Revision:World war i poets - wider reading

Journey’s End extract

Use for depiction of ranks / hierarchy of command in World War 1. The Colonel seems mainly interested in pleasing the Brigadier; Stanhope, a captain, is deeply shocked by the loss in action of Osbourne, his reliable second in command. Raleigh, a new lieutenant, is also shocked by the experience of fighting. Although brusque in tone when addressing him, Stanhope is clearly closer to Raleigh than to the Colonel because of their shared experience. Bitterness in Stanhope’s tone shows the emotionally crippling effect of warfare. (The play as a whole ends in mid-battle after the deaths of Osbourne and Raleigh. Sense of the terrible waste of young lives.)

“The Charge of the Light Brigade”

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Crimean War (1854-56).

Use for idea of heroism/ devotion to duty in the face of insuperable odds. War as grand gesture. But also could be used as providing an example of the ‘lunacy’ of war: sending six hundred cavalrymen against the full might of the Russian heavy guns, at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854. Within twenty five minutes almost two-thirds of them had been killed. What’s more, the Light Brigade charged as the result of a mistaken order – so could be quoted as example of incompetence of those running the war – comparable to accusations made about command during the First World War.

“Strange Meeting”

By Wilfred Owen.

Very important poem since it includes his ‘manifesto’ that he is dealing with “the truth untold” and “The pity of war, the pity war distilled”. Part of reaction against other poetry of the time, and against official versions of what was going on, put out at the time. Note how the verb “distilled” means both ‘extracted the essence of’ – a metaphor suggesting that the war was so horrendous it made “pity” into its purest form; but also suggesting that is was ‘vaporised’ or turned into a vapour, something invisible and disappearing, just as official versions of events caused pity to disappear, or rather not be felt, by hiding the truth. Note also how its being a dream does not make it less horrendous; rather, the realistic details included make the situation described and the conversation reported seem more poignant. (This deliberate reference to dreams is also in “Dulce et Decorum” – one of Owen’s most bitter poems.)

From The Ghost Road

By Pat Barker.

This is the third volume of the modern Regeneration trilogy, which uses material about Sassoon and Owen and their time at the Craiglockhart War hospital in Edinburgh with the neurologist/ anthropologist W.H. Rivers as the basis for three widely acclaimed novels on WW1. Critics sometimes call this sort of novel a ‘faction’ – i.e. mixture of fact and fiction. Barker skilfully links material on the poets and their wartime experiences with the story of, for instance, a fictional character with a complex personality called Billy Prior. Prior has also been at Craiglockhart and been treated by the humane doctor, Rivers. This extract is part of Prior’s account of fighting in 1918, towards the end of the war. (He is in the same regiment at this stage as Wilfred Owen, and becomes a vehicle for the reader discovering about Owen’s last days.) Plain style with many short, informative sentences. There are lots of details that appeal to our senses: visual, aural, etc. Prior is a sensitive narrator and observer, also: note the end of the "Thursday" section where he describes the eyes of the man waiting to be paid. Comparison to insect + setting suns makes us as readers think of the idea of scale – and that in turn may lead us to reconsider the scale of the losses in the war, and how cheaply lives seem to have been held. Use as example of war depersonalising individuals but also, perversely perhaps, broadening the experiences and imagination of men like Prior. Also shows how an officer like Prior can have a caring attitude to his men. But see the important third paragraph: Prior is from a working class background, although he is an officer. Concludes that the men only really trust the non-commissioned officers, who are older than their commanding officers, mostly, and from a similar background to their own. Example of class hierarchy that operated in the army (cf. the play Journey’s End extract) The prose here also gives us information about the use of gas in the war.

From Birdsong

By Sebastian Faulks (another of the modern novelists highly praised for their ‘empathetic’ portrayal of WW1 events).

Use as example of relationship between officer (Stephen) and men. Also informative about trench warfare and about the effect, mentally, on soldiers of shelling – e.g. bitterness, disorientation in Reeves at not being able to find any physical trace of his dead brother to bury. Style is interesting: the most gruesome details, information about, say, shell wounds, related in a deadpan style, which makes the information seem all the more horrendous. Look especially at the sixth paragraph here. Use of direct speech is also effective. Grim realism of style. Account of Stephen’s dealings with Douglas after the latter is wounded is also understated in tone, and style. Only Stephen’s barked orders at the end of the passage show how deeply he is moved by the suffering and indignity he has seen. Second last paragraph establishes perspective and the huge irony in the statement: "rural France lay bathed in radiant light". Stephen himself and those around him are, literally, on the other hand, bathed in blood.

From Testament of Youth

By Vera Brittain.

First part of her autobiography. Tells of her experiences as a nurse during WW1. Interesting reminder that the hospitals and ‘dressing-stations’ catered for prisoners of war, so had ‘enemy’ patients. No distinction made in their treatment. "I don’t care about [i.e. I don’t enjoy/ I don’t care to watch…] watching a man bleed to death under my very eyes, even if he is a Hun" Note how Vera speaks German to patients. [Also note the variety of names for Germans. Here it’s ‘Hun’ but elsewhere ‘the foe’, ‘the Boche’, ‘Fritz’ etc.] Use as good example of women’s involvement in the war, their courage and commitment. Vera Brittain’s fellow nurse, Hope Milroy has found a way of coping with the deaths of those under her care in her custom of opening the window "so as to let their souls go out". Women as well as men involved in the war invented such rituals to keep themselves sane in times of great adversity. (Vera Brittain’s fiance, by the way, was killed in the war, although she later married and had a family. The politician Shirley Williams is her daughter. She herself became known a writer, pacifist and feminist.)

From Goodbye to All That

Robert Graves. 1929.

His autobiography. Straightforward account of wartime experiences in a very deadpan style. Uses direct speech as part of account. Use as example of account by someone who was actually there, showing how it really was. It uses direct speech as part of the account – giving a flavour of the time. Last sentence is a kind of grim score-keeping - CONTRAST to tone/ habit in some early WW1 accounts where war was likened to a game or a contest in an enthusiastic way. Re-reading carefully, after that last sentence, you realise the three officer casualties were David Thomas, Richardson -–who went to see about Thomas and was himself caught by a shell among the wire – along with the corporal who has his leg blown off and dies of wounds a day or two later. Later we learn Richardson dies partly because his heart had been weakened by rowing at public school before the war. There’s a certain unstated irony in this. Final casualty is Pritchard who has been on duty all night in a forward position but who is killed by one of the infamous and onomatopoeically named whizz bang shells as he comes off duty. Pathos of David’s already having written his parting letter to his girl in Glamorgan.

Note specialised vocabulary of trench warfare used: front trench/communication trench / redoubt / dressing (i.e.bandaging) station / etc.


These notes are aimed at A Level English students at A2 level.

Originally written by little one on TSR Forums.