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