World War One more than any other war is associated with the so-called ‘war poets’. The poems written by men such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, is as poignant today as it was both during the war and immediately after it.
World War Two did not produce such a flow of poetry targeted at the lifestyle of those who fought in the war. It is probable that the sheer scale, horror and futility of World War One spurred on already gifted and talented writers who had answered their nation’s call to arms. Some, like Brookes, joined up as he was caught up in a wave of patriotism that swept through Great Britain. The overall belief was that World War One would be over by Christmas 1914 and a vast number of young men did not want to miss ‘the fun’. Their naïve outlook was quickly shattered as they arrived at the frontline and experienced trench warfare. It was the lifestyle they lived that spurred on the war poets. They put onto paper what many others thought. Sassoon wrote about the “Gate” and the men who marched through it to go and fight in the Battle of Ypres or in the battles that surrounded the town.
There was no standard blueprint for a war poet – even if the common perception is that they were all officers from a privileged background. This was clearly not the case. The War Poets were from a variety of backgrounds. Some such as Brookes had a very comfortable upbringing. Others such as Lance-Corporal Ledwidge came from more humble stock. Some won medals for gallantry. Others did not. The whole variety of backgrounds gives a clear idea that the impact of war in the trenches hit everyone who served there. Forbidden from writing home with any degree of accuracy/truth about the life they led, some put their thoughts into a diary that could be kept in secret. Some of these diaries survive to this day. Others put their thoughts into poems. As many of these poems rely on interpretation as opposed to being clear facts, the poets bypassed any form of military censorship that certainly would have occurred if they had simply written out their thoughts as prose.
The poets also came from a variety of religious backgrounds. The majority were from traditional Church of England backgrounds. Three of the more famous poets – Sassoon, Rosenberg and Frankau – were Jewish. Frankau and Sassoon were to convert to Roman Catholicism. Vera Brittain was a “sceptic”. What united them all regardless of their faiths was the fact that they all started to question the whole aspect of God – if a God existed He could never allow such horror; if He did exist, why did allow men to suffer so much? Sassoon in particular became more and more a harsh critic of the men who pushed religion onto the ranks. They made him “love religion less and less”.
The majority of war poets were influenced by the ‘Georgian’ poetry movement. The accepted leader of this movement was Edward Marsh who owned a poetry bookshop in London. He was also a patron of a number of young poets who were yet to make their names, as the war was some years off. The name ‘Georgian’ came from the reigning king – George. The ‘Georgian’ poets considered themselves to be modern and innovative. They had their supporters, such as T S Elliott (“they caress everything they touch”), and at the least they were seen as being more relevant than the late Victorian poets. Many of the war poets were keen readers of classic poetry from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. The works of Shakespeare was also popular amongst them.