The First World War inspired some of the most poignant and moving poetry of the 20th century. In his book, Some Desperate Glory, historian and biographer Max Egremont explores the life and work of some of World War One’s most admired poets, uniting their literary legacy with the historical events that shaped the war. Here, he reflects on the experiences of some of Britain’s most well-known war poets.
It seems incredibly weird now that western civilisation could have lurched into the First World War. How could the politicians – men of education and experience – not have foreseen the catastrophic consequences of machine-age warfare?
Did the fact that the leaders of Britain, France, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Serbia and Germany were men explain some of it? All were bound by a code of machismo, a concept of honour that went back to the age of chivalry. Georges Clemenceau, wartime Prime Minister of France, had fought several duels.
It’s partly the poetry of the war that exploded this and helped us all to grow up. I wanted to try to chart this in my book, to tell the history of the war through the experiences of some of its poets.
I heard about the war during my childhood, for my grandfathers had both been warriors. One fought on the western front as a young officer; the other was a very young naval lieutenant at the battle of Jutland. Both felt that it had been right to fight, that the war had certainly been no worse for them than for millions of others. They came from a generation that scorned self-pity. They were (it seems to me now) set apart by what they’d seen and lost, even if they weren’t wholly aware of it. Was this why the veterans couldn’t talk easily about the war to those who hadn’t known it?
I got a few hints from them about what it had been like. Friends had been killed; this had been the grimmest part. Both spoke of the Kaiser’s war, making it clear that they blamed the bombastic and unstable German emperor. But they didn’t speak of it much.
“what set the poets apart was the power to describe what they saw”
Why did the war produce such a flood of British poetry? It was partly, I think, because the war was uniquely shocking to the British who’d lived in one of Europe’s calmer counties. Britain before 1914 had strikes, violent unrest in Ireland and militant suffragettes, but also a political system flexible enough to give hope that these could be resolved. There wasn’t the shadow of the European revolutions of 1848, Bismarck’s wars with Denmark, Austria and France, the 1905 revolution in Russia or the explosive new nationalism in the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.
Were the poets different? Did they have different sensitivities and premonitions? Perhaps not; what set them apart was the power to describe what they saw.
I chose to focus on eleven of them for my book: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Robert Nichols, Edmund Blunden, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, Julian Grenfell. They were typical of most of their fellow countrymen in that all welcomed some aspects of the war. Rupert Brooke saw it as a great cleansing, Grenfell looked forward to an adventure, Sassoon thought he’d found an end to his purposeless civilian life, Owen, Rosenberg and Thomas were pleased at how well they took to the army, Gurney recovered from a pre-war breakdown. Robert Graves thought in 1914 that fighting in France was the only place for a gentleman to be.
Their poetry – especially the realistic poems they wrote later in the war (if they survived that long) – now makes this excitement seem tragic. They articulated a truth about war that apparently moves soldiers today in Afghanistan or Iraq. The First World War poets generally weren’t pacifists; Wilfred Owen thought it was necessary, even “fine”, to fight. But machine-age warfare – so different to what they’d been expecting – exploded illusions about the nobility of battle.