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Some of the most memorable examples, from literature, of the ways World War I changed the world can be found in the war poetry of Wilfred Owen. Owen, who fought and eventually died in the war (very shortly before the war ended) wrote some of the most powerful descriptions of how the war especially changed the lives of the soldiers who saw combat. Several examples from Owen’s poetry are particularly noteworthy, including the following:
- In “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” the speaker refers to “these who die as cattle” (1) – a phrase that alludes to the horrific, impersonal, mass slaughter that was especially characteristic of World War I. (For a tragic and unforgettable depiction of this kind of slaughter on film, see the early Mel Gibson movie titled Gallipoli, especially the final episode.) The next two lines of Owen’s “Anthem” refer to “the monstrous anger of the guns” (2) and to the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” (3) – phrases that remind us of the technological advances in warfare (such as heavy artillery and machine guns) that made World War I more destructive than any other war before it.
- In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” perhaps Owen’s most famous poem, the speaker depicts one of the most distinctive aspects of the fighting in World War I:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time . . . (9-10)
The use of poison gas in the so-called “Great War” was so atrocious that gas as a weapon was later banned by treaty, and even during World War II the use of gas was not repeated on the battlefield. In this way as in so many others, then, World War I marked an especially gruesome chapter in the long, sorry history of human warfare.
- In Owen’s poem “Disabled,” the focus is on a young veteran, confined to a wheel chair, who has lost two legs and one arm in combat. He feels as if, in the war, he “threw away his knees” (10). He assumes that
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands.
All of them touch him like some queer disease. (11-13)
In this poem, then, Owen shows the lingering after-effects of the war – the way it destroyed the spirits of many of the men who managed, somehow, to survive physically.
Anyone looking for vivid and compelling depictions in literature of what it was like – and how it felt – to be a soldier in World War I can do little better than read the poetry of Wilfred Owen. One real tragedy of that war, in fact, was that it cut short the life of a poet who was just reaching his full genius when his existence was abruptly cut short.
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