British War Hospitals, War Poetry, and Shell-shock

British propaganda represented the First World War as a mere skirmish which the British Empire would win by Christmas. Instead, over a million men died in battle over four years and three months, a war which progressed at a crawl, deep in muddy trenches and sprawls of barbed wire which laced No-Man’s Land.  News coverage sanitized the particulars of warfare, as did brightly colored army recruiting posters, but the long lists of the dead told a different story. In the trenches, the war poets responded: while these writers would be grouped together, the tenor of their work differed greatly.

Contemporary of the Bloomsbury group and minor poet Rupert Brooke would die of sepsis before the war was over, but his sonnet sequence promoted stirring English pride. His sonnet The Soldier would be read in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1915. Brooke injects the lines with a patriotic theme: “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” (Brooke 1-3).

Other war poets were less rosy in their depictions of death and dying on the battlefield. In contrast to Brooke’s vision of dying for his country, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Mary Borden, and Isaac Rosenberg (among other war poets) depict the effects of war on the human body and psyche in unflinching detail. While their styles differ, reflecting their various educational backgrounds and investment to poetry, their themes reflect widespread disillusionment with their place on the Western front.


Galen Bunting