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The flying machine was a demonstration of the white man's superiority.
From Modern Boy, 1936.

‘…today our Armed Forces are called upon to take action in many different parts of the world, not so much to defend our country but to defend its long-term security interests. …in truth, today an army fights not just for territory and military superiority but often for hearts and minds, and it depends not simply on discipline, but also on belief.’

Tony Blair, not the Queen, took the salute from the officer cadets passing out of Sandhurst - only the fourth Prime Minister, and the first Labour premier, ever to do so.

An advertisement for Lord Robert's memorial Fund 1916

Throughout the history of
poetry-making, poems have provided a commentary - often critical - on what people, communities and nations do. And in the 20th century, the horrors and irreversible changes created by modern warfare changed poetry for good.

The changing attitude to war from the mud of WW1 to the genocide of our own time can be traced in over 30 poems. These together with additional information, history and critical commentary are an excellent introduction for the general reader and student alike.

See poetry and war


IT WAS Geoffrey Chaucer back in the 1390s who summed it up in a few lines: how a man could be both a thoroughly decent fellow and a trained professional killer.

There was a Knight, a very worthy man,
Who from the moment when he first began
To ride abroad had cherished chivalry,
Truth and honour, generosity and courtesy.
He had given his best in his liege-lord’s war
And ridden wide to do it, no man as far,
In Christendom as well as heathenesse,
And always honoured for his worthiness.

This schizophrenic character has persisted in British culture ever since. By the 19th century ‘chivalry’ had become both a prescription and a lure for recruits. ‘The soldier is religious and brave, humane and merciful, open-hearted and just, frank, sincere, faithful and firm,’ wrote Kenholm Digby in ‘The Broad Stone of Honour: Rules for the Gentlemen of England’ (1823).

19th century knights had new quests to pursue: not only the commercial and political extension of the furthest-reaching empire yet, but also the propagation of Christianity right across it. An early writer of fiction for young people made a character say in 1852: ‘I believe we have many moral duties to perform, in order to draw forth and strengthen our moral qualities. We have the poor to feed and clothe, the ignorant to educate, the turbulent to discipline. Why should we not believe that Great Britain, with more extensive influence than any other nation on earth, has a duty to civilise the numberless savage tribes with whom her commerce brings her in contact.’

The introduction of free compulsory education in Britain meant an increase in the need for suitable textbooks and other reading for the young: ‘For nearly half a century before 1914 the newly literate millions were provided with an increasing flow of fiction based on war and the idea of its imminence. Popular fiction and mass journalism now combined to condition the minds of the nation’s new readers,’ a historian  notes. Adventure stories, and especially tales of war, were in demand. R M Ballantyne echoed the mood of the times. A brave deed, he said in an 1878 novel, is done ‘when a handful of brave men sacrifice their lives at the call of duty, and in defence of country…and, still more gloriously, when a soldier, true to his Queen and country, is true also to his God and preaches while he practises the principle and gospel of the prince of Peace.’ Perhaps sensing the contradiction between a gospel of peace and the aggressive brutality and intolerance of war, he went on: ‘There is indeed much that is glorious in the conduct of many warriors, but there is no glory whatever in war itself. The best that can be said of it is that sometimes it is a stern yet sad necessity.’ Such confused thinking would later inform inscriptions on war memorials and speeches at remembrance ceremonies.

A couple of months after the start of the First World War, author Elizabeth O’Neill published ‘The War, 1914: A History and an Explanation for Boys and Girls’. On page 1: ‘The war of 1914 was different from other wars in this, that no one but the Germans can say that Germany was in the right. The Allies, as all the world knows, were fighting for justice and right against a country and an emperor who seemed almost mad with pride. The soldiers of the Allies went out to battle not as soldiers who have often gone to war, because it is the business to be done, but rather like the knights of old, full of anger against an enemy who was fighting unjustly…. This is one more reason which has made the Great War so wonderful a thing.’

The new knights of the 20th century were the aviators. Poet Henry Newbolt observed: ‘Our airmen are singularly like the knights of the old romances, they go out day after day, singly or in twos and threes, to hold the field against all comers, and to do battle in defence of those who cannot defend themselves’. Many pilots felt the same. ‘To be alone, to have your life in your own hands, to use your own skill, single-handed against the enemy’, wrote one, ‘ – it was like the lists in the Middle Ages, the only sphere in modern warfare where a man saw his adversary and faced him in mortal combat, the only sphere where there was still chivalry and honour.’

Meanwhile, on the ground below, soldiers in dirt-encrusted uniforms were felling and being felled. Some of these, too, felt exhilaration in the midst of the carnage. Research has revealed that ‘time and time again, in the writings of combatants, people described how they enjoyed violence.’ Some British servicemen in the First World War admitted that bayoneting Germans provided sensations of ‘exultant satisfaction’, ‘joy unspeakable’.

But other men with first-hand experience of the war, who recognised its appalling effects, began to tell some truths about it – and made themselves heard. Some were writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose poems are now routinely included in school syllabuses. Others included men who in their civilian lives had been teachers. One schoolmaster wrote to a colleague: ‘Do teach your kids the horror of responsibility which rests on the warmonger. We’ve been wrong in the past. We have taught schoolboys “War” as a romantic subject, a sort of exciting story in fiction. The picturesque phrases of war writers are dangerous because they show none of the individual horror….’

