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“I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree.” Most Americans know the opening lines of the poem “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer. What they probably don’t know is that Kilmer was a war hero—the French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre for bravery—or that he was killed by a German sniper at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918. Sadly, Kilmer was far from the only accomplished poet to die while serving during the Great War. Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorely, and Edward Thomas were among the poets who did not live to see the war’s end.
World War I was in some ways the poet’s war. Not only did many poets, and especially British poets, sign up to fight, they wrote prolifically about what they saw and felt on the battlefield. As good as histories and novels are in helping us understand the Great War, they may not match the emotional power of war poetry. Here is a sampling of World War I poems worth reading:
- “For the Fallen” (1914). Robert Laurence Binyon began writing “For the Fallen” in mid-September 1914, after the British Expeditionary Force suffered staggering losses at the Battle of Mons, the Battle of Le Cateau, and the First Battle of the Marne. The Royal British Legion has adopted the poem’s fourth stanza to commemorate fallen servicemen and women at by remembrance ceremonies.
- “The Soldier” (1914). Rupert Brooke’s romantic view of the Great War is obvious from the opening line of “The Soldier”: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.” Brooke contracted blood poisoning from a mosquito bite on his way to the Dardanelles; he died just two days before the Allied invasion of Gallipoli. Winston Churchill wrote Brooke’s obituary for the Times of London.
- “Into Battle” (1915). Like Brooke, Julian Grenfell penned a patriotic poem. His depicts battle as a noble, even joyous, pursuit. His optimistic outlook on war earned him the label of the “happy warrior. “ Grenfell was killed by shrapnel at the Second Battle of Ypres on April 30, 1915. “Into Battle” was published the day he was buried.
- “In Memoriam” (1915). After leading a raid on German trenches, Ewart Alan Mackintosh discovered that his friend David Sutherland had been killed in the assault. He honored his friend with “In Memoriam.” MacKintosh himself was killed on November 21, 1917 during the Battle of Cambrai.
- “In Flanders Fields”(1915). John McCrae was a Canadian military doctor who likely began drafting “In Flanders Fields” after his friend, Alexis Helmer, was killed during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915. “In Flanders Fields” inspired other notable poems and ultimately contributed to the red Flanders poppy becoming a symbol of remembrance for all those who died during the war. McCrae died of pneumonia on January 28, 1918.
- “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong” (1915). Edward Thomas became a poet at the urging of his friend, the American poet Robert Frost. Thomas’s career as a poet was short. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras by a shell blast.
- “Before Action” (1916). William Noel Hodgson wrote “Before Action” as he prepared for the Battle of the Somme as a member of the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. The poem ends “Help me to die, O Lord.” Hodgson was killed on the opening day of the battle. He was twenty-three years old.
- “To Victory” (1916). Siegfried Sassoon joined the Sussex Yeomanry the day Britain declared war on Germany. His heroism earned him a Military Cross and the nickname “Mad Jack.” After contracting dysentery and temporarily leaving the battlefield, Sassoon grew more disillusioned about the war. In 1917, he wrote “A Soldier’s Declaration,” a denunciation of the war. He was nearly court-martialed. He was saved after his fellow poet Robert Graves intervened on his behalf. Sassoon entered a military hospital and returned to battle. He continued writing about World War I long after it ended.
- “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” (1916). Charles Hamilton Sorley died after being shot in the head by a German sniper at the Battle of Loos in 1915. The thirty-seven poems found in his belongings, including “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead,” were published posthumously.
- “A Soldier’s Cemetery” (1916). John William Streets wrote to his publisher that “we soldiers have our views of life to express, though the boom of death is in our ears. We try to convey something of what we feel in this great conflict to those who think of us, and sometimes, alas! Mourn our loss.” Streets went missing during the First Battle of the Somme and was proclaimed dead after ten months. He never saw any of his poems published.
- “God, How I Hate You” (1916) and “Night Patrol” (1916). Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper while serving at Bapaume. His war diary, The Diary of a Dead Officer, published in 1919, contained his two war poems.
- “Dulce et decorum est” (1917). Wilfred Owen enlisted in the British army in 1915. After suffering numerous concussions and shell shock, he became deeply critical of the war. After a chance meeting with Siegfried Sassoon at a hospital in Edinburgh, Owen became inspired to begin writing. His poems have led many to dub him “the greatest writer of war poetry in the English language.” Owen received the Military Cross for his service on the battlefield. He was killed by German fire on November 4, 1918 while crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal. The war ended one week later.
Not all of the significant poems about World War I were written by men who fought it in. Here are four that weren’t:
- “The Hollow Men” (1925). T.S. Eliot is one of the all-time greats of poetry. He was heavily influenced by the Great War even though he never saw the battlefield. “The Hollow Men” spotlights the despair, destruction, and confusion that soldiers experienced in post–World War I Europe.
- “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” (1916). Thomas Hardy was seventy-four when World War I began. The author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure nonetheless was asked to write a war poem for a British magazine. “In the Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” noted that that life would continue even after the war had become a distant memory.
- “Summer in England” (1914). Alice Meynell juxtaposes the beauty of an English summer with the horrors of war.
- “The Fields of Flanders” (1915). Edith Nesbit wrote her classic poem in response to John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields.”
Have I missed any of your favorites? Please mention them in the comments below.
For more suggested resources on World War I, check out the other posts in this series: