Monday, 16 April 2012


One of the greatest tragedies the world has ever experienced was the First World War. With absolute determination, nations dedicated every ounce of human talent, energy and resources to the destruction of human life. Millions were killed; millions were disabled by hideous wounds, mental breakdown, bereavement. Life was worsened throughout Europe and the effects were long-lasting.  The so-called Age of Anxiety started, which still goes on. The age of wars.

In the history of mankind war has been a rare and quite abnormal state of affairs, and when wars broke out in earlier centuries most were confined to quite small numbers of participants fighting for a few hours or days with simple weapons in small areas of land. 
So the First World War announced the century of war. It was to be a century in which whole nations would suffer and support war and the destructive power developed by scientists would create death, misery and brutalisation, on a new and quite astonishing scale. The human race had moved into the era of scientific savagery.

The poets played their part in this war as promoters of it, onlookers, soldiers and victims. What sets them apart is that the poets were those most gifted to express the experience of those shocking years. And their work includes some of the greatest poems in the English language.

These following three extracts amount to one and a half pages from the nine and a half page introduction to

1.   The First World War was one of mankind's greatest tragedies - and the poets were those most gifted to express the experience of those traumatic years. Then, brave men rushed to fight for what they saw as a great and honourable cause, only to find themselves in a quagmire of mass murder. The world became suddenly more uncertain, more out-of-control, more dangerous, more godless than it had ever seemed before; and at the centre of the problem was modern man himself, unleashing power and destruction which he could neither understand nor handle.
2.   The experience of the front line war poets was more overwhelming, more prolonged and more intense than for any previous generation of soldiers. Few can be unimpressed by their suffering, their endurance, by the appalling tragedy which was their lot. Yet, in spite of the extremity of their experience, it was permeated by universal emotions and problems which have faced everyone throughout time. Each one of us must sooner or later cope with conflicting duties, psychological pressures, moral dilemmas, guilt, tests of courage, suffering, loss of friends, bereavement, the dead - face death itself, and contemplate the meaning of life. 
But the poets spoke of new, peculiarly twentieth century things, too. Men found themselves to be driven cogs in vast, insensitive, impersonal machines, stripped of will, morality, and dignity. They were victims of the grossest abuses by the countries which they served and so often loved. 
Paradoxically, many, in finding themselves to be players in highly motivated teams, found a greater sense of comradeship and purpose than they ever found in a world at peace. Even protesting poets with pacifist beliefs were, at times, whole-hearted members of a fighting brotherhood, willing, not only to make the supreme sacrifice, but also willing to commit the supreme crime. 

Of course, most of the poets showed no grasp of power politics, the relentless pressure of arms industry economics and propaganda, no understanding of causes or cures for the war. They spoke simply as human beings caught up in bewildering and shocking events. As human beings they recorded their experiences and moral responses. They spoke of the problems of modern warfare conducted by "advanced" and "civilised" nations. 
The poets' words are a warning, unheeded and unanswered. Since their time warfare has "progressed," becoming more technological, more cruel, more destructive. A man on a battlefield at the end of the twentieth century counts for even less than the soldier of World War One. He is merely the software of battle. (John Keegan's expression.)
3.   Some poets wrote their poetry partly out of an anger with the press and the distorted, cosy pictures the press created of the soldiers' lot. Sassoon condemned the Northcliffe press and in his poem, Fight to the Finish, fantasized about returning soldiers bayonetting the "Yellow-Pressmen." Owen's plea for the truth was probably a reaction against "press-lies", and his poem, Smile, Smile, Smile, was written in direct response to an article in the Daily Mail.
A desire to respond to what the poets believed were the attitudes of civilians, was another stimulus to their poetry - evident, for example, in the bitter didacticism of Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est and Apologia pro Poemate Meo. "Cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns," he moans in the last verse of Insensibility. Sassoon rails against, "the callous complacency of those at home," and the "smug-faced crowds."
The war poets, as all poets, brought, to everything they wrote, their education, their life experience, their character .  .   .    They wrote in the context of momentous events and intense national feelings. But more importantly, poets wrote mainly in response to personal experiences.

For war poetry of the First World War (and information about its poets), plus poetry about Iraq, Falklands, Sierra Leone, Palestine/Israel, the Holocaust and Vietnam go to:

Regeneration, Pat Barker's first novel  in her  Great War trilogy, is a work of historical fiction focusing on Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland in 1917. Though Barker traces her interest in World War I back to her early childhood, she attributes the immediate inspiration for Regeneration to her husband, a neurologist, who was familiar with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers's experiments on nerve regeneration in the early twentieth century.
At least three of the novel's characters are based on real individuals who knew each other while they were at Craiglockhart. Siegfried Sassoon, a soldier and famous poet, protested the war in 1917, and for this, he was sent to the mental hospital. Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most famous war poet of his era, was also at Craiglockhart, and was greatly influenced by his older and more experienced fellow patient, Sassoon. Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, a scientist known originally for anthropological studies, served as a psychiatrist at the hospital for a short period near the end of the war; nevertheless, his influence on Sassoon was substantial. Sassoon mentioned or referred to Rivers in several publications after his "treatment." Although Barker bases her characters on real individuals, her work is a fictional account of the period they spent together at Craiglockhart.

 (To know more about the plot of this interesting work on WW1 CLICK HERE).

Sigfried Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart for his declaration against the war. His words open Pat Barker's first chapter of Regeneration (1991):
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practised on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the contrivance of agonies which they do not, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
At Craiglockhart hospital, he met Wilfred Owen who loved poetry but didn't dare write about the horrors he had experienced in the trenches. He was convinced Poetry had nothing to do with the ugliness of the war. Sassoon suggested him to write war poems and Owen started doing it just in that military hospital. This is how Gillies Mackinnon (director) imagined their meeting in the 1997 film version of Pat Barker's novel.


Regeneration is a beautiful war movie with excellent actors as well as Pat Barker's omonymous novel is one of the best fiction work about WW1 I've ever read. Before leaving you with another clip from the film, in which the director imagines the composition of Owen's DULCE ET DECORUM EST at Craiglockhart, let's read the famous poem again:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest3began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.



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