War poetry

War has always elicited a great outpouring from the arts. Songs, plays, movies, and books are just some of the ways the general populace has been given a glimpse of what normally happens away from the public’s eyes. One of the first great stories of western literature, the Odyssey, is the retelling of an epic retelling of a 10 year conflict. How warfare is presented depends greatly on the experiences and ideology of the poet. Some are merely descriptive, others sing of the glories of conflict and others, the horror. Here is one by English author John Donne (pronounced ‘done’) 1572-1631.



Out of a fired ship, which by no way

But drowning could be rescued from the flame,

Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came

Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay ;

So all were lost, which in the ship were found,

They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drowned.


I think the First World War was the catalyst for some of the most emotional and frank descriptions of warfare. Many of these that are so well remembered today were written by men who fought in the front trenches, their horrifying experiences reflected in the pain their words impart. Here are a few:




Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). Counter-Attack and Other Poems. 1918. Sassoon.jpg


The Rear-Guard




GROPING along the tunnel, step by step,

He winked his prying torch with patching glare

From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.


Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes too vague to know;

A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed; 5

And he, exploring fifty feet below

The rosy gloom of battle overhead.


Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie

Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug,

And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug. 10

‘I’m looking for headquarters.’ No reply.

‘God blast your neck!’ (For days he’d had no sleep,)

‘Get up and guide me through this stinking place.’


Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,

And flashed his beam across the livid face 15

Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore

Agony dying hard ten days before;

And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.


Alone he staggered on until he found

Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair 20

To the dazed, muttering creatures underground

Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.

At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,

He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,

Unloading hell behind him step by step. 25


And here another:


The General



‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack 5

As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

. . . .

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.


And finally, with commentary:


Breaking the conspiracy of silence By Rob Ruggenberg


The Hero, by Siegfried Lorraine Sassoon (1886-1967), is one of the disputed war poems this British officer and poet wrote in the period 1915-1918.

When The Hero appeared in print, in 1917, many people were shocked. Fellow-officers condemned him. They found the poem caddish, as it could destroy every mother's faith in the report of her son's death.

Sassoon made clear that the poem did not refer to anyone he had known. "But it is pathetically true. And of course the average Englishman will hate it", he remarked - shaping a distance between the 'averages' and 'those who know better'.

Certainly Sassoon was breaking the conspiracy of silence, but many soldiers felt that those at home should be made to realize the full horror, and the ugliness, of the war as much as possible.

Even today Sassoon is still object of discussion. Some find it offensive that he came back from the front and said 'I can't lead men to their death any more'. It implied a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

On the other hand every society needs men who dare to stand up against common convictions. Sassoon did so - with strong opinions and with splendid poems, that will live on for ever.


The Hero

'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the mother said,

And folded up the letter that she'd read.

'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke

In the tired voice that quivered to a choke.

She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud

Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.

He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies

That she would nourish all her days, no doubt

For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes

Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,

Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,

Had panicked down the trench that night the mine

Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried

To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,

Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care

Except that lonely woman with white hair.



I’ll add more later, including some from other wars. These are just a few I particularly enjoy – hope you have, too.


The American poet Joyce Kilmer, best known for his verse "Trees" was killed by a German Sniper in 1918. He wrote several poems from the front, including this one:

Prayer of a Soldier in France (1918)


My shoulders ache beneath my pack

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back).

I march with feet that burn and smart

(Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart).


Men shout at me who may not speak

(They scourged Thy back and smote Thy cheek).


I may not lift a hand to clear

My eyes of salty drops that sear.


(Then shall my fickle soul forget

Thy Agony of Bloody Sweat?)


My rifle hand is stiff and numb

(From Thy pierced palm red rivers come).


Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me

Than all the hosts of land and sea.


So let me render back again

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.



I enjoyed the commentary on Sassoon's poem "The Hero". War is not pretty brave soldiers battling in sunny fields. It's dirt and mud and heat and the cries of the wounded.... Sometimes we need to be reminded that war is "all hell".

Indeed. I shall not say much, because the poets say everything and say it better. I am just glad that these are posted here for all to read.
Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

Moose's post about the grainy photo in the hedgerows made me think of this one:





Three weeks gone and the combatants gone

returning over the nightmare ground

we found the place again, and found

the soldier sprawling in the sun.


The frowning barrel of his gun

overshadowing. As we came on

that day, he hit my tank with one

like the entry of a demon.


Look. Here in the gunpit spoil

the dishonoured picture of his girl

who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.

in a copybook gothic script.


We see him almost with content,

abased, and seeming to have paid

and mocked at by his own equipment

that's hard and good when he's decayed.


But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.


For here the lover and killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt.


