The Poetry of War: Remembering America's 100th Anniversary of the Great War

There is a certain poetry that comes out of war. Both the horrible beauty of a scene, a scene mixed with the horror of carnage and the beauty of valor, but also a clearer view and deeper understanding of such things as patriotism and folly, victory and grief, courage and cowardice. So many extremes at the same time. Poetry in actions, poetry in words.

Some of the greatest writers have received inspiration from their own war experiences: Ernest Hemingway, an ambulance driver in Italy during World War One; Leo Tolstoy, a Russian soldier who watched absolute desolation at the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War; and one of my favorites, but probably not the most famous, H.C. McNeile (Bulldog Drummond) a Sapper/Engineer in World War One. There are numerous others.  

I got on this train of thought after realizing that today marks the 100th anniversary of America's entrance into World War One. The Great War. The War to End All Wars. It was a great and horrific war. But it was not the war to end all wars. I believe, however, that out of this war have come some of the most desperately beautiful works of poetry and art ever written, poetry that describes the anguishing soul of a nation. 

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not 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 will remember them.

Excerpt from: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon (1914)

This is a well known one. I'd heard it many times before, but the first time it rang most true for me was when I was standing in the Polish War Cemetery in Normandy a few years ago, with a dozen or so true Englishmen; some of them veterans of WWII, a few from more recent conflicts, and then some who were just patriots that loved their country. With a husky voice or a moist eye, they were not there to remember their own, but to remember their gallant Polish Allies of World War Two, who, without a country, had fought bravely, against odds uncounted.

A line out of this touching poem, The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke, can be found on the grave of at least one Englishman in nearly every English cemetery:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
     Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
     In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke died shortly after writing this poem, on April 23, 1915, but he left behind a deeply stirring and patriotic work of art. Replace England with the name of your country or state, and it would be a beautiful tribute for any gravestone of a fallen serviceman.

As moving as the above poems are, knowing what we know now about World War One, some of them are down right depressing. Not so much because they are gloomy, but because of the false sense of patriotism they gave, proclaiming the cause to be a just and noble one when the truth was quite the opposite. 

Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by. 
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to calvary.

Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
Gives somewhere back the thoughts of England given;
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave

With souls unpurged and and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death
And for each one, far off, apart, 
Seven swords have rent a woman's heart

The Marching Men, by Marjorie Pickthall,


Millions killed worldwide, it was in truth one of the greatest disasters and wholesale slaughters of an entire generation of young men. Young men who died for old men's wars, says "Requiem for a Soldier." We know this now, but how hard must it have been for the soldiers who returned from France, missing limbs, suffering burns from poisonous gas, or asking the age-old question, "Why them and not me?" surmounted by the even greater question, "For what cause?"

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Hamilton Sorley

Two German soldiers, a donkey, and their gas-masks. 1917

Two German soldiers, a donkey, and their gas-masks. 1917

I don't pretend to be anything near a scholar of poetry, especially World War One poetry. But even as a layperson, I cannot help but be moved by the works of art written in times of war. Everything about war is a superlative. The hardest questions that can be asked are laid before man. Questions of right and wrong. What is the difference between murder and protecting your homeland? To sacrifice a small group of soldiers in exchange for a great victory? Is this moral? What makes the enemy wrong? Is he not fighting for the same reasons you are? What are we fighting for? These are questions that each of the poets of World War One asked. Looking back at history, we think we know the answers to them all. But do we really?

But putting aside the controversy, the truth is that some of the most inspiring poetry of devotion and love for country was written in World War One. Penned in the trenches, hospitals, and staff-offices, the words of Owen, Binyon, Brooke, and Sassoon are with us today (whether we realize it or not), in our writings, speeches, and on the graves of countless English and American servicemen as a lasting epitaph for their sacrifice. 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Field by John McCrae