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Great War Poetry

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Tony Lund

Leslie Coulson’s “who made the Law”, but the following makes a change from the usual fare.

“I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy.

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To kill some other mother’s darling boy?

The nations ought to arbitrate their quarrels,

It’s time to put the sword and gun away.

There’d be no war today,

If mother’s all would say,

I didn’t raise my son to be a soldier.”

A Working Woman.

Holmfirth, July 1915.

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MikB

One of my favourites (as well as many already named) is "Dead Man's Dump" by Isaac Rosenberg:-

The plunging limbers over the shattered track

Racketed with their rusty freight,

Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,

And the rusty stakes like sceptres old

To stay the flood of brutish men

Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead

But pained them not, though their bones crunched,

Their shut mouths made no moan,

They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,

Man born of man, and born of woman,

And shells go crying over them

From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them

All the time of their growth

Fretting for their decay:

Now she has them at last!

In the strength of their strength

Suspended--stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit

Earth! have they gone into you?

Somewhere they must have gone,

And flung on your hard back

Is their souls' sack,

Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.

Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,

Or stood aside for the half used life to pass

Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,

When the swift iron burning bee

Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,

Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,

Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,

Immortal seeming ever?

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,

A fear may choke in our veins

And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,

The dark air spurts with fire

The explosions ceaseless are.

Timelessly now, some minutes past,

These dead strode time with vigorous life,

Till the shrapnel called 'an end!'

But not to all. In bleeding pangs

Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,

Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man's brains splattered on

A stretcher-bearer's face;

His shook shoulders slipped their load,

But when they bent to look again

The drowning soul was sunk too deep

For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,

Stretched at the cross roads.

Burnt black by strange decay,

Their sinister faces lie

The lid over each eye,

The grass and coloured clay

More motion have than they,

Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;

His dark hearing caught our far wheels,

And the choked soul stretched weak hands

To reach the living word the far wheels said,

The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,

Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels

Swift for the end to break,

Or the wheels to break,

Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?

Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,

The quivering-bellied mules,

And the rushing wheels all mixed

With his tortured upturned sight,

So we crashed round the bend,

We heard his weak scream,

We heard his very last sound,

And our wheels grazed his dead face.

Some of the desparate imagery in this is so vivid that it brings the hopelessness and waste into the present with great immediacy.

I'd also mention "Prelude: The Troops" by Sassoon, "Exposure" by Owen, "The Watchers" by Edmund Blunden and "Rouen" by May Wedderburn Cannan(sp?).

Regards,

MikB

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Guest Frillidan

It's great to see so many lesser-known poems! With that said, I'm a fan of Sassoon - love his bitterness and irony, but I also enjoy his less cynical works, such as...

The Dug-Out

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,

And one arm bent across your sullen, cold

Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,

Deep-shadow'd from the candle's guttering gold;

And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;

Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head...

You are too young to fall asleep for ever;

And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

St Venant, July 1918.

And for a lesser-known contribution, here's one by Patrick MacGill:

In The Morning

The firefly lamps were lighted yet,

As we crossed the top of the parapet,

But the East grew pale to another fire,

As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman's wire.

And the Eastern sky was gold and grey,

And under our feet the dead men lay,

As we entered Loos in the morning.

The dead men lay on the shell-scarred plain,

Where death and the autumn held their reign--

Like banded ghosts in the heavens grey

The smoke of the conflict died away.

The boys whom I knew and loved were dead,

Where war's grim annals were writ in red,

In the town of Loos in the morning.

The turrets twain that stood in air

Sheltered a foeman sniper there;

They found who fell to the sniper's aim,

A field of death on the field of fame--

And stiff in khaki the boys were laid,

To the rifle's toll at the barricade;

But the quick went clattering through the town,

Shot at the sniper and brought him down,

In the town of Loos in the morning.

The dead men lay on the cellar stair,

Toll of the bomb that found them there;

In the streets men fell as a bullock drops,

Sniped from the fringe of Hulloch copse.

And stiff in khaki the boys were laid--

Food of the bullet and hand-grenade--

This we saw when the charge was done,

And the East grew pale to the rising sun

In the town of Loos in the morning.

Interesting, but this version (which I pulled from the chapter headers in MacGill's book, The Great Push, is slightly different than the official version I found online here. I actually like some of the book version better.

Also, here's a site with a fairly comprehensive list of Great War Poets.

Later!

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ChrisC

Nice to see Rosenberg being quoted. Ther is a line from one poem which deals with a casualty:

"Move him into the sun"

It's so evocative because that is what people in action involved say.

Also Binyon, At Northampton Saints RFC this is read over the memorial in the ground every Saturday game nearest to November 11th - Edgar Mobbs and others the connection. Never fail to blub personally.

Chris

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clairec79

Another poem most of you won't have heard of before.

