Poetry & The Great War, a series: 3 The Battle of the Somme

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After nearly two years of intense conflict a battle took place in the Valley of the Somme between the British Army and the German Imperial Army. It had been long in the planning stage and at the behest of the French to alleviate their own situation which had sustained vast numbers of casualties. On 1 July 1916 the Somme offensive began with a massive artillery barrage to pave the way for the infantry to forge a major advance. Before lunch time on that day 20,000 British soldiers lay dead on the field of battle which then continued until the November. It was the greatest battle the British Army had ever been engaged in. Its effects were far reaching.

By this time the poets who wrote with patriotic dynamism had tasted the horrors of trench warfare; a war of attrition in which neither side saw any significant gain in territory. The number of dead was appalling and conditions in the trenches a living nightmare with mud, inadequate rations, lice and a plague of rats, not to mention enemy fire which by this time included the use of poisonous gas and flame throwers.

Older poets began to change their tune as new poets emerged to describe untold brutality, horriific injuries, incompetence, summary Courts Martials and executions at dawn. There was even mutiny in the French ranks. The glorious war of a few months had turned into a protracted and futile struggle. Poetry caught hold of these feelings with poets of fame and others barely known at home or abroad.

Kipling of patriotic intent lost his only son which radically changed his attitude to the war and his poetry. Sassoon was able to articulate the time by writing poems of stark honesty and became highly critical of the war´s conduct. But there were many others who wrote of their experiences at this time. It soon became apparent that the war, from its beginning to its conclusion, produced a highly charged and emotional brand of poetry, so powerful that it reached the homes of the soldiers and their families who began to ask awkward questions of their elected representatives.

Some of the poets from this period were: Herbert Asquith, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfrid Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, Robert Service, Max Plowman, Osbert Sitwell, and E W Tennant. Many of these men were killed in action, some survived the war. Wilfrid Owen died in the final week of the war whereas Sassoon survived. All their poems live on as reminders of the war to end all wars, which of course it did not. One book in particular which I would recommend is, ¨Up the Line to Death: The War Poets 1914 - 1918 ¨, an antology selected by Brian Gardener.

 

Hell´s Quagmire

They lay in fetid mud, covered in congealed blood

All around the trappings of hell did abound

Broken bodies, pallid skin, all had died in a din

Stillness now dwelt in hell´s backyard

As distant guns thundered and continued to roar

A dark tinged sky of cloud and cordite

Drizzled its misery upon the mutilated dead

Rifles as broken kindling lay in squalid slime

Close to the brave now lost to their hellish grave

Freckled wire matted over a tragic scene

Beneath, those whose lives were doomed to die

Helmets, gas masks, guns galore now failed to keep a score

Craters disfigured a muddy hide of lines broken and askew

Fortifications never meant to last had gone in a blast

Smouldering ruins, the staggering wounded

Horses, dogs, casualties too were now human prey

Trees, bare, uprooted, bereft of leaves or branches

Cried to the sky as they too wanted to die

Papers, letters and the like did flutter as distant guns did stutter

Hell had visited this place and left its mark

and despite the day all became dark

 

◄ Free Verse: The Poetry Book and Magazine Fair

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Comments

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keith jeffries

Wed 17th Oct 2018 15:52

MC.,

Thank you for this. I shall bear it in mind.

Keith

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M.C. Newberry

Wed 17th Oct 2018 14:42

On a purely technical side (and noting it continues to this
day) is the use of "(did) flutter" and "(did) stutter" - NOT
"fluttered" and "stuttered" - arguably more effective in their
context. Using words like "did" (and similar) seems archaic
even then, and certainly now when used, mainly, it seems,
to provide a "filler" for a line.

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keith jeffries

Sat 13th Oct 2018 10:27

Good Morning John,

Thank you for your comment on this particular chapter of my series of Poets and the Great War. I appreciate all you have to say and echo your admiration especially for Owen and Sassoon. Both were men of courage not only in the service of their country with Military Medals awarded to each but also their integrity and valour in challenging the very reason for and conduct of the war. They are to be applauded. Poetry indeed became the medium for expression during this futile conflict with many others who wrote some remarkable poems and prose.

My next article deals with the Home Front with a couple more to follow before we arrive at 11 November.

Thank you again,

Keith

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John Marks

Sat 13th Oct 2018 01:26

An admirable summary of why the Somme occurred and what (if anything) it lead to. Sasson and Owen are for me the WW1 poets par excellence because they both had enough front line experience to come across as true. And as Doctor Johnny Keats (Owen's inspiration) said ' Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." Well put together Keith

John

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keith jeffries

Sat 6th Oct 2018 16:07

Big Sal,

Thank you for taking time to read this article and I value your comments.

Keith

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Big Sal

Sat 6th Oct 2018 14:12

Great poem, the cordite line aided the imagery well.

Informative article as well.

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keith jeffries

Fri 5th Oct 2018 12:46

Hello Greg,

Thank you for your interest in this article which is part of a series, of which there are six with three more to come. This should take them up until 11 November.

The poem is one of my own which I wrote a couple of years ago, inspired by a photo I saw of the Somme during the aftermath of the battle.

As you so rightly say the subject is vast and I can only scratch the surface. I shall read with interest the information you have given me.

Keith

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Greg Freeman

Fri 5th Oct 2018 12:22

This is a huge subject that you're tackling, Keith. Who is the author of the poem that you quote here, please? Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney are two more war poets that are also worth a mention, and of course there were a number of French and German poets, too. I'd also like to recommend a war anthology, although it covers a century of wars as well as the first world war, the Bloodaxe one published back in 2014 and edited by Neil Astley https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=43187

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