Poetry & The Great War, a Series: 1
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.