It was written by May Dyer (as she was known then - later became a well know childrens writer - Elinor Brent-Dryer, it is believed to be written in 1916 sometime. According to her biography she was engaged to a soldier who never came back from the great war but he is only known as Hugh)

WAR

Death; hideous death, naked and unashamed;

Distorted fragmenys; cursing bleeding men;

Thunders that rend the startled air again;

Murder, and rape, and violence all unblamed;

Black crimes that pass in silence and un-named;

Fears, that avail naught; horror past all ken

Of generations gone; the world, a den

Where loathly creatures walk, with blood inflamed;

Slow breaking hearts; Famine; and Famine's twin

The pestilence, that stalks with chilling breath;

Starved children; Hate embracing ghastly Sin;

Men turned to vultures; Death; and Death; and Death;

Pain stalking forth with empty craving maw;

God nigh forgotten; Hell gaping widely; War!

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robbie

Claire,

Poor woman...how she must have suffered - such raw emotion.

Robbie

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frev

I thought I'd re-awaken the muse with a few by Leon Gellert [10th Bn AIF]:

A NIGHT ATTACK.

Be still. The bleeding night is in suspense

Of watchful agony and coloured thought,

And every beating vein and trembling sense,

Long-tired with time, is pitched and overwrought.

And for the eye, the darkness holds strange forms.

Soft movements in the leaves, and wicked glows

That wait and peer. The whole black landscape swarms

With shapes of white and grey that no one knows;

And for the ear, a sound, a pause, a breath,

A distant hurried footstep moving fast.

The hand has touched the slimy face of death.

The mind is raking at the ragged past.

.... A sound of rifles rattles from the south,

And startled orders move from mouth to mouth.

THE LAST TO LEAVE [Gallipoli]

The guns were silent, and the silent hills

Had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze.

I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,

And whispered, "What of these?" and "What of these?-

These long-forgotten dead with sunken graves,

Some crossless, with unwritten memories-

Their only mourners are the moaning waves,

Their only minstrels are the singing trees."

And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully.

I watched the place where they had scaled the height,

The height whereon they bled so bitterly

Throughout each day and through each blistered night.

I sat there long, and listened - all things listened too.

I heard the epics of a thousand trees,

A thousand waves I heard; and then I knew

The waves were very old, the trees were wise:

The dead would be remembered evermore-

The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,

And slept in great battalions by the shore.

RETURNED ANZACS [which could apply to all returned soldiers]

They walk along these quiet October ways

Trying to understand forgotten sights,

- The tittering girl, soft hands and matinees

And painted whispering lips and city nights.

These hearts have seen life choke and lived with screams

As Death went hurriedly from field to field;

But now, slow-wandering in their half-caught dreams

They fumble with their childhood half-revealed.

And they have been most intimate with Pain,

- Been friends with Sorrow on a Summer Day

- And Guests of Terror in the Winter Rain;

- Drunk deep with Death upon a wild carouse;

But having now returned to Youth again,

They come as Strangers to a Stranger's House.

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Derek Robertson

RETURNED ANZACS is superb, thanks for sharing.

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marina

These are amrvellous poems - and I have never even heard of Gellert - forst class!

Marina

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Guest sapper6

Leon Gellert was an Aussie who survived WW1 and had a career as, I think a journalist and writer. I believe he lived to a good age.

His best poem in my opinion is Anzac Cove which I think I have posted here before.

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marina

So you did, Sapper - I had forgotten. I think I like Night Attack best though.

Marina

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sunflower

Frances Ledwidge (Irish) and Ellis Evans (Welsh), both born in the same year 1887, fought in the same battle (Battle of Pilckem Ridge), died the same day - 31st July 1917, and buried feet from each other in Artillery Wood Cemetery at Boezinghe, nr Ypres.

I post just two of the poems written by these wonderful poets.

Soliloquy

When I was young I had a care

Lest I should cheat me of my share

Of that which makes it sweet to strive

For life, and dying still survive,

A name in sunshine written higher

Than lark or poet dare aspire.

But I grew weary doing well.

Besides, 'twas sweeter in that hell,

Down with the loud banditti people

Who robbed the orchards, climbed the steeple

For jackdaws' eyes and made the cock

Crow ere 'twas daylight on the clock.

I was so very bad the neighbours

Spoke of me at their daily labours.

And now I'm drinking wine in France,

The helpless child of circumstance.

To-morrow will be loud with war,

How will I be accounted for?

It is too late now to retrieve

A fallen dream, too late to grieve

A name unmade, but not too late

To thank the gods for what is great;

A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,

Is greater than a poet's art.

And greater than a poet's fame

A little grave that has no name.

Frances Ledwidge

The Black Spot

We have no right to the stars,

Nor the homesick moon,

Nor the clouds edged with gold

In the centre of the long blueness.

We have no right to anything

But the old and withered earth

That is all in chaos

At the centre of God's glory.

