The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 7 No 1 - June 1986

The Poet Under Fire - Four Poets of World War 1:
Brooke, Grenfell, Sassoon, Owen

by S. Monick

Today, some 70 years after they wrote, the poets of World War 1 continue to exert a fascination upon the present, some two generations after the war in which they received their baptism of fire had ceased. Although the experiences which shaped their poetry - infantry assaults across broken shell-holed expanses of mud, trenches, barbed wire, machine-guns, massive artillery bombardments and gas - appear ostensibly remote from the concerns of the present generation, in one fundamental respect the war poetry of 1914-1918 has a startling and immediate relevance for us. For the trench poets of World War 1 were expressing the anguished response of the human spirit to a terrifying new technology, in the face of which they appeared (and indeed were) totally helpless. Although the scale of that technology has increased tremendously (to the extent that the ageing survivors of the Western Front have lived to see the advent of the age of the Hydrogen Bomb) the degree of shock and despair with which the World War I generation confronted the unimagined realities of the new warfare of 1914 is no less than the terror with which today's generation confronts the possibility of thermo-nuclear warfare. The poetry of the trenches - vivid, brief, haunting - is an instant, anguished cry, expressed within the actual context of the fighting on the Western Front.

In this study of the trench poets, it is intended to focus upon the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. (Certainly, there were many others: Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Sorley. Of these, only Isaac Rosenberg was not of the British upper classes). These four poets have been selected, however, as they vividly illustrate the basic characteristics of the trench poets of World War 1; especially the dual characteristics of idealism and patriotic fervour on the one hand (Brooke and Grenfell) and, on the other, bitter angry cynicism, despair and pity for a doomed generation (Sassoon and Owen). These two distinct and contrasting attitudes to war may be said to be divided by the Somme battles of 1916. That division in sentiment and attitude embodies a profound turning point. For the poetry of Brooke and Grenfell looks backward to a romantic conception of war as a fulfilling and heroic experience (the type of attitude evinced in Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, for example). Indeed, it is difficult to justify Brooke's inclusion as a war poet on other grounds than as a supreme illustration of the pre-1914 attitude to war, before that attitude was tested and destroyed on the Western Front. His active war service was minimal and he died an unheroic death before the major campaign in which he was to take part (Gallipoli) was even launched. In this respect, Brooke is essentially a civilian poet.

The mature trench poets - Owen, Sassoon, and others - project a conception of the soldier that has remained seared in the race memory of the present generation; as a martyred saviour in his comparative innocence, helplessness and pain. Kipling's poem, Gethsemene 1914-1918 clearly embodies this attitude. The poet records his meeting with gas during the War as symbolizing all human suffering, and is fused in the New Testament image of the cup from which Christ drank, and which the soldier prays may pass from him:-

'It didn't pass - it didn't pass
It didn't pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!'

A vital point should be made at this point with regard to the trench poets. With regard to the majority of the better known poets (but by no means all) they were drawn from a social stratum characterized by wealth and privilege. This was certainly true of three of the four poets on whom this study is focused (Owen being the exception). Indeed, it was from behind this screen of wealth and privilege that they could cultivate the unreal, idealized image of a pastoral England in the poetic movement known as the 'Georgian school'. This school of poetry (which particularly flourished during the period 1910-1914), was named 'Georgian' after George V, who ascended the throne in 1910. The Georgian poets rejected the strident, aggressive and nationalistic verse represented by Kipling, Newbolt and others. Its vision of England repudiated the distant exotic vistas of the British Empire and the visions associated with it. Rather, it sought to recreate a pastoral, idealized England that was, in fact, rapidly ceasing to exist. The Georgian school was thus an inward-looking, escapist movement. This poetry was represented by Alfred Edward Housman (e.g. The Shropshire Lad), W.H. Davies, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Ivor Gurney and others. It was from this movement that the war poets were drawn; Owen, Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Charles Sorley and others. Thus, the trench poets of 1914-1918 had to confront a terrifying new experience which totally destroyed their pre-1914 images of the world. In one respect, they looked backward to an idealized England which was even then dying beneath the pressure of industrialization and urbanization. As George Dangerfield (The Strange Death of Liberal England) writes:

'Until the very outbreak of war, the poets stayed unresponsive to the changing times: stubborn, sweet, unreal, they were the last victims and the last heroes of Liberal England.'(1)

However, in another respect the trench poets, in their projection of the realities of modern war, permanently sever the Victorian romantic approach from the contemporary attitude to armed conflict. As one critic, Arthur Waugh, writes:

'The Victorian poets wrote of war as though it were something splendid and ennobling; but as a matter of fact they knew nothing whatever about it. The Georgian poets know everything there is to know about war, and they come back and report it to us as an unspeakable horror, maiming and paralysing the soul of man.'(2)
One of the major figures of the Georgian School was, of course, Rupert Brooke. His poem, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester (written in Berlin in 1912), which idealizes the Cambridgeshire landscape, has for succeeding generations brilliantly captured the nostalgia associated with that pre-1914 rural sunset world, immortalized in the closing couplet:
'Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?'

