The Great War broke out on 4th August 1914. The catastrophic events that followed brought mixed responses from soldiers on the battle field and women back home in the UK.
Soldier-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and women such as Eleanor Farjeon and Winifred Mary Letts each responded in different ways.
The Women at Home – Winifred May Letts and Eleanor Farjeon
The writer/poet Winifred Mary Letts (1881-1972) experienced the affects of the Great War whilst working as a masseuse at army camps in Manchester.
Her poem The Deserter comments on the practise of executing any soldier who ran away, unable to face the battle.
Over 300 British soldiers died in this way during WW1.
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This very moving poem opens with these lines:
There was a man, – don’t mind his name,Whom Fear had dogged by night and day. He could not face the German guns And so he turned and ran away.
Letts poses the question: But who can judge him, you or I?
He also describes the execution, highlighting the emotions the deserter goes through:And this man when he feared to die Was scared as any frightened child, His knees were shaking under him, His breath came fast, his eyes were wild. I’ve seen a hare with eyes as wild, With throbbing heart and sobbing breath.
The line ″Was scared as any frightened child″ makes us sympathise with the soldier, who probably wasn’t much older than a child himself.
The soldier’s commanding officer probably wrote to the boy’s mother. He wouldn’t have mentioned the desertion or the execution. He would simply have told of the lad’s bravery in the face of duty.
But here’s the irony of life, –His mother thinks he fought and fell A hero, foremost in the strife. So she goes proudly; to the strife Her best, her hero son she gave. O well for her she does not know He lies in a deserter’s grave.
The poem consists of one 30-line stanza, a format that makes it almost impossible to stop reading once you start. Letts uses repetition of words and phrases to drive the story forward.
Easter Monday by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965)
Eleanor Farjeon, another poet active during the Great War and beyond, was the daughter of novelist Benjamin Farjeon and Maggie Jefferson. Her family enjoyed a large circle of literary friends including D. H. Lawrence, Walter de la Mare, Robert Frost and the poet Edward Thomas.
Eleanor’s brother introduced her to Edward Thomas in the autumn of 1912. Thomas died in April 1917 during the Battle of Arras, but for Eleanor the friendship did not end there, but continued long after through his letters and poems, many of which he sent from the trenches.
Easter Monday is Eleanor’s response to Thomas’s death.
At first reading, it is a very simple poem about a friend killed during World War I. Farjeon keeps the language plain and simple. She uses no imagery, metaphors or similes, thereby making her emotions all the more pure. Eleanor speaks directly to Edward making this more like a private conversation between two people.
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
Eleanor is revealing the intimate nature of their friendship. She knew his personal tastes and desires. Their relationship was both emotional and intellectual.
Thomas’s wife Helen knew of their friendship but accepted it and Eleanor’s friendship with Helen continued long after his death. Eleanor published some of their correspondence in Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years in which she gives a detailed account of their friendship.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘ I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Goodbye. And may I have a letter soon.’
In these lines the author describes the beautiful weather on Easter Monday. Farjeon’s words I will praise Easter Monday now – It was such a lovely morning emphasise her sadness at his death. She quotes his words from a recent letter in which he predicts his own death: This is the eve. Goodbye.
Easter Monday shows how Eleanor feels about war. We imagine her at home in England, distanced from the battle fields, but still suffering the affects of war, as a good friend dies.
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple –bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.
In these few lines we see new hope. Eleanor sows seeds in the garden symbolising her intention to continue her life without her close friend. One phrase in particular fascinates me: and in the orchard The apple – bud was ripe. Is this a reference to the story of Adam and Eve and Eleanor’s way of telling us about her fall from innocence?
The Soldier-Poets of the Western Front
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was in England when war broke out. A talented poet, organist and composer. The patriotic Gurney, keen to serve his country, tried to enlist in August 1914. Rejected because of poor eyesight, he tried again in February 1915, joining the 2nd/5th Gloucester Regiment.
After being injured in 1917 Gurney recovered and went on to serve at Ypres.
During his time on the Western Front Gurney wrote many poems such as Strange Service, probably written in the summer of 1916 at Tilleloy, and subsequently published in the collection Severn and Somme.
Little did I dream, England, that you bore meUnder the Cotswold Hills beside the water meadows, To do you dreadful service, here, beyond your borders And your enfolding seas.
It seems strange to Gurney, that ‘England’, the mother, would bear a son only to see him serve his country in such a dreadful way.
I was a dreamer ever, and bound to your dear service,Meditating deep, I thought on your secret beauty, As through a child’s face one may see the clear spirit Miraculously shining.
