Of Poetry and PTSD: Musings on World War I

Originally posted by aphra behn on 09/24/06

I can’t bear to write history this week. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time e-mailing a former student of mine, who is currently serving in Afghanistan with  the U.S. Army.  He should be in graduate school, but stop-loss interfered with that. He’s not optimistic about how things are going. From his (admittedly limited) perspective, the U.S. presence isn’t helping much right now.  I don’t know if his perception is accurate, but this diary isn’t about that.

It’s about  how  soldiers cope when they’re tasked with something impossible, hopeless. Perhaps foolhardy, and probably morally objectionable.  My student is treating his Afghanistan experience  as an academic problem (I told you he should be in graduate school). He’s documenting his experiences, writing about them, treating this as a sort of anthropological project, as it were.

How have others coped in similar situations? Join me, if you care to, as I thumb through the poetry books on my shelf and consider the response of five writers—three British, one Canadian, and one American– to the brutal carnage of World War One.


(Cross-posted at Daily Kos and The Next Agenda, a DKos-style blog for Canadian politics.)

England, 1914. A surprisingly broad cross-section of English society joined up in an early wave of patriotism and optimism at the war’s commencement.  Like their German counterparts, the jingiostic Brits were positive that the war would be over quickly–and that their cause was just, even noble.
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27 year old Rupert Brooke,  a published poet and academic, celebrated the war as a welcome challenge for British masculinity:


Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,  
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,  
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,  
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,  
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,  
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,  
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,  
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken savethis body, lost but breath;  
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there  
But only agony, and that has ending;  
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.——Rupert Brooke

That poem always strikes me as something that might be written by certain warmongers today. But let’s give Brooke his due. He was no Yellow Elephant–he was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Navy and sailed for the Dardanelles in 1915. He apparently  embraced his new identity as “The Solider”:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
—––Rupert Brooke

“The Soldier” was an incredibly popular poem from its first publication in The Times on April 24,  1915—the day after Brooke died (of septic pneumonia) on the way to Gallipoli. Praised as an exemplary  hero by no less than Winston Churchill, Brooke became a sort of sort of emblem of self-sacrificing patriotism.
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American journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer penned this tribute to him:

“In Memory of Rupert Brooke”

In alien earth, across a troubled sea,
His body lies that was so fair and young.
His mouth is stopped, with half his songs unsung;
His arm is still, that struck to make men free.
But let no cloud of lamentation be
Where, on a warrior’s grave, a lyre is hung.
We keep the echoes of his golden tongue,
We keep the vision of his chivalry.

So Israel’s joy, the loveliest of kings,
Smote now his harp, and now the hostile horde.
To-day the starry roof of Heaven rings
With psalms a soldier made to praise his Lord;
And David rests beneath Eternal wings,
Song on his lips, and in his hand a sword.

—Joyce Kilmer

Kilmer himself joined the American    army in 1917. He was killed by a sniper at the Second Battle of Marne, on 30 July 1918, aged 31.  The French Republic  posthumously awarded Kilmer the Croix de Guerre.
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The First World War turned increasingly fatal—and brutal–in 1915. The Second Battle of Ypres, for example, was a four-day action resulting on over 100,000 combined casualties. Although it would necessitate an entire diary to explore the reasons WHY that war was so deadly, the short version is this: the tactics and did not keep up with weaponry. What use is an infantry charge against a machine gun? It was an industrialized war, with automatic weapons, mass-produced chlorine gas, barbed wire, and many other weapons that could wreak incredible carnage. No-one had ever imagined anything like it.

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The Second Battle of Ypres was especially fateful for the Canadian army. Later singled out for their bravery and incredible discipline, the CEF at Ypres suffered nearly 6,000 casualties to their 10,000-man force. The carnage prompted one Canadian military surgeon to pen what may be the best-known poem of the war.

The first two stanzas of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” are commonly recited every Remembrance Day:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

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McCrae, who had been a medical school professor before the war, wrote the poem after the death of his friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Hamer, killed at Ypres. No stranger to battle, McCrae had previously served as an artillery man in the Second Boer War. Perhaps that accounts for the fierceness of  the third stanza:       

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.              

—John McCrae

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Watch a one-minute film about the poem’s creation here.

McCrae died of pneumonia on January 18, 1918, aged 45.

The use of gas, at Ypres and elsewhere, was surely one of the most horrifying aspects of the World War I battlefield. It’s probably impossible for us to grasp the full horror of watching a comrade die from chlorine gas. I have met a few WW I vets who described it to me, and it still fails my imagination, I’m sure.  Perhaps the closest I can get to it is in the words of my favourite war poet, Wilfred Owen.

He opens with a vivid description of bone-weary soldiers, almost too tired to notice the gas canisters landing behind them::

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind.

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They have only a few precious moments to don their protective gear. But what of the man who is too slow?

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.    

