and the shelling to that same nationalistic and patriotic passion. The men in “Mental Cases” are pictured in a “twilight” stage of being. They are neither dead nor alive, but in a “purgatorial” state, hovering in hell through no fault of their own. The negative biblical imagery, conveyed through the diction “purgatorial”, “wicked”, “hell”, and “hellish”, indicate suffering, “waiting to go to hell”. The poet asks readers to reflect upon the question of their sins; questioning what are they punished for. These returned soldiers are pictured to have a glorious welcome, exultant but this is not the case; they are sitting in the twilight with no control of their own minds.
The poems by Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon shatter the myths surrounding war and focus on its brutality. Using vivid imagery, the endless anthropomorphism and personification of the soldiers, the poets’ ironic and satiric tone mocks traditionalist views of society and war. They share the view that “the outside world cannot understand what the soldiers experienced in the war. These soldiers, these men, are not worth your tears; you are not worth their merriment.”
In many of the poems, the acerbic and often hostile tone also questions and challenges official propaganda that was used by the political establishment to encourage young and enthusiastic boys who, these poets, suggest were fed to a war machine that either killed them or left them severely traumatised. This picture differs starkly from that of the romanticised and heroic warrior that was worshipped in Greek and some romantic literature.