Skip to content

World War One Poetry Essay Introduction

Roughly 10 million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, along with seven million civilians. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways. Just months before his death in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

To mark the WWI centenary, we’ve put together a sampling of poems written in English by both soldiers and civilians, chosen from our archive of over 250 poems from WWI. We’ve also compiled a sampler showcasing the poets who served and volunteered in World War I.

While many of these poems do not address a particular war event, we’ve listed them by year, along with a selection of historical markers, to contextualize the poems historically. You may notice that more poems in 1914 and 1915 extoll the old virtues of honor, duty, heroism, and glory, while many later poems after 1915 approach these lofty abstractions with far greater skepticism and moral subtlety, through realism and bitter irony. Though horrific depictions of battle in poetry date back to Homer’s Iliad, the later poems of WWI mark a substantial shift in how we view war and sacrifice. 

1914
Archduke Ferdinand assassinated. Outbreak of war in July/August. Germany invades Belgium. First Battle of the Marne, First Battle of Ypres. United States remains neutral. Trench warfare begins. The Siege of Antwerp. The Christmas truce.

“Channel Firing” by Thomas Hardy
“On Receiving News of the War” by Isaac Rosenberg
“Peace” by Rupert Brooke (published in Poetry)
“The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke (published in Poetry)
“The Dead” by Rupert Brooke
“Joining the Colours” by Katherine Tynan
“Men Who March Away” by Thomas Hardy
“War Girls” by Jessie Pope
“On Heaven” by Ford Madox Ford (published in Poetry)
“To Germany” by Charles Sorley
“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
“Phases” by Wallace Stevens (published in Poetry)
“Iron” by Carl Sandburg (published in Poetry)
“The Bombardment” by Amy Lowell (published in Poetry)
“War Yawp” by Richard Aldington (published in Poetry)
“Fallen” by Alice Corbin Henderson (published in Poetry)
“August 1914” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
“August 1914” by Isaac Rosenberg
“August, 1914” by Vera Mary Brittain

1915
Germans sink RMS Lusitania. The Dardenelles campaign. Battle of Gallipoli. Second Battle of Ypres. First use of poison gas.

“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae
“Absolution” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Home” by Edward Thomas
“Champagne, 1914-15” by Alan Seeger
“Belgium” by Edith Wharton
“Before Marching and After” by Thomas Hardy
“In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)” by Edward Thomas
“The Owl” by Edward Thomas
“A Lament” by Katherine Tynan
“The Spring in War-Time” by Sara Teasdale
“Into Battle” by Julian Grenfell
“On Being Asked for a War Poem” by William Butler Yeats
“Rouen” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
“Marching” by Isaac Rosenberg (published in Poetry)
“Such, Such is Death” by Charles Sorley
“The Falling Leaves” by Margaret Postgate Cole
“When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” by Charles Sorley
“This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong” by Edward Thomas

1916
Battle of Verdun, Battle of the Somme. President Wilson re-elected with campaign slogan, “He kept us out of the war.” Rasputin is murdered.

“Rain” by Edward Thomas
“Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg (published in Poetry)
“The Troop Ship” by Isaac Rosenberg
“The Kiss” by Siegfried Sassoon
“The Poet as Hero” by Siegfried Sassoon
“As the Team’s Head Brass” by Edward Thomas
“Sonnet 9: On Returning to the Front after Leave” by Alan Seeger
“In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” by Thomas Hardy
“Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats
“The Trumpet” by Edward Thomas
“The Messages” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
“The Death Bed” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Lights Out” by Edward Thomas
“The Night Patrol” by Arthur Graeme West
“The War Films” by Henry Newbolt
“The Twins” by Robert Service
“Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” by Alan Seeger
“At the Movies” by Florence Ripley Mastin

1917
Germans issue Zimmerman Telegram to Mexico, United States declares war on Germany, draft begins. U.S. troops land in France. Third Battle of Ypres. Bolshevik uprising in Russia, led by Lenin, headed by Trotsky.

“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
“I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger
“Blighters” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Two Fusiliers” by Robert Graves
“Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen
“Returning, We Hear the Larks” by Isaac Rosenberg
“The Dead Kings” by Francis Ledwidge
“Servitude” by Ivor Gurney
from Battle of the Somme: The Song of the Mud” by Mary Borden
“Dead Man’s Dump” by Isaac Rosenberg
“Counter-Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Sergeant-Major Money” by Robert Graves
“The Work” by Gertrude Stein
“To His Love” by Ivor Gurney
“After the War” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
“To Any Dead Officer” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Photographs” by Ivor Gurney
“Breakfast” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

1918
U.S. President Wilson issues Fourteen Points to peace. Germany launches Spring Offensive, bombs Paris. United States launches attacks at Belleau Wood and Argonne Forest. Bolsheviks murder Tsar Nicholas II and Romanov family. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, Germany signs armistice on November 11. Paris Peace Conference.

“Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen
“Futility” by Wilfred Owen
“Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon
“The Veteran” by Margaret Postgate Cole (published in Poetry)
“Repression of War Experience” by Siegfried Sassoon
“Grass” by Carl Sandburg
“Dawn on the Somme” by Robert Nichols
“God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men” by Arthur Graeme West
“Lettres d'un Soldat” by Wallace Stevens (published in Poetry)
“Ypres” by Laurence Binyon
“Spring Offensive” by Wilfred Owen
“Epitaph On My Days in Hospital” by Vera Mary Brittain
“Roundel” by Vera Mary Brittain
“War Mothers” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
“Glory of Women” by Sigfried Sassoon
“Smile, Smile, Smile” by Wilfred Owen
“S. I. W.” by Wilfred Owen
“And There Was a Great Calm” by Thomas Hardy

1919 and After
Armies demobilize, return home. Peace Treaty of Versailles ratified by Germany; U.S. Senate votes to reject treaty and refuses to join League of Nations. Proposal and constitution for League of Nations. The Cenotaph unveiled in London. Treaty of Sevres in 1920 ends war on Eastern Front.

“January 1919” by Christopher Middleton (1919)
“Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon (1919)
“The Cenotaph” by Charlotte Mew (1919)
“First Time In” by Ivor Gurney (1919)
fromEpitaphs of the War, 1914-18” by Rudyard Kipling (1919)
“Gethsemane” by Rudyard Kipling (1919)
“Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part I)” by Ezra Pound (1920)
“A.E.F.” by Carl Sandburg (1920)
“To E.T.” by Robert Frost (1920)
“In Memory of George Calderon” by Laurence Binyon (1920)
“War and Peace” by Edgell Rickword (1921)
“Trench Poets” by Edgell Rickword (1921)
“Soldier-Poet” by Hervey Allen (1921)
“For a War Memorial” by G.K. Chesterton (1921)
“Festubert, 1916” by Edmund Blunden (1921)
“Elegy in a Country Churchyard” by G.K. Chesterton (1922)
“Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” by A.E. Housman (1922)
“Soldier from the wars returning” by A.E. Housman (1922)
“I Saw England — July Night” by Ivor Gurney (1922)
“Champs d’Honneur” by Ernest Hemingway (1923) (published in Poetry)
“Laventie” by Ivor Gurney (1925)
“A War Bride” by Jessie St. John (1928) (published in Poetry)

Read more poets who served or volunteered in WWI

Browse moreWar Poems

AUDIO

Poet's Choice: Of Love and War: D.A. Powell reads poems from Rupert Brooke and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Anything But Sweet: Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” and modern warfare.

ARTICLES

“100 Years of Poetry: The Magazine and War”: A historical look at the role of poetry in wartime.

“How Should We Write About War and Trauma?”: Tom Sleigh Looks to David Jones

“Now Online: Siegfried Sassoon’s War Diaries”

“Poetry in the First World War” from Poetry magazine (1940)

ONLINE WWI RESOURCES

PBS: The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century

Oxford University: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

U.S. National WWI Museum

The Telegraph: Life on the Eve of War

World War One more than any other war is associated with the so-called ‘war poets’. The poems written by men such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, is as poignant today as it was both during the war and immediately after it.

 

World War Two did not produce such a flow of poetry targeted at the lifestyle of those who fought in the war. It is probable that the sheer scale, horror and futility of World War One spurred on already gifted and talented writers who had answered their nation’s call to arms. Some, like Brookes, joined up as he was caught up in a wave of patriotism that swept through Great Britain. The overall belief was that World War One would be over by Christmas 1914 and a vast number of young men did not want to miss ‘the fun’. Their naïve outlook was quickly shattered as they arrived at the frontline and experienced trench warfare. It was the lifestyle they lived that spurred on the war poets. They put onto paper what many others thought. Sassoon wrote about the “Gate” and the men who marched through it to go and fight in the Battle of Ypres or in the battles that surrounded the town.

 

There was no standard blueprint for a war poet – even if the common perception is that they were all officers from a privileged background. This was clearly not the case. The War Poets were from a variety of backgrounds. Some such as Brookes had a very comfortable upbringing. Others such as Lance-Corporal Ledwidge came from more humble stock. Some won medals for gallantry. Others did not. The whole variety of backgrounds gives a clear idea that the impact of war in the trenches hit everyone who served there. Forbidden from writing home with any degree of accuracy/truth about the life they led, some put their thoughts into a diary that could be kept in secret. Some of these diaries survive to this day. Others put their thoughts into poems. As many of these poems rely on interpretation as opposed to being clear facts, the poets bypassed any form of military censorship that certainly would have occurred if they had simply written out their thoughts as prose.

 

The poets also came from a variety of religious backgrounds. The majority were from traditional Church of England backgrounds. Three of the more famous poets – Sassoon, Rosenberg and Frankau – were Jewish. Frankau and Sassoon were to convert to Roman Catholicism. Vera Brittain was a “sceptic”. What united them all regardless of their faiths was the fact that they all started to question the whole aspect of God – if a God existed He could never allow such horror; if He did exist, why did allow men to suffer so much? Sassoon in particular became more and more a harsh critic of the men who pushed religion onto the ranks. They made him “love religion less and less”.

 

The majority of war poets were influenced by the ‘Georgian’ poetry movement. The accepted leader of this movement was Edward Marsh who owned a poetry bookshop in London. He was also a patron of a number of young poets who were yet to make their names, as the war was some years off. The name ‘Georgian’ came from the reigning king – George. The ‘Georgian’ poets considered themselves to be modern and innovative. They had their supporters, such as T S Elliott (“they caress everything they touch”), and at the least they were seen as being more relevant than the late Victorian poets. Many of the war poets were keen readers of classic poetry from Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. The works of Shakespeare was also popular amongst them.