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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Who were the enemy?


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Whilst discussing war poetry with an 'A' level class, I struggled to come up with a single poem written by someone with direct experience of the war, that could be classed as 'anti-German'. There are poems about dead Germans, and about attacking the enemy, but none that I know of that show any hatred or anger.

By way of contrast, it is not hard to find verse full of bitterness towards senior officers, civilians, even other war poets ('God, How I Hate You'). There are complaints about the cold, the landscape, about war in general, but none that I know of that blame the Kaiser. Has there been a general censorship of anti-German poetry, or did the men who were moved to write verse realise that the real enemy did not hail from Berlin?

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You are right in the supposition. If anything there is empathy for the German soldier/loved ones at home who are enduring the same experiences....

Those who fought were patriotic but had not swallowed the anti-German propaganda of the home front because it seemed as out of sync with their understanding as the newspaper reporting of the war.

Sassoon 'Glory of Women'

O German mother dreaming by the fire,

While you are knitting socks to send your son

His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

Charles Sorley 'To Germany'

You are blind like us


the blind fight the blind


When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other's truer form

Edward Thomas 'This is no case of petty right or wrong'

I hate not Germans,nor grow hot

With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers'


Beside my hate for one fat patriot (his father - ed)

My hatred of the Kaiser is love true.

Wilfred Halliday. 'The Grave'

They dug his grave by lantern light,

A nameless German boy


It seemed a butchery to kill

An innocence so sweet.

But on the other hand....

Herbert Read. 'The Happy Warrior'

I saw him stab

and stab again

a well-killed Boche

But it is in an ironic context.

Also there are referencs to 'tyrant' in poetry meaning the Kaiser.

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Poetry is not really my area of interest, but the point that Tommy had an empathy with Fritz and did not see him as the real enemy is not borne out by hard evidence. There is a very good article about this, referring heavily to personal papers in the Liddle Collection at Leeds University, in the book "Facing Armageddon".

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Thanks for the replies and some excellent suggestions. Alan reminded me of Owen's Strange Meeting

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.

Let us sleep now...'

To add to the list of poems showing empathy with the enemy, the following extracts show what some poets thought of their leaders.

'the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead

and we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine' - The General, Sassoon

'But a sh*t would be shot without mourners

If somebody shot that sh*t Shute' - A P Herbert

'If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,

I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,

And speed glum heroes up the line of death' - Base Details, Sassoon

'We, who knew your old abusive tongue,

Who heard you hector us a week before,

We who have bled to boost you up a rung' - After the Battle, A P Herbert

'Please keep the extra ADC

From horrid scenes, and sight of blood...

And let no nasty draughts invade

The window of his limousine' - A Prayer For Those On The Staff, Grenfell

'I could not dig; I dare not rob;

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untue' - A Dead Statesman, Kipling

Sassoon's 'empathy' certainly didn't get in the way of him wanting to fight, and I think he describes setting out to avenge the death of a friend during the Somme. There is plenty of sadness in war poetry, but the only anger seems to be reserved for the leaders and civilians at home. In this aspect, taking into account Chris's point, it must be a poor source of evidence when researching the war.

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Not poetry but we should never forget the words of Karl Liebknecht:

The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.


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Wrong war, but the Royal Armoured Corps officer Captain Keith Douglas, author of the book "Alamein to Zem Zem", does not seem to hate the Germans in his poem 'Vergissmeinnicht'.

Douglas, a veteran of the fighting in Africa, was killed in Normandy.


Interestingly, I see that Keith Douglas was a student of Edmund Blunden.


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For All We Have And Are; Kipling: (Huns)

This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong;Edward Thomas: ( The Kaiser)

To The Troubler of The World; Sir William Watson:

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