Let us first study the mood of idealism and patriotic fervour expressed in the poetry of Brooke and Grenfell.


The legend of Brooke has hardly dimmed 70 years after his death. With his engaging appearance, privileged background and a poetic talent which enjoyed a nationwide audience, the adulation which he attracted can only be compared to that of a modern 'pop' star. Born in 1887, his father was a housemaster at the famous English public school of Rugby, where Brooke was educated; afterwards reading for a classics degree at Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1909 and where he made his mark socially as a handsome, charming personality. Prior to the outbreak of World War 1 he spent most of his time travelling, reading and writing. Brooke was one of the most admired of the Georgian school of poetry, referred to earlier. The legend of Brooke is inseparable from his death in 1915; a ritual sacrifice of one of England's brilliant offspring. In fact, as mentioned earlier, his war service was minimal. In September 1914 he secured a commission in the Royal Naval Division and was present the following month in the brief Antwerp engagement. After returning to England for training, Brooke was sent to the Dardanelles on 28 February 1915. But he did not see action. He contracted an infection of the lip which developed into blood poisoning, and he died on the island of Skyros on 23 April 1915 - two days before the Gallipoli invasion force sailed.

To reiterate, the significance of Brooke's poetry lies in its backward-looking posture; rooted in 19th Century Victorian approaches to war which are totally opposed to the 20th Century attitude. His verse is indicative of mood divorced from the reality of war, rather than the actual experience of conflict. His Sonnets, written in 1914, reflect the patriotic fervour which swept over England at the outbreak of war. Particularly interesting is the poem entitled Peace:

'Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His Hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love.'

This sonnet has as its key the purging of the spirit through war, and vividly captures the civilian mood of 1914, characterized by an impatient, restless, energetic youth.

Brooke's memory is immortalized in his sonnet, The Soldier, which is deeply informed by the Georgian love of rural England, and in which the poet mystically identifies his own body with the soul of England:

'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.'

It is interesting to speculate whether Brooke would have maintained his highly romantic, youthful idealism if he had confronted the terrible realities of the Gallipoli campaign (April 1915 - January 1916). The appalling casualties which resulted from this futile campaign were the combined result of useless infantry assaults upon fixed entrenchments (a mirror image of the Western Front) and disease (dysentery, typhoid, typhus, etc) compounded by inadequate and mismanaged medical facilities. It is doubtful whether, in such an environment, the initial enthusiasm and idealism which characterized the Allied forces on the eve of the Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 would have survived.


Julian Grenfell is a remarkable figure in literary history, as his fame rests almost entirely upon a single brief poem, Into Battle. Yet that poem is no less significant for us than Brooke's conception of war. Indeed, Grenfell was far more closely identified with the 19th Century chivalric ideal of war, being a professional soldier (and, moreover, a cavalry officer) and an aristocrat. Born in 1888, he was the eldest son of Lord Desborough. He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, whence he graduated in 1910. An accomplished classicist and superb athlete, he personified the legendary, glittering upper-class youth that largely perished on the Western Front. Upon graduating, he joined the Regular Army (which he enjoyed immensely, serving in the Royal Dragoons), and saw service in India and South Africa. On 12 May 1915 he was struck by a shell splinter on a hill near the Ypres-Menin road, and died of his wounds on 27 May 1915.

In certain important respects he differed markedly from Brooke. First, he was a professional soldier who saw much active service in France before his death. Grenfell was quickly in action and proved an extremely intrepid fighter, delighting in single handed raiding exploits in no-man's-land. Twice mentioned in despatches, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). Thus, unlike an innocent such as Brooke, he was well acquainted with the nature of battle. Second, he manifested a genuine enthusiasm for the imperialist ideal, as opposed to the more narrow, insular patriotism of the Georgians. On 6 August 1914 he wrote from South Africa:

'And don't you think it has been a wonderful and almost incredible rally to the Empire ... It reinforces one's failing belief in the Old Flag and the Mother Country and the Heavy Brigade and the Thin Red Line, and all the Imperial Idea, which gets rather shadowy in peace time, don't you think? But this has proved a real enough thing.' (Pages from a Family Journal)(3)

Nevertheless, his approach to war was as irrelevant in 20th Century terms as was Brooke's. Grenfell viewed it as a game, appropriate to a 19th Century aristocratic cavalry officer. It was this attitude which prompted him to write from Flanders in October 1914:

"I adore War. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic ... '(4)

Into Battle, written in April 1915, is the one poem that demands a place for Grenfell in any discussion of the Western Front poets. The opening lines of the poem offer a traditional lyric in praise of Spring, and then make a large but seemingly inevitable transition from the soldier's own spirit rising like the sap around him to a sense of sacrifice as rebirth:

'The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And life is colour and warmth and light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth.'

