At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe was torn apart by a war unlike any before it. Faced with a brutal conflict fought in trenches, tanks and tunnels, soldiers during World War One used poetry to put into words the horrors they were facing.
Yet soldiers were not the only voices heard in the poetry of World War One: frontline nurses, wartime motivators and established writers also turned to poetry to speak about the conflict.
Of all the great poets from World War One, here are 10 of the most famous and influential.
1. Wilfred Owen
English war poet Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous poet of World War One, despite only 5 of his poems being published during his lifetime.
Owen enlisted in 1915, aged 21. In 1917, he was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland to recover from shell shock, and, at the encouragement of his friend Siegfried Sassoon, began to put his experiences down on paper.
Before the war’s end, he had written several of his best-known poems, including Dulce et decorum est, the title of which echoed the words of Roman poet Horace, meaning “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”.
Owen returned to the front in 1918 despite his strong opposition to the war; a recurring theme in his poetry. He was killed whilst leading men across a canal and his mother received news of his death on 11 November 1918, the day of the armistice.
2. Siegfried Sassoon
Born to an aristocratic family in Kent, Sassoon was another leading poet during World War One, vividly describing the horrors of what he believed to be a jingoistic war fought for nationalist purposes. Nonetheless, Sassoon was recognised several times for his bravery on the battlefield and was even nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ for his courage.
In 1917, he narrowly escaped a court-martial for writing a letter Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration to his commanding officer condemning the war. Instead, Sassoon was admitted to Craiglockhart for shell shock where he befriended Wilfred Owen.
Sassoon wrote over 100 anti-war poems before receiving a head wound and leaving active duty in 1918, going on to pursue a long career as a poet, novelist and lecturer.
3. Robert Graves
The son of an Irish-Gaelic poet, Robert Graves left London – and a scholarship at Oxford University – in 1914 to serve as a junior officer in the war. He quickly gained a reputation as a war poet writing realistic poems about the front and published his first book of poetry, Over the Brazier, in 1916.
Graves met Siegfried Sassoon in Oxford while recovering from a shell wound to his lung, and the poets began an intimate friendship. He even intervened when Sassoon was threatened with a court-martial in 1917.
After the war, Graves became a celebrated author, especially after the release of his historical novel I, Claudius.
4. Vera Brittain
A passionate writer, Vera Brittain was studying at Oxford University when war broke out in 1914. She left to become a British Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in France and Malta, where she experienced first-hand the devastation of war.
Brittain wrote her experiences into a poetry collection, Verses of a VAD, describing how little recognition the women at the front received:
Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of Women dead beneath a distant star
After the war, she became a passionate pacifist and feminist activist and, in 1933, published her memoir, Testament of Youth.
5. Laurence Binyon
A successful poet before the war, Binyon was moved by the already-high number of casualties in 1914 to write For the Fallen. The poem includes a stanza beginning, “they shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old”, which has been recited regularly in remembrance services since the war.
Binyon went on to work as a hospital orderly in France during the Battle of Verdun.
6. John McCrae
The Canadian John McCrae volunteered in 1914 and, as a doctor, had a front seat to witness the effects of chlorine gas used by the Germans at Ypres.
McCrae is, however, best known for his haunting poem In Flanders Fields, written after the death of his friend, Alex Helmer. The poem speaks from the perspective of fallen soldiers whose graves were overgrown with wild poppy flowers, and it inspired the use of red poppies as the ‘flower of remembrance’ for the war dead.
McCrae died of meningitis and pneumonia in 1918.
7. Isaac Rosenberg
Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol to a Russian Jewish family. A talented painter, Rosenberg was offered a scholarship at the Slade Art School and had begun to write poetry before enlisting in 1915.
During the war, his poems reflected on his Anglo-Jewish heritage, describing his experience of the war using metaphors from the Old Testament. Rosenberg was killed while on patrol in the early hours of 1 April 1918.
8. Hedd Wyn (Ellis Humphrey Evans)
Evans was a Welsh language poet who wrote about life as a shepherd before the war. He took the bardic name Hedd Wyn meaning ‘blessed peace’, inspired by the sunlight that shone through the misty hills.
Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist and only enlisted to prevent his younger brother from being conscripted. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. His poem Rhyfel, meaning ‘War’, remains one of his most frequently quoted works.
9. Jessie Pope
Jessie Pope is best known for her widely published patriotic and motivational poems circulated during World War One. Using simple rhymes and rhetorical questions, her poems persuaded men to enlist and encouraged handing white feathers (a symbol of cowardice) to men who did not.
Pope’s message was staunchly opposed by writers such as Wilfred Owen, who accused her of jingoism. Owen even dedicated Dulce et decorum est to Pope, referring to her as “a certain poetess”.
10. August Stramm
Already an avid writer, Stramm had been unsuccessful in finding a publisher for his expressionist form of writing before he was called to active service in 1914. Nevertheless, Stramm’s visceral imagery captured life at the front, where he served as a captain in the Imperial German Army and earned an Iron Cross.
His poem, Under Enemy Fire, while not anti-war in sentiment, caused a scandal in Germany for trying to convey the terrible feeling of coming under enemy fire for the first time:
A horse grasps smoke
iron clanks drowsily
On 1 September 1915, Stramm was shot in the head by a Russian soldier. He was the last member of his company to fall during the attack.