Deciding on a title is often the hardest part. The IWW in 3 minutes is coming to an end. The blogs have to get longer. I have been asked to write a blog on the war poets, Anathema to this Doomed Youth. My eyes used to glaze over in schools, I went to more than one. I used to love Kipling, still do. Their raspberry swirls are to die for. He was a poet, the Empire’s poet, the only better man was Gunga Din.
So I’ll meet ‘im later on
At the place where ‘e is gone
Where it’s always double drill and no canteen.
‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals
Givin’ drink to poor damned souls,
An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din!
Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
Although the Fuzzy Wussy was a first class fighting man,
‘E’s the on’y thing that doesn’t give a damn
For a Regiment o’ British Infantree!
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
An’ ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, with your ‘ayrick ‘ead of ‘air —
You big black boundin’ beggar — for you broke a British square!
and I know whose square you broke. It was the Black Watch for those that did not know. I learnt from Kipling about executions in the army, a chill went up my spine when I heard they hanged Danny Deever.
“WHAT are the bugles blowin’ for? ” said Files-on-Parade.
“To turn you out, to turn you out,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What makes you look so white, so white? ” said Files-on-Parade.
“I’m dreadin’ what I’ve got to watch,” the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play
The changing nature of artillery with the screw guns.
Smokin’ my pipe on the mountings, sniffin’ the mornin’ cool,
I walks in my old brown gaiters along o’ my old brown mule,
With seventy gunners be’ind me, an’ never a beggar forgets
How soldiers are treated outside in peacetime
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ” Tommy, go away ” ;
But it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s ” Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play.
Great poems, but no one will say to you, read these, they are the only history of the Empire. This is how it was. Kipling is a poet therefore he writes history and tells you how it was. Kipling did write history. He wrote the History of the Irish Guards in The Great War. A two volume work which might just be his forgotten master piece. Kipling knew the difference between poetry and history.
My introduction to the war poets, in Britain the term war poets tends to refer to a small group of soldiers who spent the war trying to get into each others pants, was to Wilfred Owen, and his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” A dreadfully naive poem which took three years to write. Just imagine, you live in France at the start of the Great War, You see the wounded, you visit the dying, everyday you see the widows in their black veils. Then, after enlisting, and serving three years, you find yourself on the Road to Damascus? What the heck were you on? War is was and always will be a nasty horrible evil business. , It is, Obscene as cancer. bitter as the cud., but you knew that already did not you Mr Owen?. While I am at it and not one of the small group, Ewart Mackintosh, David had a brother.
The war poets, all of them, not just the very small group people in the UK think of, are a mixed bunch. Some wrote some of the finest poetry ever written in English. Masterpieces of the poets craft. They tug at the heart strings, pierce the soul, and have shaped the mythology that has come to be the people’s history of the war. The thing is though for the first decade after the end of the Great war, no one wanted to know. Owen’s book of poems sold less than a 1000 copies, so what happened?
The economy collapsed, that is what happened, peoples collective memory changed. The war was no longer going to herald a new golden age. The door for doom and gloom war poetry had opened.
It goes not however explain how the poets came to be perceived as “History”. This came about subtly. Well as subtly as the counter culture generation of the sixties would allow. Heralded by the musical “Oh what a Lovely War”, and supported by the Vietnam Generation, everything must now be anti-war. The Great War was to be set in stone as “False Optimism”, Harsh Bloody “Reality”, followed by “Futile”.
The poets of the Great war were now to be manipulated, edited and molded to fit the new PC history of the Western Front, which, as far as the public was concerned was all the war there was.
Not only the poets work was edited, How many people realise Sassoon loved the war? It was the time of his life. Owen went back. Without the war these people were nothing. The poems were also edited. We all know
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shell not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sum and in the morning
We will remember them
But that is all we know. There are another six verses, three before and three after.
How about in Flanders Field were the poppies grew 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.
An anti war poem? Not a bit of it, it is a request, more, its a plea, to carry on the fight. If we don’t they shall not sleep, even though in Flanders fields the poppies grow.
Books of verse were edited and marketed according to the new political correctness. War is ugly, nasty, brutal. We know that. The Great War was long, brutal, necessary and is now history. The war poets are part of that history, they are not The History. Read them, they will give you something to think about. Enjoy them, you will find it difficult to find better poetry. If it is history you are looking for read, Peter Hart, Martin Middlebrook, Joseph E. Persico, Gary Sheffield, not F.W. Harvey, Herbert Read, or Sassoon.
Poetry of the First World War, Longman English Series
Can’t shoot a man with a cold, Colin Cambell, and Rosalind Green
Anthem for Doomed Youth, Jon Sallworthy
kipling’s poems, internet and my own memory.