The sentiments are those traditional in the idealistic literature of war. There is a powerful resemblance between the imagery of this poem and that of Brooke's The Soldier; centring upon the image of the dead soldier's essence enriching the soil of which he has become a part. Nevertheless, Into Battle does not convey that sense of theatricality, of striking an attitude, so evident in Brooke's sonnets.


When one turns to the poetry of Sassoon and Owen the terrible realities of technological war, as expressed on the Western Front, intrude themselves forcibly upon the reader's awareness. These two poets represent a complete schism between the traditional heroic attitude and that conception of warfare which has shaped the 20th Century mind. Indeed, there is a hint of this new conception in one of Grenfell's letters, in which he experienced something of the nature of technological war and was reluctantly sensing a certain inadequacy in the traditional attitudes:

'About the shells, after a day of them, one's nerves are really absolutely beaten down, I can understand now why our infantry have to retreat sometimes; a sight which came as a shock to me at first, after being brought up in the belief that the English infantry cannot retreat.'(5)
One is compelled to resolve the question: How could the outmoded Victorian conception of war have persisted in the poems of Brooke and Grenfell? For the realities of 20th Century warfare were clearly apparent by the close of the first decade of the present century. They had become a feature of warfare during the course of the preceding half-century. It is necessary to bear in mind that during the 50 years which preceded the Western Front the weapons of war had undergone a complete revolution. If one compares, for example, the weapons which featured in the Crimean War of 1854-1856 with those of 1914, the full scale of this revolution may begin to be appreciated. The European armies - British, French and Russian - which fought in the Crimean War were of the same character and stage of development as those which had fought at Waterloo and even earlier at Blenheim and Malplaquet in the early 18th Century. In other words, in 1854 war-fare had remained basically unaltered for some 200 years. Soldiers still fired single-shot, muzzle-loading muskets; the cannons were similarly muzzle-loading, firing cannon balls at comparatively short ranges; armies still marched to the scene of conflict; communication between the senior officers of an army was still maintained by messengers on horseback; cavalry - employing sabres and lances - were still used extensively. However, the new age of machine production affected the technology of warfare no less than in other areas of life and, during the period 1856-1914 a complete revolution had occurred. This period witnessed the emergence of the rapid firing, small-bore, magazine, bolt-action rifle, such as the .303-inch Lee Enfield, and the Mauser, which were to feature on the Western Front; and the machine gun, which had emerged from earlier crude prototypes such as the crank-operated Gatling and Nordenfelt to the far more sophisticated Maxim guns. Artillery, developed by such arms manufacturers as Krupp, Vickers, and Creusot had, as with small arms, developed into rapid-firing breech-loading weapons, projecting their conical shells at far longer ranges.

However, as Alvin Toffler points out in his books The Third Wave and Future Shock, when such rapid technological revolution occurs, without precedent, traditional attitudes cannot readily adapt to such a pace of change; and such attitudes are, indeed, often reinforced as a form of defence mechanism. Further, in 1914 there had not been a major continental war in Europe for a century, since the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The energies of European armies had been utilized mainly during this period in what became known as 'small wars'. These were colonial conflicts waged mainly against unsophisticated peoples in Africa and Asia. This was especially the case with the British Army, which was continually involved during this period in defending and expanding the Victorian Empire in such regions as Ashantiland, Egypt, the Sudan, South Africa, and China. Such colonial conflicts emphasized the traditional and obsolete methods of warfare which had prevailed for centuries past - the square, volley firing, and cavalry assaults with lance and sabre. The enemies of the European armies, in the main, did not possess the sophisticated technology of war which had been making such rapid progress during the half-century preceding the outbreak of World War 1. (It was for this reason that the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 proved to be such a shock to the British Army. Only in South Africa (as in 1880-1881) did the Army confront a white enemy equipped with modern European weapons.) Thus, the European mind was innocent of the realities of scientific war in 1914, and it is this innocence which is embodied in the archaic idealism of Brooke and Grenfell.


One can understand the savage satire of Sassoon and the moving pathos of Owen's poetry only if one can conceive of the scenario of the Western Front, which generated the suffering and death of which they wrote. We shall first endeavour to answer the question: What and where was the Western Front?

Essentially the Western Front was a war zone which extended from the North Sea to the frontiers of Switzerland, and embraced France and Belgium. Across this area, during the period 1914-1918, two enormous forces confronted one another - on the one side the British Commonwealth and French armies, and on the other the German armies. The lines of these opposing forces were fixed by heavily defended - and impenetrable - kilometres of trenches, in which the opposing armies lived in the manner of rats in holes, and defended with barbed wire and machine guns. The numerous casualties which were such a tragic feature of the Western Front - the results of such futile campaigns as the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele - were caused by the attempts by each side to break through the trench defences of the opposing force. Until the final year of the war these offensives were launched by the British and French, with the Germans remaining on the defensive (Verdun in 1916 being a notable exception). Such battles somewhat resembled the efforts of medieval armies to lay siege to and destroy the castles of their enemies.

