The Great War was a global catastrophe of mass slaughter where mechanization met Napoleonic warfare. It turned housewives into workers and poets into soldiers. More than nine million soldiers and seven million civilians died as a result of it. It began on July 28, 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria and heir to the throne of the Austro Hungarian Empire in Serbia. The murder set off a diplomatic crisis in Europe that pitted Germany Austro Hungary against the allied countries of France, Great Britain and Russia. The allies believed the war would be over by Christmas of the first year. However, it took four years and 70-million soldiers before the last shot rang out at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918. The casualties were so high during this time that all men able for combat were conscripted into the armies in Europe, and in the United States, in the last six months of the war. Two of them, Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon became famous war poets whose work would survive the killing to become a literary history of man’s sad inhumanity to man.
Rupert Brooke did not live through the first year of the war. He died of sepsis at 27 while serving as a Sub Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve and was buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. Before enlisting he had been a favorite of the Bloomsbury Set which was a group of prominent English writers, intellectuals and artists that included Virginia Woolf. Handsome and talented, Brooke’s pre-war work was admired by both the public and his writing peers. He is most remembered for his sonnet The Soldier which glorifies the nobility of death about a young Englishman going off to fight. He leaves what is familiar, but carries with him the patriotic sentiments of his home. He believes that even if he meets death in another place he will convert his grave to a part of England by being buried there.
‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.’
This first line establishes a sense of duty and immediacy from the speaker. It sets a tone that sacrifice and youthful pride are romantic. He goes on to write that his death will not take his spirit of God and country.
‘There shall be a dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware…’
From this point, the tone shifts. Brookes goes on to address England as a beautiful maid worthy of his total love and bravery.
‘Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, a body of England’s, breathing English air, washed by rivers, bluest by suns of home.’
The last two lines of the sonnet’s second stanza promises the soldier redemption in death because he has had such a beautiful life in England.
‘Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; and laughter learnt of friends; and gentleness in hearts at peace under an English heaven.’
The overall theme of a noble death in this poem seems beautiful, but also pointless. In war a soldier has no choice but to do his duty.
Siegfried Sassoon was another of the Great War poets. He was born to a wealthy English family and was already a published poet when he enlisted in the British Army. He served on the Western Front and won the Military Cross for bravery. Sassoon was a born leader. Although some describe his courage as suicidal, his daring at going out on night raids and bombing patrols gave confidence to the other soldiers in his company and earned him the nickname “Mad Jack”. Over time, the horror of war, the misery of life in the trenches and heartbreak of watching his comrades die eventually put him into a great depression. His poem Wirers is about the risk of repairing the holes in the barbed wire fences above the trenches were the soldiers were. The job was very dangerous and had to be done at night so that they would not be shot German snipers. The overall tone of the work is hostile and negative and conveys the thought that repairing an insignificant fence is more important than the sacrifice of a human life.
‘Pass it along, the wiring party’s going out’—
And yawning sentries mumble, ‘Wirers going out.’
Unravelling; twisting; hammering stakes with muffled thud,
They toil with stealthy haste and anger in their blood’
The first stanza sets a feeling of futility mixed with rage that the soldiers have no choice but to do as they are told. They work quickly to get back to the safety of the trenches. Then in the second stanza the Bosche (Germans) send up a flare into no man’s land and the wirers are trapped. Their only camouflage is to remain perfectly still so that the snipers do not see their movement.
‘The Boche sends up a flare. Black forms stand rigid there,
Stock-still like posts; then darkness, and the clumsy ghosts
Stride hither and thither, whispering, tripped by clutching snare
Of snags and tangles.
Ghastly dawn with vaporous coasts
Gleams desolate along the sky, night’s misery ended.’
The action in the third and fourth lines is a strong contrast to the preceding description of the soldiers standing like posts. The usage of the words ‘hither and thither’ and ‘snags and tangles’ give the impression that in the dark the wirers are in as much of a desperate situation as when the flare glowed over no man’s land. Then the depiction of dawn being ‘vaporous’ and how it ‘gleams desolate along the sky’ allows the reader to realize that it is not actually the sun rising. It is the glare of the enemy’s flare.
The third and final stanza brings the moment to a sad close when one of the men is shot.
‘Young Hughes was badly hit; I heard him carried away,
Moaning at every lurch; no doubt he’ll die to-day.
But we can say the front-line wire’s been safely mended.’
In the darkness, the narrator hears Hughe’s death. He does not see it. The sound of his pain and the realization that he will probably die just to repair a hole in the barbed wire is absurd. Unlike Brookes, Sassoon lived until 1967. Still, he carried the horror of what he had seen on the Western Front with him for rest of his life. Although he went on to become an editor and novelist in later years, he is most remembered for the poems he wrote during the Great War.
Both Rupert Brookes and Siegfried Sassoon used their talent as poets to create a narrative picture of the tragedy of a soldier in combat. The emotions and situations that they wrote about are universal and still timely.