First World War Poetry Digital Archive

War Poetry as Historical Fact?

I have spent a lot of time fulminating against any attempt to understand 1st World War experience through the celebrated poets. If you were to glance back at the Introduction to a book of mine [The 1916 Battle of the Somme: A Reappraisal] will see that we are probably divided by a chasm which would make the Grand Canyon look like a South African donga.

Peter Liddle, in a letter to Stuart Lee, dated 21/1/95.

In the poems of Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, and others, we see the voice of the individual: at times cynical, at times sympathetic. Yet running through all the poems (Brooke being the exception) is a feeling of futility and outrage at the suffering caused by the War or the War itself. The question that needs to be asked is how representative are the emotions expressed by Owen and Sassoon of those felt by the majority of the soldiers fighting on the Western Front?

As early as 1930, Jerrould Douglas criticised the swelling number of literary works (novels, poems, memoirs, etc.) as being miseading as they left the reader with an impression that the War was inherently wrong, and the slaughter on the battlefields was avoidable. More recently, Peter Liddle in his study of the Battle of the Somme (1992), whilst recognising the power and literary merit of the poems themselves, states that they did not portray the 'conformity and continuity' (p. 11) of the average soldier. For Liddle the poems are certainly crafted pieces of work, but at the same time they are 'contrived' (p. 13), having been created by men of 'unusually developed sensibility' (p.13) — a skill, one assumes, Liddle would not expect to find in the average soldier.

In an interesting example, Liddle relates an interview with eight survivors from the War, all who had lost limbs in the conflict. Throughout his conversation with the veterans he detected no resentment or grievance on the part of the men against their commanding officers whose orders and battle tactics had caused their injuries:

'The seemingly cruel but necessary stimuli of sport, girlfriends, dancing, employment, self-awareness or esteem, were all introduced in the interview, and yet not in a single case, other than a long-waged conflict over the percentage disability of a pension award, was a response given along the lines which might have been anticipated.' (p. 10)

Liddle compares this with Sassoon's 'Does It Matter?' and sees a striking difference between the feelings expressed by the poet and those by the injured men, the purported subjects of the verses. Liddle concludes that the poetry of the 'Soldier Poets', and more importantly subsequent criticisms which elevate them to be representative of the majority of soldiers, to be 'so wide of the mark' that they missed the board (p. 13).

To reply to this would take too long, but in this seminar environment readers may wish to consider the following in the light of Liddle's arguments:

  1. If, as Liddle states, the 'Soldier Poets' possessed 'unusually developed sensibility', were they not simply expressing the feelings of their men (who they clearly had a close affinity with), who in turn were unable to speak out?
  2. Is it possible that the average soldier did wish to criticise the conduct of the War but felt unable to, either through 'undeveloped sensibility', or due to the powerful bonds of loyalty, patriotism, reluctance to let the side down, and even subservience which were carried over from the nineteenth- century?
  3. Where would one place the mutinies of the French armies in 1917 and the minor insurrections in the British Army? Do these fit more with the stance of Sassoon, or with Liddle's 'conformity and continuity'? On a more passive note (but equally critical), where should one place such 'trench papers' as The Wipers Times with its open cynicism of the conduct of the War, attitudes on the Home Front, and High Command in general?

, 1997