The two strands – bellicose myth-making and serious efforts to tell it how it really was – continued entwined until the next war. This was exemplified by an editorial in the Boy’s Own Paper in 1929. The writer described the dreadfulness of modern warfare, ‘its wanton waste of men and materials, its appalling destructiveness, its filth and cruelty and beastliness – to use the word in its most literal sense – and its futility. Few if any of the present generation who have passed through the furnace want, or are likely to want, another war; but, just as soon as the boys of today, the men of tomorrow, slip back into the old error of regarding war as a heroic, chivalrous adventure, so will the danger of war become once more imminent.’ Yet the BOP continued to carry exciting stories about war.

In 1940 the knights of the air went into battle again. One described his delight at having the chance to emulate his hero, a maverick First World War flying ace (who had single-handedly destroyed 43 German aircraft and a balloon): ‘I thought I knew about war in the air. I imagined it to be Arthurian, about chivalry – death and injury had no part in it.’ After the Battle of Britain he knew better.

And after 1940 single combat went out of date. Pilots were now detailed to escort bombers and carry out low-level attacks on bridges, convoys and the like. Many of them found these sorties terrifying, and repugnant, in a quite different way. In a 1944 air adventure tale, a commander tells his squadron, ‘Probably a great many civilians will get hurt, but that cannot be helped from our point of view. They are all potential war-workers for Nazi Germany, even as our civilian population are for the most part engaged in helping the Allies’ war effort. It’s not a case of revenge for what the Huns have done to our cities and towns, but rather of retribution. And by hitting the old Hun hard and where it hurts him most we are definitely shortening the war.’

The times they were a-changing, and, slowly, so were the fighting men. Many felt disillusioned, with reason. A survivor of the Falklands War (1982) said, ‘I had, and still have, the kind of pride that the Army trains young soldiers to build up, that enables them to go off to war and fight and kill for what they are taught to believe in…. What I didn’t realise, until, like so many others, I came back crippled after doing my bit for my country, was the extent to which we had been conned. Conned into believing in a set of priorities and principles that the rest of the world and British society in general no longer gave two hoots about. We had been “their boys” fighting in the Falklands, and when the fighting was over, nobody wanted to know.’

Ironically, after the Second World War, and against the fearful background of the Cold War, war stories, films and games became even more popular. But gradually serious anti-war books (and, later, films as well) began appearing. Children were encouraged to study literature that dealt with the realities of war. Here’s part of an introduction to a 1957 collection of war poems for use in secondary schools. It’s fascinating to see how it edges towards a new way of thinking:

‘Many poets have written about war. They have stressed the heroism of war – the willingness of men and women to endure great suffering and to make great sacrifices for a cause felt to be more important than their own lives.

Not many warriors have fought for the sake of fighting, though many have found excitement in it, In fact it has been said that war would be easier to banish if other kinds of danger, such as that found in mountaineering, were easily come by.

There is a third aspect of war: the horror and misery of what actually happens to individuals in warfare. Personal combat has given way to battle by remote control. Recent poems point out the contrast between ideal and reality, and tell of the tragedy of life wasted. Some note the propaganda that is part of warfare today, or the division of responsibility that makes possible the use of destructive weapons for which no one individual would be responsible.

Good poems on peace are rare. It does not follow that peace is felt to be unimportant.’

Historian Michael Paris ends his book ‘Warrior Nation: Images of War in Popular Culture’ (published in 2000 and with excellent illustrations) by referring to the difficulties faced by peacekeepers in Bosnia. Peacekeeping, he says, ‘is far removed from the traditional duties of the warrior, but still requires courage and tenacity. Not the heroism of the battlefield, but a self-control and discipline that will enable them to control their natural tendency to resort to violence, and the fortitude to achieve their purpose.’ He puts the question, ‘Will the representation of the soldier of peace ever be able to exert the same fascination as the traditional image of the warrior?’ – and answers, ‘Only time will tell. One thing is clear: as long as popular culture continues to represent the brutality of war as a legitimate exciting adventure, and the warrior as the masculine ideal, so will humankind resort to violence as a means of settling differences.’

Do we agree? Can we accept the name ‘peacekeeping’ for an armed enterprise? Do peacekeepers really have a ‘natural tendency’ to choose violent action? Have we seen a ‘legitimate exciting adventure’ and ‘masculine ideals’ in the media images from Iraq – including those from Abu Ghraib? Must humankind always resort to violence? It looks as though we must still work hard to show how war always brings out the worst in people, however well that may often be concealed. Even the chivalric virtues (the ‘truth, honour, generosity and courtesy’ which some people talk up, and some may even quietly manage to preserve) are wasted, cancelled out by the immorality and destruction of armed conflict. This is something to keep in mind when studying the inscriptions on war memorials and war graves, or listening to the words traditionally spoken each year at remembrance time. Remember the dead with sorrow, with regret, and with a profound apology. Do them justice by helping to create a world without war.

And isn’t there some cause for a little cautious optimism? After all, even military leaders are saying, more than one and more than once, that many of the world’s conflicts (and especially terrorism) ‘have no military solution’. More and more people are becoming uneasy about war, and increasingly critical of attacks like those on Afghanistan and Iraq. They are beginning to see that the arms trade, especially the trade in small arms, creates conflicts or makes them even more destructive of civilian lives and livelihoods.

The signs are that in Britain a shift from a ‘warrior culture’ has begun. We should give it a shove forward whenever we get the chance. This means thinking imaginatively, creatively, laterally, about solving disputes and resolving conflicts. It means refusing, in public and in private, to tolerate armed violence as either a means of expression or a social control.

It also means mobilising public opinion. It’s up to us to seize the moment to turn unease about warfare into real resistance to it. Communications systems are in place, communication is easier than it’s ever been: do it! Campaign leaders, confidence-builders, teachers and comforters all tell us ‘You can make a difference’. They aren’t wrong.




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