How did the Western Front come into being? The origins of the Western Front lay in the Schlieffen plan. This involved a wheeling arc through Belgium and France, designed to capture Paris before Germany's enemy on the eastern front, Russia, could mobilize her forces against Germany, and also before Britain could effectively intervene in France. The plan had been devised by Count von Schlieffen, the Chief of the German General Staff between 1892 and 1906. German policy was dominated by fear of a war on two fronts; on the western front, where she would be confronted by Britain and France, and on the eastern front, where she feared attacks by Russia in East Prussia and Poland. The Western Front effectively came into being during the period August - November 1914, when the German efforts to capture Paris were halted by the British Expeditionary Force. As a result of this check to the German juggernaut, both armies were forced into a state of immobility in which, during the succeeding four years, neither side could penetrate the defences of the other.

However, as discussed above, the European mind was innocent of the realities of technological war. The commanders of World War 1 - Haig, French, Hamilton, et al - were all imperial soldiers who had been schooled in the archaic theatres of the 'little wars' referred to above. Such commanders could not relate to the new industrial-scientific world which had placed these new weapons at their command. Mainly the products of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and landed gentry, they were members of an older agricultural society and the dominant influences in their careers had been the horse, sword and lance. Haig, for example, commented that he considered the machine gun to he a grossly overestimated weapon. The military commanders could not understand that, with the emergence of a technical civilization, military power must be completely transformed by this new civilization; that a coming war would be as much a clash between scientists, technicians and factories as between armies and generals. At the root of the traditional 19th Century attitude was the belief that morale and the will to win could overcome any material obstacle. This climate of thought expressed itself in the overwhelming importance of, and emphasis upon, the offensive in the minds of military commanders. The futile attacks upon enemy trenches by infantry wielding rifles and bayonets symbolized this outdated belief. Outdated it certainly was in terms of World War I. For the soldier had become the victim of the new impersonal technology of war, which ensured that defence of a position was far more effective than offence. The machine gun - which dominated Western Front battlefields - was at the heart of this superiority of defence over offence. Protected by barbed wire and sandbags, sometimes emplaced in concrete pill boxes, the machine gun - together with artillery bombardment and gas - shaped the experience of those who suffered on the Western Front. The machine gun forced the stalemate between the opposing armies which expressed itself in the zig-zag lines of forward and rear trenches which lacerated the breadth of Belgium and France. The massive artillery bombardments ploughed up the terrain and destroyed centuries-old drainage systems, creating the mud flats and shell holes of no-mans-land which so obstructed infantry attacks.

Every battle on the Western Front during four arduous years reflected the inability of the senior military commanders to understand the new face of 20th Century war. Every offensive was preceded by a massive artillery bombardment which, it was hoped, would destroy the front line trenches of the enemy. It is difficult for us to conceive of the terror generated by these bombardments within those who suffered under them. The fixed lines of trenches were clearly defined targets (unlike the fox-holes in which troops sheltered in World War II) and the troops in these trenches had helplessly to endure the rain of shells, anticipating death at any second, whilst they cowered behind their flimsy defences. Masses of infantry were then ejected from the opposing trenches, bayonets fixed, and propelled across the stretch of no- man's-land between the opposing lines of trenches, in the face of the defenders' machine guns and artillery. (However intense the bombardment, there were always a few survivors to man the machine guns and thus decimate the attackers). The machine guns of the defending trenches fired in traversing lines of fire, and in this angled fire no massed infantry could survive. A few forward trenches were often captured, at heavy cost; but these trenches were ill-positioned to meet a counter-attack and, in any event, were lost again when the enemy's railways enabled him to rapidly shift reinforcements to threatened sectors of the line. Between these offensives the continual counter-attacks, based on the belief that no trench must ever be allowed to fall into enemy hands, resulted in further casualties.

The persistence of this outdated belief in the offensive was the source of the terrible casualties which marked every futile offensive on the Western Front during the period 1914- 1918. To quote but a few statistics during the Battle of the Somme, which spanned the period 1 July to 18 November 1916, the Germans sustained 650 000 casualties, the British 420 000 and the French 195 000. On the first day of the Somme alone (1 July 1916) the British suffered 60 000 casualties, some 20 000 of whom were killed. During the Second Battle of the Somme (the German offensive of March 1918), the Allies suffered 230 000 casualties and the Germans 220 000. During the Battle of Passchendaele (31 July - 6 November 1917) the British suffered 400 000 casualties and the Germans 300 000.

Further, not only did the Great War represent the first major continental war in a century, but it was the first global conflict in which the entire populations of the contending powers were involved. A total of some 6 000 000 men entered the first battles of the War. Only Great Britain remained aloof from conscription (until 1916), preferring the more gentlemanly method of voluntary recruitment. By the end of World War I the total number mobilized by the Allies amounted to 42 000 000, whereas the Central Powers had mobilized a total of 25 000 000.


