Poetry & The Great War, a series: 5 Harsh Realities

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As the conflict progressed it became a war of attrition, a war of little or no movement. It degenerated into a living hell for all concerned whether they be ally or enemy as no one was exempt the perpetual barrage of the artillery and man to man combat. So intense was the bombardment that it was difficult to differentiate between day or night. A new form of warfare with vast armies locked in trenches was such that the consequences of this could not have been foreseen. The introduction of poisonous gases, mustard gas and chlorine killed thousands with its hideous mist leaving others with health problems for life. Flame throwers as if from hell´s own arsenal burned alive men leaving grotesque disfigured corpses.

Life in the trenches was filthy, smelly, and riddled with disease. Cholera was rife along with trench foot, a wasting disease due to flooded trenches and a lack of medical aid. Exposure to the elements with frostbite incapacitated many for life. Inadequate food a common problem. Rats and lice took refuge with the soldiers and lived off their bodies or corpses. Men spent hours picking lice off their skin, often with lighted cigarettes. All this was aside from the fear of an enemy attack which could come at any moment.

Out of this nightmare mail was censored as a means of concealing the realities of the war from those at home. Then came a new phenomenon - Shell Shock. At first this could not be understood even by the medical world. Many interpreted it as cowardice or desertion together self inflicted injuries as a means of avoiding conflict. Over 300 British soldiers were tried before summary Field Courts Martials and shot at dawn by their own comrades for cowardice or desertion, many of whom were suffering from shell shock which today is known as PTSD - Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder. The youngest to be shot was seventeen years old.

In the midst of this carnage, poets wrote of their experiences and did so with blunt honesty and emotional verse. Here is a short list of those who were there, some never to return but their poems live on:

Siegfried Sassoon   -  ¨The Dug Out ¨

              ¨                      ¨Suicide in the Trenches ¨

Rudyard Kipling     -  ¨My Boy Jack ¨

Robert Palmer      -   ¨How Long, O Lord ¨

Isaac Rosenberg  -    ¨The Dying Soldier ¨

Siegried Sassoon   -  ¨Died of Wounds ¨

Gilbert Frankau    -  ¨The Deserter ¨


A British soldier said, ¨we lived like animals and developed animal instincts to kill. A German soldier said, ´We went for each other like mad dogs¨.


Shell Shock


Body, mind and soul deranged

a person so completely changed

Every sinew burnt to an ember

as there was very little to remember

Stumbling alone quite numb and dazed

no emotion or feeling could be raised

Despite the glaring sunlight

there was little about or in sight

Fear, hunger and pain were no more

even the shrapnel wounds no longer sore

Dazed, heady as if overcome with drink

there was nothing left about to think

All around did give a shout

but it all meant absolutely nowt

Dirt and grime covered his body

then someone offered him a toddy

He had forgotten who he truly was

no longer could he use the word because

Reason and compassion had retreated

his very soul completely defeated

The gas had choked and suffocated

in this pants he had defecated

Tears streamed from his infected eyes

all he could hear were sobs and sighs

An eerie mist pervaded soul and place

no longer did he belong to the human race

All seemed lost or dead in a sore and empty head

◄ The Joy of Writing - Polish Poetry Festival

The Write Out Loud Poem of the Week is ‘Words’ by Jon Stainsby ►


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keith jeffries

Tue 6th Nov 2018 08:23


Thank you as always for your interest. I shall look forward to reading this. As the week progresses I am reading once again many of the war poets and one book I find as a great resource is ¨Up the Line to Death ¨, by Brian Gardner who composed the anthology. I am sure that this coming Sunday will see us both standing before our respective monunments to pay tribute to those brave souls who gave their all.

Thank you again.


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M.C. Newberry

Mon 5th Nov 2018 23:23

Keith, the inspiration for my response to your own powerful words came very quickly - and with some slight changes, I'm posting it on the blogs
page under the title "LAST CHARGE" - now that Remembrance Sunday approaches.
I owned a copy of Hiscock's book many years ago and it is a young man's account that speaks to us across the years but with a voice
we might find hard to properly understand for its generational
attitude to what was faced and dealt
with back then.

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keith jeffries

Mon 5th Nov 2018 17:47


Thank you again for an interesting poetic comment to this series of articles on the Great War. I shall most certainly acquaint myself with the works of Hiscock.

Thank you indeed.


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M.C. Newberry

Mon 5th Nov 2018 17:13

Shot and shell,
Blown to hell,
And to think it had all begun so well.
Consigned to death and its mouldering stench
Close companions in a mud-filled trench.
The whistles blow -
Away they go,
Over the top in frantic show
Towards an enemy yet unseen
Through air of bilious yellow and green.
The rat-a-tat-tat
Soon tells them that
They will grow neither old nor fat;
They will never live to remember
Their charge took place on the Tenth of November.
P.S. One of the more affecting memoirs of that conflict is Eric Hiscock's "The Bells of Hell Go Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling" - WELL worth seeking out and available online.

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