The First World War began in 1914 with idealistic notions that the conflict would be over by Christmas. Instead, it ended after four years of trench warfare, rapid developments in military technology, and a re-drawing of the map that changed European society and politics.
Writers, artists, and filmmakers created works to understand what happened and what the future might look like. Great Britain in particular had to acknowledge a high casualty rate among the young men who served, and the leadership of the British military came under heavy criticism. Historian John Keegan described Field Marshal Douglas Haig as having sent “the flower of British youth to death or mutilation” at the Battle of the Somme.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon both served in the British Army and wrote with honesty about their experiences. Their works serve as a corrective to the propaganda and recruitment posters that promised war as an adventure and patriotic duty by a government and society invested in maintaining its power and colonies.
In his introduction to Wilfred Owen’s posthumous collection of poems, Sassoon stated,
His conclusions about War are so entirely in accordance with my own that I cannot attempt to judge his work with any critical detachment. I can only affirm that he was a man of absolute integrity of mind.
Although Sassoon felt he could not evaluate Owen’s work objectively, he highlighted an important element in their works: the need for integrity in a hypocritical society that glorifies war at the expense of those who experienced it.
The two poems by Sassoon showcase his biting wit and criticism of those people and institutions who believed in the propaganda and went along with the government’s aims in the war.
In the poem “They,” the narrator uses irony to illustrate the role of organized religion in supporting the war. A Bishop informs his congregation that war service has changed the soldiers. He uses apocalyptic religious language to argue that Britain is fighting for “a just cause” because the other side is the “Anti-Christ.” The bishop continues with a dog-whistle appeal to eugenics to assert the “right to breed an honorable race.”
It turns out that the congregation is made up of returning soldiers who agree they’ve changed, but not in any noble way. Their litany of injuries, including syphilis, undercuts the Bishop’s sentimental notions of a just cause. In the face of this truth, the Bishop can only respond with a platitude that “the ways of God are strange!” This response indicates that the church was unable to deal with spiritual needs of the wounded veterans and the hypocrisy of a religion of peace and love supporting war.
In Sassoon’s next poem, “The Glory of Women,” the narrator criticizes the manipulation of traditional gender roles, symbolized by women who indulge in romantic notions about military service and go along with their patriotic duties without question, like their counterparts in Germany. The poem contrasts concepts of chivalry, heroism, and redemption with the realities of war, which are “hell’s last horror” and a face “trodden deeper in the mud” as a unit of British troops retreats while women knit socks and admire uniforms.
While Sassoon’s poems come from the perspective of the social critic, Owen’s two poems reflect the perspective of the soldiers who suffered. In “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” the narrator notes the isolation of the soldiers who are doomed to “die as cattle,” deprived of their humanity (and of the chivalry imagined by the women in Sassoon’s poem). Abandoned by leaders and institutions, their deaths are only noted by the sound of artillery:
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
The mention of “sad shires” indicates mourning families in the provinces, far away from the power structures in London. The last line, “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds,” further underscores the isolation of the soldiers and the inevitability of death on the battlefield.
In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” the narrator issues a ringing condemnation of how societies have romanticized and diluted the concept of dying for one’s country—a concept invoked in wartime propaganda and recruitment drives. Written in an informal, vivid style, the poem paints a realistic picture of injured and desperate men whose deaths are shocking and not sentimental. In the concluding lines, the narrator issues a warning to the reader:
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.
These last lines arrive at what Sassoon and Owen wrote about: they felt that they had been the victim of lies. The reality of the war became a horrible contrast to the sanitized concepts taught by the education system and by propaganda created by governments that wanted to retain their political and economic power.
Further Reading: John Keegan, The First World War