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

The conclusion should be obligatory DAILY reading for Rummy, Cheney, Bush, and all the cowboys so eager to go to war. Owen tells us what a man dying of gas really looks like:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
—–Wilfred Owen

For those of us who skipped Latin class, the last line translates as “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” Owen’s experiences, like those of many men, had worn away the Rupert Brooke-esque enthusiasm of the early years.

But the horror of the trenches was not so easily communicated to the Home Front. Sympathetic family members often had a hard time coping with their battle-scarred sons and husbands. What we call “PTSD” was then known as “shell shock.” It was difficult for those who had not been to the front to understand why so many men’s minds simply stopped working in the face of the unremitting horrors of the trenches.
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I’ve never bought that it was “sweet and beautiful” to die for your country. But I’ve believed it might be useful, or  necessary.  I still have a few relics from my attempts to do so: a few webbed belts, a uniform hat stuck away in the closet, some insignia and pins jumbled in a jewelry box.

And a recurring bad dream. It’s nothing so awful as Owen’s. It’s even funny in a “OMG! I’m naked in high school!” sort of way. Here goes:

I’m polishing my dress uniform shoes, and they just won’t shine. I’ve tried every trick in the book and they look as dull when I finish as when I started. Then suddenly–in that fashion that only makes sense in dreams– I  realize that I’m polishing the wrong shoes. Horrors! I’m wearing my Service Dress Whites,  but I’m polishing my black shoes. I put down the shoes only to discover I’ve gotten black shoe polish all over my whites. I try to take them off, but I’m smearing the O&^(&^*&!!-ing black shoe polish everywhere.

And then the bell comes, and I know I’m supposed to be— somewhere, I never know where. But it’s urgent. And (dream fashion) some unrelated person shows up to urge me on: my mother, FDR, my best friend from grade school. Last week, my ex strolled into my dream, demanding to know why I’d gotten shoe polish all over his uniform too. I looked, and sure enough, the “Canada” on his DEUs was completely obscured by shoe polish. What had I been doing to get shoe polish there?

I’m sure the answer lies in my concerns about Afghanistan, where Canadian Forces are paying an especially heavy toll, and my concern that the American presence may actually be making things worse for everyone. My dumb  nightmare usually shows up when I’m completely conflicted about something. And I’m very, very conflicted about Afghanistan.

So I read some Siegfried Sassoon. Talk about conflicted. The well-educated scion of a wealthy family, he joined up early on in the war. He blamed the Germans for the death of his brother in 1915, and went on to show insane bravery in the face of enemy fire–his nickname was “Mad Jack.” He was decorated for his exploits.
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Yet as the war went on, he found himself more and more appalled by its unending carnage—carnage which never seemed to gain more than a few feet of land. He drew a cutting portrait of  incompetent leadership in a few stark lines:

“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           
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
    .    .    .    .     
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
–S.  Sassoon

 He was equally scathing in his criticism of those who dismissed the suffering of shell-shocked men:

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’ —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.
—Siegfried Sassoon

Sassoon wrote those lines from Caiglockheart, a medical facility were he was sent in 1917  to recover from alleged shell-shock. In point of fact, Sassoon had publicly protested the war, and refused to return to it after his convalescent leave. He  was only saved from court-martial by the “shell-shock” diagnosis.  The words of his protest seem all too sadly relevant today:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this War, on which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purpose for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed…
–S. Sassoon

In spite of his feelings about the war’s immorality, Sassoon chose to return to the front. His reasoning seemed to be that he was of much more use to his men at the front than protesting it–protests which could be dismissed as delusional symptoms of his “neurasthenia” (the clinical term for shell shock).

While at the Craiglockheart medical facility, Sassoon befriended Wilfred Owen,  author of “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  Owen was genuinely suffering from shell shock, the result in part of his experiences at the Battle of the Somme (one of the bloodiest battles in human history, with over a million casualties).    
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Sassoon greatly influenced Owen, both personally and as a poet. It is thanks to Sassoon that Owen’s poetry was published. Despite his almost suicidal bravery and several wounds, Sassoon survived the war, and promoted Owen’s works (as well as his own) as testaments to the conflict’s folly.

Of all these published works, it is Owen’s “Parable of the Old Man and the Young” that I found myself turning to most frequently this week. Using the story of Isaac and Abraham as a model, Owen offers an observation on the old men who send their young to die. It seems all too fitting today:

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned, both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake, and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets the trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.  

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
–Wilfred Owen

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Wilfred Owen returned to active service. He was killed in action on November 4, 1918, aged 25.

The war ended on November 11, one week later.

For Further Reading:
An inexpensive collection of British war poetry is available here. The Penguin Collection of First World War Poetry is nicely comprehensive. A classic study by Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory provides an academic look at the cultural impact of the war. I also like Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning:The Great War in European Cultural History. For a general introduction to World War One, I like James Stokesbury’s affordable and readable text. For a less academic look at the experience of trench warfare (at least from a British perspective), try John Ellis’s Eye Deep in Hell.

(All poems above are believed to be in the public domain.)


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