There was no glory in the industrial slaughter on the Western Front, and soldier poets considered the dismal reality of death and dismemberment.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen 1917
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
Siegfried Sassoon 1918
Siegfried Sassoon ultimately became acquainted with Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Bertrand Russell, but he was initially – like many others – very naïve about what he was facing and his early poetry was more traditionally romantic. His bravery is unquestioned; he earned from his men the nickname “Mad Jack” for his exploits under fire, was awarded the Military Cross in July 1916 and was recommended for the Victoria Cross. But he could not ignore the reality of the trenches and rapidly became disgusted with war. In July 1917 he refused to return to the front after a convalescence and sent to his commanding officer a letter that was subsequently published and read in Parliament:
Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration
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 the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of agression (sic) and conquest. I believe that the purposes 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 upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.
This was pretty heavy stuff in the summer of 1917 and was considered treasonous by many and inasmuch as he was an officer a clear act of insubordination – “a willful defiance of military authority.” Presumably reluctant to suffer the embarrassment of court-martialing a war hero, the Under-Secretary of State for War declared Sassoon unfit for service, and he was sent to a hospital for “shell shock.”
Sassoon is echoed after the war by G.K. Chesterton:
Elegy in a Church Courtyard
The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And bees and birds of England
About the cross can roam.
But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.
And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England,
They have no graves as yet.
G.K. Chesterton 1922