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What the War Poets Knew and Did Not know 
About the First World War

Three extracts from Minds at War

These three extracts amount to one and a half pages from the nine and a half page introduction to 
Minds at War  -  the Poetry and Experience of the First World War.

1.   The First World War was one of mankind's greatest tragedies - and the poets were those most gifted to express the experience of those traumatic years. Then, brave men rushed to fight for what they saw as a great and honourable cause, only to find themselves in a quagmire of mass murder. The world became suddenly more uncertain, more out-of-control, more dangerous, more godless than it had ever seemed before; and at the centre of the problem was modern man himself, unleashing power and destruction which he could neither understand nor handle.

2.   The experience of the front line war poets was more overwhelming, more prolonged and more intense than for any previous generation of soldiers. Few can be unimpressed by their suffering, their endurance, by the appalling tragedy which was their lot. Yet, in spite of the extremity of their experience, it was permeated by universal emotions and problems which have faced everyone throughout time. Each one of us must sooner or later cope with conflicting duties, psychological pressures, moral dilemmas, guilt, tests of courage, suffering, loss of friends, bereavement, the dead - face death itself, and contemplate the meaning of life. 

But the poets spoke of new, peculiarly twentieth century things, too. Men found themselves to be driven cogs in vast, insensitive, impersonal machines, stripped of will, morality, and dignity. They were victims of the grossest abuses by the countries which they served and so often loved. 

Paradoxically, many, in finding themselves to be players in highly motivated teams, found a greater sense of comradeship and purpose than they ever found in a world at peace. Even protesting poets with pacifist beliefs were, at times, whole-hearted members of a fighting brotherhood, willing, not only to make the supreme sacrifice, but also willing to commit the supreme crime. 

Of course, most of the poets showed no grasp of power politics, the relentless pressure of arms industry economics and propaganda, no understanding of causes or cures for the war. They spoke simply as human beings caught up in bewildering and shocking events. As human beings they recorded their experiences and moral responses. They spoke of the problems of modern warfare conducted by "advanced" and "civilised" nations. 

The poets' words are a warning, unheeded and unanswered. Since their time warfare has "progressed," becoming more technological, more cruel, more destructive. A man on a battlefield at the end of the twentieth century counts for even less than the soldier of World War One. He is merely the software of battle. (John Keegan's expression.)

3.   Some poets wrote their poetry partly out of an anger with the press and the distorted, cosy pictures the press created of the soldiers' lot. Sassoon condemned the Northcliffe press and in his poem, Fight to the Finish, fantasized about returning soldiers bayonetting the "Yellow-Pressmen." Owen's plea for the truth was probably a reaction against "press-lies", and his poem, Smile, Smile, Smile, was written in direct response to an article in the Daily Mail.

A desire to respond to what the poets believed were the attitudes of civilians, was another stimulus to their poetry - evident, for example, in the bitter didacticism of Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est and Apologia pro Poemate Meo. "Cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns," he moans in the last verse of Insensibility. Sassoon rails against, "the callous complacency of those at home," and the "smug-faced crowds."

The war poets, as all poets, brought, to everything they wrote, their education, their life experience, their character .  .   .    They wrote in the context of momentous events and intense national feelings. But more importantly, poets wrote mainly in response to personal experiences . . . 

David Roberts, Editor, Minds at War


More about Minds at War    Back to Main First World War Index

Copyright © 1996, 1998, 1999 David Roberts, Saxon Books.
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