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