In Depth

Battle of the Somme: Five of the most celebrated First World War poets

Poems of Wilfred Owen and his peers recall the 'inhuman conditions' of the 'war to end all wars'

This year will mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in military history.

In 1916, Allied forces made a "big push" to break German lines, but were met with fierce resistance from the well-prepared forces. The result was months of fighting, more than a million casualties and in excess of 300,000 men losing their lives.

The unbelievably horrific conditions and sheer number of dead make the Somme one of the most significant battles in history. It came to embody the horror and futility of the Great War - 141 days of hell for six miles of territory gained by the Allies.

The First World War has an enduring association with poetry thanks to the men who captured their feelings and environment with words. Oxford University English lecturer Dr Stuart Lee calls it a time when "literate soldiers, plunged into inhuman conditions, reacted to their surroundings in poems".

But these soldiers were no more immune to the guns, bombs and disease of war than the men around them and many lost their lives before they could return home.

Below are three of the poets whose words still touch us today.

Wilfred Owen

Owen remains a household name thanks to the shocking, realistic poems he wrote as a soldier in the trenches.

He enlisted in October 1915 and was sent to the Western front in January 1917. Traumatic near-death experiences left him shell-shocked and he was evacuated to Craiglockhart War Hospital, in Edinburgh, where he met his mentor, Siegfried Sassoon.

Owen returned to France in August 1918 and won a Military Cross for bravery, before he was killed a week before the end of the conflict. His posthumously published poems are some of the most poignant of World War One.

Excerpt from Dulce et Decorum Est (1917-18)

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

Rupert Brooke

Brooke was a fiercely intelligent and notably good-looking man who lived an extraordinary life until it was cut short in 1915.

On his gap year, he had prepared a thesis of sufficient quality to win a scholarship at King's College, Cambridge, where he rose fast within intellectual circles and even found time to go skinny-dipping with Virginia Woolf.

When war broke out, Brooke was commissioned in the Royal Navy Division and set sail for the Dardanelles. He developed septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite and died in April 1915.

His death was early enough in the war that his poems were far more idealistic and optimistic than those of poets involved in later campaigns.

Excerpt from The Soldier (1914)

If I should die, think only this of me:That there's some corner of a foreign fieldThat is forever England.

Rudyard Kipling

Unlike the other poets on this list, Kipling did not take part in the First World War. He was 48 when the conflict broke out in 1914 so rather than signing up to fight, he wrote pro-war propaganda on behalf of the government.

Kipling's son, John, was refused entry to the military due to poor eyesight, but his father pulled strings to get him in. In 1915, 18-year-old John was killed at the Battle of Loos.

Excerpt from My Boy Jack (1915)

"Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?"None this tide,Nor any tide.

Robert Graves

As a boy, Graves enjoyed an enviable education at a series of public schools, excelling academically and as a boxer. He won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, but delayed taking his place until after the conflict.

Graves enlisted as soon as war was declared and quickly became known as a talented poet. He served alongside Siegfried Sassoon, who became a close friend, but was shocked by his vivid poetry, which he described as "violent and repulsive".

Graves was so badly injured at the Somme that he was reported dead, but miraculously recovered well enough to return to the front a few months later. Despite never being hospitalised for his shellshock, he went on to live until the age of 90, most notably writing the I, Claudius novels. He died in 1985.

A Dead Boche (1915)

To you who'd read my songs of WarAnd only hear of blood and fame,I'll say (you’ve heard it said before)"War’s Hell!"

Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon studied history at Clare College, Cambridge, before leaving without a degree and going to live the life of a country gentleman. He played cricket, went hunting and published small volumes of poetry.

In 1915, motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the army and impressed many with his bravery. Known as "Mad Jack" for his risky exploits, he was decorated twice. It was his reputation as a war hero that caused so much public outrage when he wrote a letter condemning the government's war effort in 1917.

He survived the war after being wounded in France and invalided back to England and died in 1967, aged 80.

To Any Dead Officer (1917)

When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,Moaning for water till they knowIt's night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!


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