It is with Siegfried Sassoon that the modern conception of war emerges. Sassoon was the one soldier poet to be widely read throughout the course of the war. He was born in 1886, and, being 28 years of age in 1914, was older than the majority of the other trench poets. He was descended from a wealthy family of merchant bankers who had made their fame and fortune in the East. Sassoon was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge, without distinguishing himself at either (he did not graduate from Cambridge). He died in 1967.

It is apparent that Sassoon's background was very similar to that of Grenfell, characterized by privilege and wealth. In his renowned work, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1930), the Old Century (1938) and The Weald of Youth (1942) Sassoon has left a full and evocative account of his pre-war life. That life may be justly described as one of cultivated idleness. His energies were mainly directed to such pursuits as fox-hunting, cricket, collecting old books and compiling minor verse on rural themes. He enlisted upon the outbreak of war, was commissioned and fought with exceptional bravery, even ferocity (he was known as 'Mad Jack' to his company) in France. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) and was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

As Sassoon's experience of actual fighting deepened, he began to sense the truth of the soldiers' lives in the trenches, and felt compelled to record the death and suffering which he daily observed. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 deepened this mood and he began to write bitter, satirical poems which were, as he said himself, 'deliberately written to disturb complacency'. His first book of war poems, The Old Huntsman, was published in 1917 and his second, Counter-Attack, in 1918. Sassoon's poetry is essentially of a savage, attacking nature, directed at clearly defined targets. It possessed the uncomplicated character and immediate impact of poster art. (However, Sassoon's poems have endured far longer than would have been the fate of mere 'poster art' in poetry; the feeling motivating the poetry is too deep and the expression too masterly). The principal objects of Sassoon's bitter attacks were the civilian population and the military high command.

With regard to the former, Sassoon was reacting to the profound psychological gulf which divided the Home Front - the civilians - from the fighting troops. This deep division is expressed in the literature of both sides during the Great War; indeed, the opposing soldiers felt a far greater bond between each other than that existing between themselves and their respective civilian populations. In the poem Blighters (The Old Huntsman) Sassoon launches a savage attack upon the tawdry patriotic cant expressed in the music halls which, he felt, mocked the dead:

"The House is crammed; tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
"We're sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!"

I'd like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or "Home, sweet Home", -
And there'd be no more jokes in music halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.'

The reference to 'harlots' above points to a recurring theme in Sassoon's poetry; viz, alienation from women. The feeling of being alienated from the women at home, who were fixed in civilian ignorance and conventional heroic responses, is frequently expressed in the literature of the Great War. The soldiers felt themselves thrown back on the deeper and more authentic cameraderie of their fellows-in-arms. This antipathy to women on Sassoon's part is clearly revealed in his poem, Glory of Women (Counter-Attack):

'... you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.'

'Fondly thrilled' appears an uncannily accurate expression of the association in many women's minds between honour and courage and male glamour. In Glory of Women the poet projects the endless knitting of the womenfolk not only as a distraction from personal anxiety but as a substitute for imagination:

'O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud!'

Another area of the Home Front which Sassoon attacked was conventional religion. This aspect is illustrated in the poem They (The Old Huntsman). The ignorance of the Bishop's rhetoric is skilfully impeached by the reply of the soldiers (the 'boys'), who have returned:

"The Bishop tells us: "When the boys come back
"They will not be the same: for they'll have fought
"In a just cause: they lead the last attack
"On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
"New right to breed an honourable race,
"They have challenged Death and dared him face to face."

"We're none of us the same!" the boys reply.
"For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
"Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
"And Bert's gone syphilitic; you'll not find
"A chap who's served that hasn't found some change."
And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange."

Sassoon was hostile to the Church not only because he considered that the majority of army padres and civilian clergymen were totally ignorant of the barbarity of combat, but also because they were agents in promoting the nationalistic demands of the State and sponsored the unthinking idealized attitude towards war. The Bishop implies that a 'just war' develops man's moral condition. He is ultimately condemned for his lack of feeling, to which, Sassoon implies, neither Church nor State should be immune. The Church has contributed to the men's 'changes' (i.e. death and mutilation) by encouraging enlistment and, confronted with it's terrible responsibility, hides behind God's inscrutability.

In Sassoon's poem; Does it Matter? (Counter-Attack) one discerns a pathos underlying the bitterness:

'Does it matter? - losing your sight?
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? - those dreams from the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.'

The pathos is directed towards those made blind and insane by the war. In the poem, Suicide in the Trenches (Counter-Attack), Sassoon clearly links the protest of the younger generation with hostility to the home population which has sent it to perish on the Western Front:

'I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads go by
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.'

The lyrical structure of the poem contains distinct echoes of the Georgian school of poetry (and especially of A.E. Housman's The Shropshire Lad). The implied comparison with that other idealized pastoral world renders the point of Sassoon's poem all the more effective.

