Poetry & The Great War, a Series: 1

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In approximately two months time we shall commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War, when the guns fell silent after four years of bitter conflict which claimed the lives of millions of men, altering the very conduct of war and determining history for the century which lay ahead. Authors and Poets vividly captured the many aspects and events of those years, records of which echo in the conflicts of today. It was described as the war to end all wars as both casualties and the level of destruction had never before been equalled. For the first time it was truly a global conflict stretching from one continent to another and fought with a great ferocity on the high seas. France and Great Britain called upon their empires to rally to the caause of the motherland in its defence. In Russia the revolution of 1917 drastically altered events on the eastern front whilst in France the allies were bogged down in a war of attrition over which few significant advances were achieved.

In Great Britain the war began with a patriotic call to arms as Lord Kitchener´s famous recruiting poster used the words ¨Your King & Country needs you ¨. Men flocked to recruiting stations throughout the length and breadth of the country in overwhelming numbers which took the Government by surprise. Young lads, still in their teens, lied about their age to be selected for service. At first there were insufficient uniforms and weapons to equip these volunteers. Patriotic fervour swept the nation. The country, as never before, put itself on a total war footing as a British Expeditionary Force sailed for France to stem the aggressions of Germany. Excitement was in the air and many poets responded by encouraging patriotism and extolling the virtues of valour and heroism in the face of the enemy.

This initial euphoria soon began to flounder as the harsh realities of the conflict became apparent. There was to be no quick or easy victory by Christmas 1914, instead a warfare not hitherto seen developed which devoured its soldiers on all sides of the conflict. Massive artillery barrages, man to man armed fighting, aerial warfare in its infancy, the use of poisonous gas and flame throwers all became prevalent in this violent struggle.

Volunteers began to decrease which led the Government to introduce conscription. The horrors of the conflict became apparent as wounded soldiers were returned home, many with horrendous injuries, maimed for life. Casualty figures stunned the population. Pacifists and concientious objectors grew in number as did those who were termed as cowards or deserters. 364 British soldiers were shot at dawn following Summary Field Courts Matial charged with a variety of offences. Angry scenes in Parliament ensued over these executions. Then came stories of incompetence on the part of Senior Military Commanders, massacres and even mutiny. Shell shock entered the vocabulary with its many consequenes. The nation soon began to lose its appetite for war which showed no sign of ending. The Battle of the Somme for the British Army and nation came to be a turning point, a calamitous event. Poets took part in this and other battles, some survived, others fell. These became renowned for their explicit, honest and moving accounts of events.

The war ended and the nation with its empire counted its dead at one and a half million. The poetry of patriotism gave way to the poetry of despair, cynicism and condemnation. Poets were listened to albiet as subversive or unpatriotic. These poems endure to this day.

Over the weeks to come I would like to invite you to join with me as I introduce you to many such poets, famous or barely known, who put pen to paper 100 years ago and are still heard to this day.

◄ Kierkegaard's Cupboard: Marianne Burton, Seren

"Writing in Rhyme" by Becky Who is Write Out Loud's Poem of the Week ►


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Ian Whiteley

Sat 22nd Sep 2018 18:36

this topic is of particular interest to me - in 2014 I released an album of work - both poetry and song - using poems I had written in the previous year and published on WOL. The whole album covers the period from Declaration to Armistice (there are also a couple of cover versions).
The Wilfred Owen society was good enough to promote this work through their website - and via a convoluted route I was asked to perform the whole piece at The Wilfred Owen festival in Oswestry on Wednesday 7th November (the centenary of the armistice and of Wilfred Owen's death). I will be supported by Jeff Dawson (Jeffarama!) on the night. We are also doing a further 6 or 7 gigs during the week of the commemoration.
If anyone is interested in a listen (or a purchase :-) they can be accessed on the following link (you can listen for free).
I would recommend 'Home By Christmas', 'Death Of A Poet', 'Canary Girl' and 'Passchedndaelle' to get a taster of the material. If you like what you hear then please listen on. The pieces are in chronological order- so it really is a story book. - there are a number of musical styles as well as varied poetry forms in use - and a descriptive introduction to each topic.
Thanks for the article Keith - I look forward to reading the rest :-)

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keith jeffries

Sat 22nd Sep 2018 12:37

Thank you for this. I too belong to a generation whose parents fought in the Second World War and whose Grandparents fought in the Great War. I well remember listening to them and their experiences. Their memories have stayed with me.
This particular article is an introduction to others which I hope to complete prior to 11 November. I trust you will find them both interesting and illuminating.

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 21st Sep 2018 23:05

The First World War was the first truly industrialised
conflict - and on a hitherto unimaginable scale. Britain
was no stranger to warfare but to lose virtually a whole
generation and see that change the country in so many
ways served as a warning. Yet those same Britons were
ready to face the horrors again with the advent of Nazism,
despite knowing what had gone before, often on a very
personal basis. The price paid in both world wars was
enormous yet it brought about freedom for so many who
were otherwise destined for death or the slave labour camps.
My favourite WW1 poem is "The General" by Sassoon,
primarily because it combines the qualities of brevity,
humour and a readily believable evocation of the
ambivalent attitudes of the ordinary long-suffering soldier
towards those red-tabs who were ordering them on to what was certain death for so many. Its final sardonic
line lingers in the mind - a timeless reminder of what was
expected and endured when, to borrow from LP Hartley's
novel The Go-Between: the past really was a different country.
In August 2016 I was at the Tower of London when a
list of names was read out in the (absolutely fitting)
pouring rain. Among them was that of my uncle 2nd
Lieut. Ernest Valentine Venner - The Rifle Brigade - killed
in action at Delville Wood on 18th August, 1916.
I was far from alone that evening.

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