These lines show his dedication to his country. The ‘secret beauty’ is the Gloucester countryside and despite his enthusiasm to serve, his greatest wish was always to return to his beloved Gloucester countryside. Gurney’s profound love of his native land is a constant theme throughout his work.
Later in the poem Gurney pleads with the mother to think of him as he serves in the trenches. Is his enthusiasm for war waning? He says:Think on me too, O Mother, who wrest my soul to serve you In strange and fearful ways beyond your encircling waters; None but you can know my heart, its tears and sacrifice, None, but you, repay.
The Long-term Affects of Warfare
When Gurney threatened suicide in 1918 many thought he was a victim of shell-shock However, his mental health issues pre-dated his trench experiences. Even at school violent mood swings made him difficult to deal with. Two things may have contributed to his suicide attempt. Firstly, while recovering from injury he fell in love with Annie Nelson Drummond, a nurse at Bangour war Hospital, Edinburgh. She did not reciprocate his feelings. Secondly, the end of the war brought the end of the rigidly ordered life offered by the Army. His confused personality needed stability and how this was gone.
In 1922, with his mental state worsening, and after several unsuccessful suicide attempts, he went to Barnwood House Asylum in Gloucester and later to the City of London Mental Hospital, where his lived until his death, from Tuberculosis in 1937.
Long after the war Gurney’s confused mind believed the war was still going on. In his poem War Books, written in about 1925, he says:But Ypres played another trick with its danger on me, Kept still the needing and loving-of-action body; Gave no candles, and nearly killed me twice as well. And no souvenirs, though I risked my life in the stuck Tanks. Yes there was praise of Ypres, love came sweet in hospital – And old Flanders went under to long ages of plough thought in my pages.″
Looking back at his life, Gurney says even though he was twice injured, he survived to tell the tale. With the words Yes there was praise of Ypres, love came sweet in hospital Gurney is saying if it hadn’t been for his injury at Ypres he would not have met nurse Annie Nelson Drummond.
However, she did not reciprocate his love and now all that’s left are the ploughed fields!
Wilfred Owen’s War
When news of the outbreak of war reached Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), he was working in the French Pyrenees as a tutor to an eleven-year-old girl. He was not in a hurry to return to England, and certainly not in a hurry to enlist.
Owens did eventually enlist, becoming one of the best-known voices of the First World War. One of his finest poems is Anthem for Doomed Youth.
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?– Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, – The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Owen remarks bitterly that soldiers are dying ‘like cattle’ but there are no bells for them. If they died at home friends and family would be saying prayers, accompanied by candles and choirs. On the battlefield the only prayer they get is the noise of guns and rifle shots.
The ‘wailing shells’ become the choir and their coffin pall is the pale faces of girls receiving the news at home. Owen’s violent imagery features weapons and the noises of warfare. He contrasts this with images of the church. His suggestion is – what good is religion? It doesn’t offer much consolation to men dying on the battlefield.
The line Can patter out their hasty orisons refers to the recital by rote, without much thought, of prayers and traditional religious rituals.
In August 1917, while recovering from injury in Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh, Owen met another WWI poet, Siegfried Sassoon. It was Sassoon who suggested changing the poem’s title from Anthem for Dead Youth to Anthem for Doomed Youth. Look closely at the manuscript which shows Sassoon’s editorial amendments.
Soldier-Poet Siegfried Sassoon – Dreamers
Siegfried Sassoon’s Dreamers focusses on the thoughts of soldiers on the battlefield.
Having served during the Great War Sassoon was well-qualified to comment. Injured twice and decorated for bravery, he condemned anyone who glorified war and encouraged men and boys to enlist.
War was dangerous and uncivilised. Men died in appalling conditions in rat-infested trenches. As they wait for death they dream of “firelit homes, clean beds, and wives“.
Sassoon’s Dreamers needs little explanation:Soldiers are citizens of death’s gray land, Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows. In the great hour of destiny they stand, Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows. Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives. Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin They think of firelit homes, clean beds, and wives. I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats, And in the ruined trenches, lash with rain, Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats, And mocked by hopeless longing to regain Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats, And going to the office in the train.
Sassoon points out the great irony of war. When men enlist they dream of becoming a part of history. In reality, when faced with bombs and bullets, they dream or ordinary events such as an orderly game of cricket. This is a reference to civilized warfare, where the ball is the missile and the bat is the weapon used to launch it. I think Sassoon is suggesting mankind must control its aggression and limit it to athletic contests and games where rules and conventions are strictly observed.
Throughout history soldier-poets and women on the Home Front have responded to war in many different ways. Some glorify the gallantry of our brave soldiers while others abhor the destruction and death on such a massive scale. As conflicts flare up around the world we have to ask the question: Have we learnt anything from the experience?