One of the most anthologized of Sassoon's poems is The General (Counter-Attack). The poem focuses upon two elements: the General, who misjudges the plan of campaign and thus incurs heavy casualties; and two of those casualties, the two soldiers who, by their almost affectionate comments, reveal their trust in the General. The underlying theme is that the men's trust and acquiescence make their very sacrifice possible:

' "Good morning; good morning!" ' the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card", grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.'

Sassoon was forced by the need for exactness in registering front line experience into a degree of colloquial language and conversational idiom that was still a novelty in contemporary verse. The quality of this realism, in terms of both language and subject matter, is clearly evident in the first stanza of the title poem of his volume Counter-Attack:
'We'd gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaved and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sickening mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began, - the jolly old rain!'

The colloquial tone of 'Things seemed all right at first' is continued in the opening phrase of the second part, 'The place was rotten with dead', suggesting that the dead are equated with infesting vermin. The local military activity is seen to be literally and factually resting upon the dead; the larger point emerges that the war is being fought on the foundation of corpses. (The war was frequently described by combatants as 'cosmic murder'). The description of the dead represents a departure from the colloquial tone of the preceding lines, written in a complex (almost 17th Century) syntax which creates a tension with the continued brutal realism of the diction and subject. The dead, the literal foundation of the activity of the living soldiers in the trench, are described with a kind of gruesome realism that sets them apart from the modest, brisk activity of the still living. There is a sharp return to the colloquial in the final phrase, 'the jolly old rain.' This may be viewed as an example of the soldier's inevitable tendency to reduce the horrors of front-line life to acceptable reality by the use of familiar terms (e.g. the songs Here comes a whizz bang, The bells of hell go ting-a- ling for you but not for me, Hanging on the old barbed wire.)

Sassoon's vivid evocation of the corruption generated by the corpses which serve as a foundation of the trench illustrates the extent to which the realities of trench warfare had vanquished and made redundant the images of death in battle projected by Brooke and Grenfell. The volume entitled Counter-Attack definitely represents an advance in Sassoon's art, as the title poem, discussed above, illustrates; as opposed to the direct and savage satire which characterizes the poems of his earlier volume, The Old Huntsman. An important aspect of Sassoon's mature war poetry is his ability to voice the outcry of the human being under extreme pressure; as, for example, in the last two clinching lines of the poem, Attack:

'And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop.'

Yet, despite the extended range in Counter-Attack, Sassoon remains fundamentally a poet of direct but narrow effects. His gifts were, pre-eminently, those of the satirist. Indeed, some of his epigrams have achieved a permanent status, as in those quoted from The General:
"He's a cheery old card", grunted Harry to Jack
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.'

or Suicide in the Trenches:

'Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.'

In the summer of 1917 Sassoon was so outraged by the futility of the war, which he felt was being unjustifiably prolonged, that he was moved to publish a protest against the war in the press. Sassoon hoped that he would be court-martialled and that his protest in the ensuing trial would receive a certain publicity, with a resultant propaganda value. The outcome was somewhat different, mainly due to the energetic intervention of his friend and fellow-poet, Robert Graves. The medical board agreed that Sassoon should be sent as a mental patient to Craiglockhart military hospital near Edinburgh. Whilst there he formed a crucial friendship with a young fellow-patient, Wilfred Owen.


In several respects Wilfred Owen is quite distinct from the other three poets so far discussed. In terms of background, he did not enjoy the benefits of privileged wealth, but came from the middle classes. Born in 1893, his father held a clerical post in the railways. He did not have the upper-class public-school education of Sassoon, Brooke, and Grenfell but was educated at the Birkenhead Institute. In October 1911 he matriculated at London University and, until 1913, was a pupil and lay assistant of the Rev Herbert Wigan at Dunsden Vicarage, Oxfordshire. Between September 1913 and September 1915 he taught at the Berlitz School of languages at Bordeaux, France, after which he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles. Owen was killed in France (at the Sambre canal) on 4 November 1918, exactly one week before the end of World War 1. A month earlier, on 1 October 1918, he had been awarded the Military Cross (MC).

It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of Owen's achievement. The poems by which Owen will be remembered were mainly written between August 1917 and September 1918. During this period the anti-heroic attitude - prefigured in the verse of Sassoon - attains full maturity. The emphasis throughout Owen's poetry is upon suffering, and the pity extended to those who thus suffered amidst the horrors of the Western Front. As Owen wrote in the preface to his volume of war poems:

'Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.'(6)

Unlike Sassoon, Owen does not make of his poetry a vehicle of attack. It is less overtly aggressive than Sassoon's epigrammatic vein. Owen's poetry is preoccupied with the destruction of youth as a ghastly sacrificial rite. His dominant theme is the slaughter, or maiming, apparently endless, of the younger generation. His absorption in the concrete realities of the Western Front is total. He rarely attempts a contrast - either nostalgic or ironic - between the trenches and remembered English scenes. There is only one authentic England for Owen, and that is the Western Front:

'(This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
Not many elsewhere now save under France.)'
            (Smile, Smile, Smile)
The unrelieved despair of Owen's poetry emanates from the feeling that there is no possible end in sight to this 'cosmic murder'. Certainly, victory is unattainable. (The sudden German collapse in October 1918 caught many by surprise.) The world which Owen terrifyingly evokes is vividly described in a letter which he wrote home on 4 February 1917:

"... the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language... everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dugouts all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious.'(7)

Owen's poetry is dominated by the sources of death and mutilation on the Western Front. One of his most famous poems is undoubtedly Dulce et Decorum Est, in which he contrasts the horrors of a gas attack with the comfortably complacent attitude of the civilian population. Part of the final stanza reads:

'If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.'

