Explore History ›

Remembering the Battlefield Poets of World War I (video)

Bettmann / Getty Images

A video tribute to the soldiers who told us what combat really looked like.

If you want to know what war is like, listen to the soldiers. They'll tell you.

One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, which for three years had already been raging among the nations of Europe. People called it “the war to end all wars” — not so much a description as a desperate wish. The war killed some 17 million people, a number that would have been impossible to even imagine before the 20th century brought us tanks, grenades, poison gas, and airplanes with machine guns.

In years past, many people had imagined combat as an exciting adventure, a way to test one’s mettle and find glory. These romantic notions were lost in the mechanized trench warfare of the Western Front, as powerful new weapons mowed down a whole generation of young men.

World War I's brutal mass violence changed the way we, as a society, look at war. That's one of its most profound legacies — and at least in part, it's due to those young front-line soldiers who dealt with the world blowing up around them by the quiet, desperate act of writing poems about it.

Following in the tradition of earlier war poets, they attempted to express what they witnessed and felt in verse. The grief and loss they experienced can still be felt when we read their words today. As Wilfred Owen said in the preface to his poems: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” 

Below, read the six poems highlighted in our video:

 

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 

“When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” by Charles Sorley

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

 

“The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts of England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

“My Boy Jack” by Rudyard Kipling

"HAVE you news of my boy Jack? "
Not this tide.
"When d'you think that he'll come back?" 
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

"Has any one else had word of him?"
Not this tide. 
For what is sunk will hardly swim, 
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?" 
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind--- 
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide.

 

“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

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 rest began 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.

 

“Counter-Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon

We’d gained our first objective hours before
While dawn broke like a face with blinking eyes,
Pallid, unshaven and thirsty, blind with smoke.
Things seemed all right at first. We held their line,
With bombers posted, Lewis guns well placed,
And clink of shovels deepening the shallow trench.
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,—the jolly old rain!

A yawning soldier knelt against the bank,
Staring across the morning blear with fog;
He wondered when the Allemands would get busy;
And then, of course, they started with five-nines
Traversing, sure as fate, and never a dud.
Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst
Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,
While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.
He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,
Sick for escape,—loathing the strangled horror
And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

An officer came blundering down the trench:
“Stand-to and man the fire step!” On he went ...
Gasping and bawling, “Fire-step ... counter-attack!”
Then the haze lifted. Bombing on the right
Down the old sap: machine-guns on the left;
And stumbling figures looming out in front.
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle ... rapid fire ...
And started blazing wildly ... then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans ...
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.