Poetry & The Great War, a series: 2 The Outbreak of War

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As Britan went to war in 1914 it did so at the height of its imperial power with the largest navy the world had ever seen. As a nation we were considered invincible with London at the hub of the world´s finances, commerce and place of political influence. The Boer War had fuelled our belief in overcoming any adversary whether he be near or far, on land or sea. The call to arms in 1914 saw an outpouring of patriotic fervour never before witnessed as men flocked to join the Army or Navy in response to Kitchener´s ¨Your King and Country need you ¨. Within a few months 500,000 had volunteered. As this took place the nation´s poets responded appropriately urging men to fight and defend the nation, to protect our soil and heritage. Forty percent of these poems mentioned God and that Right was on our side. On the day war broke out Sir Henry Newbolt published his poem ¨The Vigil ¨in the Times as a patriotic call to fight for our land and freedom.

Other poets soon followed suit noteably Rupert Brooke; Thomas Hardy with ¨Song of the Soldier ¨also known as ¨Men who March Away ¨. Hardy entertained some doubts about the war but kept them to himself and allied himself to patriotic poetry. References were made and comparisons drawn with the Spanish Armada and Trafalgar justifying our right to fight in defence of our nation. Kipling wrote ¨For all we have and are ¨. Even Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were intially filled with a sense of patriotic duty. Both were awarded the Military Cross. Later during the conflict Sassoon threw his medal away. Owen Seamans wrote ¨Pro Patria ¨and Kipling ¨The Roman Centurions Song ¨. There was little doubt that this poetry from well known poets made a valuable contribution to the overall war effort. The nation mobilised and in many a soldier´s kit bag  AE Houseman´s ¨The Shropshire Lad ¨could be found.

Before the advent of radio or television the spoken and written word was highly valued. Poetry was studied, written, recited and read by all classes of people. Its effect cannot be underestimated in stimulating the nation´s response to fight for King and Country. As a people we thought highly of ourselves and the poets of the day endorsed this sense of pride and patriotism.

John Freeman ¨Happy is England Now ¨. Jessie Pope ¨The Call ¨ and Lawrence Binyon with ¨The Fourth of August ¨ are all poems well worth reading as they capture the mood of the day.

With all these poems and many others men queued at recruiting stations, so much so that there were insuffiicient uniforms to clothe them or rifles with which to equip them. Many a young man clamouring to fight lied about his age in order to be accepted for military service. Great Britain was all powerful as so many thought that the war would be over by Christmas. As the British Expeditionary Force sailed for France, wives, mothers and sweethearts bade the soldiers farewell as bands played beneath fluttering Union Jacks. It was to be a great adventure. It was for the King, Country, Empire and Glory.

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keith jeffries

Mon 1st Oct 2018 19:13


Thank you indeed for the article which I have read with great interest. It dwells on the poetry of patriotism and victory which was very popular at the outbreak and the end of the war. It is interesting to consider that these unkown poets were not commissioned officers unlike Sassoon and Owen, who received much praise for their work. Similarly of the 300 men shot at dawn for cowardice or desertion, all were from the other ranks and only two were commissioned officers and one of those was for murder. It was a war written about in the main by the upper classes and reflected society as it was at that time. Isaac Rosenberg being an exception.
Thank you again.

<Deleted User> (13762)

Mon 1st Oct 2018 18:50

Hi Keith, you might be interested in this article about WW1 poetry and verse on postcards. All the best, Colin.


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keith jeffries

Sat 29th Sep 2018 09:13


Thank you for this comment. Your summary is accurate indeed. Following this article there are another four which I hope you will find interesting as all are linked to the poets of the day and their verse which comes from first hand experience.
Thank you again.

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 28th Sep 2018 21:51

The time was unique: we don't want to fight, but by jingo,
if we do, we've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too!
Add to that, the women busy handing out white feathers
to men they thought should be in uniform, and the process
is well and truly up and running, with few willing to speak
against it. And who would have, with an aggressive
militaristic Germany seeking to expand its empire to rival
our own and invading its neighbours in pursuit of gain,
ground and glory? It can be said it was just as well we
had the blithe self-confidence to face up to the challenge:
who else would - or could - have? Even our US ally hung
back until 1917 when most of the fighting had been done
and the tide of war was beginning to turn in our favour.
The losses to the vital wartime generation were awful
but the alternative result was even worse to contemplate.

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keith jeffries

Mon 24th Sep 2018 15:34

Thank you for your comment. Reality and tragedy were only round the corner. A further four articles follow this which continues to deal with various aspects of the war as seen through the eyes of poets at that time. Their moods and emotions change with the circumstances of their personal experience. I have endeavoured to use the work of those poets who were well known and others who seldom receive a mention.

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John F Keane

Mon 24th Sep 2018 13:42

And then reality happened. Great write up, though.

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