Keith Douglas




Maj Todd O. USMC, Retired
Grandson of LTC John O'Brien

I'm back! I had to take some time off from posting here to finish my short paper for my class. Hey! As soon as you people start giving me grades I'll shift my priorities! The paper was on Wake Island. I found it very interesting that it gave so many hope as they held out for the two weeks following the initial Japanese assault they repelled on 11 December. It gave people hope in a positive way in the same way that Pearl had done in a negative one. Wake was the inspiration of a nation, even after the capitulation on 23 December. Now, how many Americans out of a hundred could even place the name? Even for WWII scholars it is not as well studied as other battles such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Normandy and Anzio. There are some great books out there, however. The three main ones I looked at were Given Up for Dead, by Sloan, Facing Fearful Odds by Urwin, and Alamo of the Pacific by Wukovitz.


Back to poetry:


Here is one I really like. The author is Rudyard Kipling who is a phenomenal poet – although some may have trouble with the cockney accent written into some of his works. The one I wish to share today is one of the more familiar ones, Tommy. It was read to me by Col. John Allen (who is now a major general and assistant II MEF commander) when I went through the Basic School in Quantico (6 months of basic officer training after commissioning.) His point was that the military (especially prior to 9/11) is oftentimes put in the back of society. Like the junk yard dog that people are glad to have when needed, but not invited to parties, as it were. There is certainly more appreciation shown toward men and women in uniform today, but debate in the Senate would indicate that not everyone wants to go shake the hand of a returning vet, so to speak.


TOMMY (Poem) by Rudyard Kipling from Barrack-Room Ballads


I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o'beer,

The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."

The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:


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, Mr. Atkins,'' when the band begins to play.


I went into a theatre as sober as could be,

They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;

They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,

But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!


For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";

But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,

The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,

O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.


Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep

Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;

An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit

Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.


Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy how's yer soul?"

But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,

The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,

O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.


We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,

But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;

An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints:

Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;


While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind,"

But it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind,

There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,

O it's "Please to walk in front, sir," when there's trouble in the wind.


You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires an' all:

We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.

Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face

The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.


For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"

But it's "Saviour of 'is country," when the guns begin to shoot;

An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;

But Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!

Maj Todd O. USMC, Retired
Grandson of LTC John O'Brien

Oh, if I can use the phrase, "Right on", Mr. Kipling. Some things don't change do they sir? Ya, we'll see how much cryin' Berkley and some other cities do when the next attack comes. Right now they are cursin' our boys and telling them to keep out. We'll see what 'appens when the s--t hits the fan. Then they'll be b--chin' that the military isn't doing enough to 'elp 'em. Sigh! :banghead:
Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

Great Kipling poem Capt O! I'd never seen it before.

Marion's so right re "Berserk-ley" :nuts: . It makes my blood BOIL :cuss: !

They're all despicable, these evil looney lefties. Now Gloria Steinem is

denigrating McCain's 8 years as a POW. These peopel are NAUSEATING! :angry:


There's a website: "www.cindysheehanwatch.com" that has "the Top Ten indicators that Cindy Sheehan Is Crazy". It's simultaneously scary and amusing. Also included is a "gallery of aging lefties" like Hanoi Jane and Susan Sarandon. GAG!!!


Yes I heard of ol' Gloria going off on the McCain record today. I believe her quote was something like, "Being a prisoner of war is a qualification for the White House? Sheees!" or something similar.

1) I don't believe that being a POW is a singular qualification for the presidency but I don't think McCain is going around saying "vote for me, I was a POW!" Being in the military is a qualification and I believe that is the point.

2) So what qualification does Hillary possess for the presidency? Being married to a former president? That's the only way she got to be a Senator. How 'bout being a senator? Then by that logic Barack is only 4 years less qualified (his 3 years to her 7). Of course if you count in the fact that he was a state senator for 4 years I suppose he closes that gap.

But to Gloria only two things matter: she's a woman and she's liberal.

Oh, and in other news, I heard Laura Ingram (a real woman!) make reference to a report that Barack is a favorite with folks in the Middle East! There's a ringing endorsement!

Maj Todd O. USMC, Retired
Grandson of LTC John O'Brien

I concur with your assessment that Laura Ingraham is a "real woman". Unlike Steinem and Clinton, she actually THINKS & uses moral principles to inform her rational process. The other 2 are narcissists - self & power trumps everyone & everything.


Then there's Obama. Who is he? Is anyone paying attention? If our enemies are endorsing him - what does THAT tell you? The expression "pig in a poke" refers to being sold something

without substantiating the actual contents. If America does that, then - caveat emptor!

I want a President, not a "rock star" in the White House!

Lee and I also listen to Laura. She rocks!
Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

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