Ellis Evans (Hedd Wynn)

sunflower

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Guest sapper6

Thank you Marina, I agree Night Attack is great.

It is so evocotive but I will still stand by ANZAC COVE.

New Zealanders are allowed to be biased and there was much sobbing in the south here.

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marina

'Tisn't bias, Sapper - it's your personal taste. One of the great things about poetry is that it will strike a chord that resonates for reasons that may go beyond its actual words. How about that Welsh poet Evans up above? Why does thta resonate with me more than the Ledwidge which i can see is also very fine. I don't know - it just does. So thanks to sunflower for those two!

Marina

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sunflower

Hi Marina

Glad you enjoyed my selection. I agree with you about Hedd Wynn's poem - there is just something about it that really gets you.

sunflower ;)

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spike10764

I thought I'd add this poem to the list belatedly.

I like my poems simple and not too flowery of language. so when I read this one in a book I was given recently called Poets and Pals of Picardy , it struck a chord.

It is by 2nd Lieutenant Eric Wilkinson, in memory of his friend Capt Leslie Hossell, killed in action-August 1916.

Sleep deep, sleep well,

Your requiem knell

The whine and drone of passing shell.

Come cold, come rain,

Their grip is vain,

For you have passed beyond all pain,

Sleep deep, sleep well.

Sleep sound, sleep deep,

Our watch we keep,

And little chance have we to sleep.

Your watch is done,

Your rest begun,

The long, long rest you nobly won,

Sleep sound, sleep deep

This just says it all........

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marina

Very touching, Spike.

Marina

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Piscator

I have a book of poems by a guy called John Still, he was taken Prisoner by the Turks and held for 1179 Days has anyone heard of him. His Poems tend to be on the lengthy side and not all of them about war. I rescued the book after someone threw it in a skip.

Len

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Guest sapper6

I have many poems, never published, by my Grandads and Great Uncles, that are so very poignant. They were pretty tough roosters when I knew them as a kid, but after they died I saw the side of them that was removed from the brutality that they endured.

I still like the piss take my paternal Grandad did on Brooke, with a poem that ends " and is there Huns still left for me ".

To find the original look up Brooke , the brave soldier that died of a sandfly bite.

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marina

Sapper and Piscator - any chance of seeing a poem?

I like the sound of the Brooke one in particular!

Marina

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frev

I'm with Marina - please let us see some poems.

Len - glad to see you rescued the book - what a sad loss it would have been.

Meanwhile, I came across this one today by Winifred M. Letts - so short & simple - but really packs a wallop!

WHAT REWARD?

You gave your life, boy,

And you gave a limb:

But he who gave his precious wits,

Say, what reward for him?

One has his glory,

One has found his rest.

But what of this poor babbler here

With chin sunk on his breast?

Flotsam of battle,

With brain bemused and dim,

O God, for such a sacrifice

Say, what reward for him?

Frev.

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marina

Oh, That is a good one, Frev.

Marina

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Piscator

Marina,

Heres one of the poems by John Still, written in 1917 at a place which I understand to be a POW Camp.

When I look out and see the spring

I wonder when the race of men

Will wake to wisdom once again

For deep and wantonly we've sown,

And wide have caste our very best.

But can it be that those who rest

Can die in truth until we've grown

The crops for which their lives were lent,

And harvested where they were spent?

The harvest of their sacrifice

Must crown the winter of their pain

Before they turn to dust again;

Then, well content to pay the price

Dissolve into the deathless whole,

Made nobler by their dauntless soul.

Deep in our soil their seed is set,

Deep in the hearts of us who live;

Trusted to us that we may give

Fulfilment to their harvest yet,

That those who gave their lives may gain

The one reward that crowns their pain.

Its a little deep for me but perhaps you may appreciate it. Many of his other works have nothing to do with the war, I think he was trying to escape the boredom and constrictions that imprisonment had placed on him. I can put some more on if it interest you or anyone else.

Len

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marina

Thanks, Pisactor,

I think it's his thoughts about what it would take to make the blood sacrifice ofthe best men worthwhile, Interesting, and as you say, rather deep.

Marina

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frev

Len

As you say, your John Still was a deep thinker - he would have had plenty of time as a POW to think about the waste of war.

To me he is saying that hopefully these men haven't died in vain (as Marina says, that their deaths were worthwhile) - that we who follow on - will learn from the mistakes of war - learn & grow - and move on to a better world.

Unfortunately, we all know this didn't happen, and probably never will - war in one form or another will probably always be with us (it's a part of who we are).

I would like to see another one (poem, not war).

What was the place (that you understand to be a POW camp)? And what nationality was John? (I won't just assume that he was British)

This one reminds me of how insignificant we humans really are:

'THERE WILL COME SOFT RAINS'

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,

And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire

Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one

Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,

If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,

Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Sara Teasdale.

Cheers, Frev.

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