Research Notes – The Great War (14) The War Poets

In the course of researching my historical novel: Here Lies a Soldier, I’ve read books on the battles, the origins of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic which came close on its heels, and of the life and struggle of the average citizen striving to weather that horrible storm. Among some of the most compelling subjects I’ve researched are the works of art, the literature and especially the poetry composed at the time.

During the First World War, unlike previous wars, a significant number of important British poets served as soldiers. As one might expect, they composed poetry that reflected their experiences in battle, the conditions in the trenches and the spirit of the men they fought beside. Some of them died in battle: Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley and Wilfred Owen. The ones that survived, like Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Robert Graves, were deeply affected by the horrors of war and their work demonstrates their traumatization.

In Westminster Abbey, Poet’s Corner is a section of the South Transept. Among the graves and other memorials of Britain’s famous poets, lies a stone slab with the names of the War Poets inscribed on it. It’s also inscribed with words from Wilfred Owen’s “Preface”

“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Anthologies of these poems were very popular during the war. In my collection of War Poems: Men Who March Away, the editor has grouped the collection by date, giving the reader a glimpse of how attitudes toward the war changed over time. Here is one of Wilfred Owen’s poems – Exposure. The soldiers faced not only the enemy in battle but also the terrible conditions in the trenches – the mud, the filthy water, the lice, the rats and the cold. Sometimes the waiting was as dreadful as the action.

Exposure – Wilfred Owen

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . 

Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .

Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .

Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,

       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.

Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,

Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.

       What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.

Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army

Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,

       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.

Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,

With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,

We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,

       But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—

We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,

Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,

Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.

       —Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed

With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;

For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;

Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—

       We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;

Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;

Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,

       For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,

Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,

Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,

       But nothing happens.

Research Notes – The Great War (13) The Injured

My current work in progress is a historical novel set partly during the years of World War One. In order to write the time accurately, I’ve been reading and researching the subject extensively.

The casualty figures for this four year-long conflict are staggering. Forty million casualties, 15-19 million of which were deaths, 23 million wounded. But numbers, when they get too large tend to lose their meaning. When you put a face (literally) to the fallen, the injured, the mutilated, it has far more impact. These disfigurements to the face were especially cruel, changing the single most important way humans physically identify themselves; the way we recognize ourselves in the mirror and the way we present ourselves to the outside world.

The surgeons did their best to patch up these horrible wounds, but techniques were primitive and faces and bodies could never be returned to normal. The following short video tells the story of one woman who gave these men hope.

Header Image: The Wounded Soldier; Otto Dix 1916

Research Notes – The Great War (12) The American President Hesitates

My current work in progress is a historical novel partly set during the Great War. In order to write the time period accurately, I’ve been spending many hours reading and researching. I hope you find these bits of history as interesting as I do.

Woodrow Wilson became the 28th President of the United States in 1913, after serving as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and as Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913. Despite being a politician from the Mid-Atlantic states, Wilson was born and spent his early years in Virginia and Georgia, during the time of slavery and The Civil War. The dreadful war that tore the United States asunder had a huge influence on Wilson’s reluctance to commit an American army to fight on foreign soil, even for their closest allies. Nevertheless, by 1916, the USA was neutral in name only.

The war was fought not just with guns and bullets, but with food, clothing and other supplies. Barbed-wire, for instance, had been invented as a means of corralling the huge herds of cattle in the American West. Now it was being used as an obstacle to the soldiers trying to cross the ‘No Man’s Land’ between the trenches on the Western Front. These goods had to be brought in by ship from noncombatant nations willing to supply either side.

From the outset of hostilities, the British had squeezed German supply lines with a naval blockade. The Germans responded with their own lethal weapon – the U-Boat, a shortening of ‘unterseeboot‘, literally ‘undersea boat’. This terrifying weapon would have shifted the balance to a greater degree except for one factor: America. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, had condemned the use of the U-boat against neutral nations and civilian vessels. Fearing American entry into the war, the German government complied. Unrestricted submarine warfare was off the table. When German military commanders reviewed the situation, they realized adhering to these demands was the only thing saving the British from disaster.

The German U-boats patrolling the trade routes found targets in civilian ships despite the rules to stay away. The merchant ships of Britain and France often disguised their ships with flags of neutral countries but often didn’t fool the U-boat commanders stalking them. In those days, submarine captains only had the use of the periscope to decide whether a ship could be targeted or not. There was no sonar, no radar; all information was gathered by eyesight. It could be very easy to make a mistake and the captains tended to err on the side of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’. As a result, passenger liners like the Lusitania had been sunk in 1915 to enormous outcry in the United States. The American President threatened but still kept the nation out of the war.

By 1916, the British blockade was beginning to deeply impact Germany’s ability to wage war and to feed and care for its citizens back home. The potentially game-changing U-boats were being held in check and only at the behest of the United States. German leaders were finding this policy more and more incomprehensible. What did the Germans have to fear from America, after all?

At the time of The Spanish-American War, American military strength peaked at 210,000 men. This was in 1898. By 1907, it had dwindled to a mere 64,000 men. The British had that many casualties on the first day of fighting in The Somme. By 1914, the U.S. army had swelled to 98,000 men with another 10,000 added by 1916. The Germans were not intimidated by a 110,000 man army, deficient in experience and in both weapons and material for fighting a modern war. Militarily, the Germans ranked the United States with Denmark, Chile and Holland.

So it was on January 31, 1917 that Germany decided they would be hamstrung no longer. The Imperial German Government notified the American President that they would begin unrestricted submarine warfare the following day.

Images courtesy Wikipedia and Wired.