It is interesting to compare Owen's S.I.W. [Self inflicted wound] with Sassoon's Suicide in the Trenches, discussed above. Both, of course, deal with the same subject; that of suicide following unbearable stress (a not uncommon situation on the Western Front), allied with criticism of the complacency of the civilian population. An extract from Owen's poem reads:
'III. The Poem

It was the reasoned crisis of his soul
Against more days of inescapable thrall,
Against infrangibly wired and blind trench wall
Curtained with fire, roofed in with creeping fire,
Slow grazing fire, that would not burn him whole
But kept him for death's promises and scoff,
And life's half-promising, and both their riling.

IV. The Epilogue

With him they buried the muzzle his teeth had kissed,
And truthfully wrote the mother "Tim died smiling."

The pathos with which the suicide's suffering is conveyed renders Owen's poem more effective than Sassoon's, in which an aggressive rebelliousness predominates.

It is in Owen's poetry that the sense of the soldier as a sacrificial victim, mirroring Christ's passion, attains its fullest expression. He projects the feeling of war as a grim religious ritual, demanding the sacrifice of its adherents, in which he was involved both as priest and victim. In his role of the former, he wrote as follows in a letter to Osbert Sitwell in 1918:

'For 14 hours yesterday I was at work - teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst till after the last halt; I attended his supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands at attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.'(8)

The concept of the soldier as a victim of a sacrificial rite clearly emerges in the poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, in which Owen reverses the story of the Abraham and Isaac found in the Old Testament:

'Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not do so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.'

Owen's symbolic association of the death of a generation with a deep perversion of the human soul (original sin) is far more effective as a condemnation of the civilian population than Sassoon's strident, aggressive note.

In one of his more famous poems, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Owen powerfully evokes the absolute loneliness and isolation in which the sacrifice of a generation is effected. Owen certainly had no pity to spare for the suffering of bereaved women:

'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 for them; no prayers no 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 good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.'

The line 'The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall' is a visual detail rather than any expression of compassion for the bereaved. The self-contained horrific world of the Western Front is all that the dead can relate to ('Only the monstrous anger of the guns./Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle'). The consolations of conventional religion ('prayers', 'bells') are but mockeries when set against the terrible realities ('The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells').

In Strange Meeting Owen departs from the world of immediate reality and creates a dream-type vision for the reader. The scene is Hell, and he encounters the enemy he has recently killed in a scene which recreates the scenario of the Western Front on a cosmic scale. That scenario approximates closely to an unreal Dantesque vision; and the poet thereby projects the image of a real world only narrowly divided from that of nightmare. The vision, of course, is based upon Owen's immediate world - the dug-out and his sleeping comrades - but that world is now removed to the supernatural dimension. In this vision he meets and converses with a German soldier whom he has killed. The soldier is an aspect of the poet's own soul (the 'alter ego', the source of the Jekyll and Hyde division within the human psyche) and that division, in turn, is viewed as underpinning the evil perpetrated by the human race (a re-echoing of the theme of original sin). The dark side of the soul, the poet argues, is the basic motive force underlying the nationalistic impulses and aggressive militaristic spirit which generate war and which, when reduced to the narrow human scale, has led to this 'strange meeting', in which the poet confronts his own conscience after the act of killing. When the dead soldier states:

'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.'

it is the dark 'alter ego' of the poet which is thus condemned. The haunting nightmarish vision is skilfully projected by the adroit use of half rhymes (or assonance):
'It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.

(Author's italics). These half rhymes convey a disturbing, inconclusive, restless sense, associated with the distorted world of nightmare. As is often the case with dreams and visions, moreover, an element of prophecy is present:-

'Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.'

This couplet asserts that future generations will placidly accept the destruction of war; or, failing that, will once again go to war, achieving their own destruction. (This, of course, is precisely what World War I presaged. The European mind was permanently coarsened by the horrors and atrocity that it had encountered on the Western Front. Thus acclimatised to violence, the resentment generated within a defeated Germany was a fundamental cause of World War II).

