“Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”, Harry Patch – dubbed ‘the last fighting Tommy’ – said of his experiences fighting in the First World War.
101 years after the guns fell silent; 101 years after Henry Nicholas John Gunther, the last of some 19 million soldiers to be killed; we still gather to remember the horrors of this conflict – a conflict Patch described as “organized murder and nothing else.”
Yet many of the soldiers who fought in this war themselves helped to immortalise it – through use of the written word; through use of poetry.
Bearing witness through their words, these war poets – from both sides of the conflict – provide an extraordinary level of emotional power, which is is in its own terrible way magnificent.
So, for remembrance day, we have chosen 13 war poems, which you can read for free through the links below.
To the soldiers of the great war, by Gerrit Engelke
“Were you at ruined Ypres? I was there too.
At stricken Mihiel? I was opposite you.
I was there at Dixmuide, surrounded by floods,
At hellish Verdun, in the smoke and the crowds;
Freezing, demoralised, in the snow,
At the corpse-ridden Somme I was opposite you.
I was facing you everywhere, but you did not know it!
Body is piled on body. Poet kills poet.”
In Flanders Fields, by John Mccrae
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
Channel Firing, by Thomas Hardy
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.”
On being asked for a war poem, by William Butler Yeats
“I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.”
Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfried Owen
“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.“
Easter, 1916, by William Butler Yeats
“I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
Blighters, by Siegfried Sassoon
“I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.”
Anthem for Doomed Youth, by Wilfried Owen
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.”
The Work, by Gertrude Stein
It is astonishing that those who have fought so hard and so well should pick yellow irises and fish in a stream.
And then a pansy.
I did not ask for it.
A sweet smell.
Call it locusts.
Call it me.
I finish by saying that the french soldier is the person we should all help.
Strange Meeting, by Wilfried Owen
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.”
Attack, by Siegfried Sassoon
“They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!”
And there was a great calm, by Thomas Hardy
There had been years of Passion—scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,
And “Hell!” and “Shell!” were yapped at Lovingkindness.
The Cenotaph, by Charlotte Mew
“Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;”
A baker’s dozen of war poems hardly captures the variety or number of those available. So, we ask you, dear readers, which ones have we missed? Please do post and link to your favourite war poems in the comments below.