So total and complete was Owen's success in projecting the horrors of 20th Century technological war that the older generation of poets were unable to comprehend the nature of the revolution. This is clearly illustrated in W.B. Yeats' exclusion of Owen from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) on the incredible grounds that 'passive suffering was not a proper subject for poetry.' The yawning chasm which separated the conception of war held by civilian poets such as Yeats and Newbolt, and those who served in the trenches, is vividly evoked by a short poem by Yeats with which Owen prefaces his poem S.I.W. (discussed above). Yeats' poem reads:

'I will to the King,
And offer him consolation in his trouble,
For that man there has set his teeth to die,
And being one that hates obedience,
Discipline, and orderliness of life,
I cannot mourn him.'

The question is frequently asked: Why was the poetry of World War I so superior to that of World War II? The irreverent reply that all the poets of World War II were working in the Ministry of Information is but the most superficial of responses. The major reason is, perhaps, the totality of success achieved by Sassoon, Read, Graves, Rosenberg and, especially, by Owen. So completely did they mould the conception of war of their own and succeeding generations that there was little, if anything, to add to this appreciation. As Cecil Day-Lewis writes in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (l963): (9)
'... under conditions so hideous that they might have been expected to maim a poet rather than make him, Owen came into his own. No gradual development brought his work to maturity. It was a forced growth, a revolution in his mind which, blasting its way through all the poetic bric-a-brac, enabled him to see his subject clear "War, and the pity of War." The subject made the poet: the poet made poems which radically changed our attitude towards war. The front line poets who were Owen's contemporaries - Sassoon, Rosenberg, Graves, Blunden, Osbert Sitwell - played a most honourable part, too, in showing what modern war was deeply like; but it is Owen, I believe, whose poetry came home deepest to my own generation, so that we could never again think of war as anything but a vile, if necessary, evil.'

Second, many of the sources of bitterness which had so profoundly motivated the trench poets were absent in World War II. One of these sources was the huge division in feeling between the Home Front and the combatants. The poetry of Brooke and Grenfell on the one hand, and that of Sassoon and Owen on the other, encapsulates this profound division of thought and feeling. (Brooke and Grenfell are also an index of the extent of the revolution affected by the trench poets. Their work is as removed from the contemporary world as that of Tennyson, whereas the poetry of Sassoon and Owen is directly relevant). World War II was characterized by a concept and practice of total war in which civilian populations were subjected to enormous suffering, in the form of saturation bombing of cities and systematic programmes of genocide. (In this context, it is significant that one of the most renowned poems relating to World War II (Still falls the rain) was written by a civilian, Dame Edith Sitwell, and is concerned with the Blitz (1940-1941)). A further source underlying the power of the World War I trench poets was absent in World War II. That source was the futility of the War. As Owen wrote in a letter dated 28 August 1914:
'... I am furious with chagrin to think that the Minds, which were to have excelled the civilization of two thousand years, are being annihilated - and bodies, the product of aeons of Natural Selection, melted down to pay for political statues.'

However, World War II was looked upon by the majority of both combatants and civilians in the Allied countries as a necessary crusade against a terrorist power.

Third, there was an established poetic tradition from which the trench poets could draw; that of the Georgian School, discussed above. By 1939 there was no longer a fixed and established poetic tradition. Poetry had been channelled into a number of highly individualized styles under the influence of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden and others. Not only had poetry broken from an established and universally recognized style, but it was no longer a voice which could be comprehended by the majority. Unlike the pre-World War I school, the poet only communicated with an isolated, narrow group of fellow poets. (John Betjeman is one of the very few exceptions to this withdrawn isolationist view of poetry, propagated by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound). Finally, the Western Front represented a stagnant and static war of attrition, generating a sense of futility (due to the feeling of hopelessness regarding a decisive victory) which was a powerful motivating force in the work of the trench poets. World War II, however, was a war of rapid movement, due to the development of aircraft and armour; the potentialities of which were only hinted at during the closing stages of World War I.

Rooted in the past, the trench poets formed a tradition which was totally novel and yet was not continued by the post World War I generation of poets; so complete was the revolution which they affected. As George Dangerfield comments, they rejected the past totally to communicate with the future. At the heart of the trench poets there lies a fascinating paradox. Isolated within the mainstream of English poetry, their power is greater in many respects than those who succeeded them. This is due to the intensity and immediacy of the extreme suffering which they evoke. The poetry is indeed in the pity of war.

Bibliography: sources referred to in the text
1. G. Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, (Frogmore (St Albans, Herts), Granada Publishing, 1983. (First published 1935)), p. 378.
2. A. Waugh, Tradition and Change, (1919), p. l50.
3. Quoted by B. Bergonzi, Heroes' twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War, (London, Constable, 1965), p. 47.
4. J. Grenfell, Pages from a Family Journal, 1888-1915.
5. Bergonzi, op. cit , p. 48.
6. W. Owen, Poems, with an introduction by Siegfried Sassoon. (London, Chatto & Windus. First published 1920 and reprinted in 1921.)
7. Quoted by C Day Lewis in his introduction to The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. (London, Chatto & Windus, 1963), p. 22.
8. Ibid., p. 23.
9. Ibid., pp. 11-12.

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