War and the idea of war has throughout history been associated with honour and heroism. Before World War 1, war poetry had reflected society’s opinion that war was fun, jovial, full of glory and that any young man could earn honour and respect if he had the courage. However, the modern world had not yet experienced war on a large scale. At the beginning of World War 1 these old style poems that depicted soldiers as heroes were released as propaganda to recruit as many young soldiers as possible. However, as the war dragged on, soldiers began to write home and tell of their horrific experiences in the trenches and the true realities of war became apparent. Three poems that encapsulate the different attitudes of conflict are Jessie Pope’s “Who’s for the game?” “Recruiting” by Ewart Alan Mackintosh and “Suicide in the trenches” by Siegfried Sassoon.
Jessie Pope was a journalist and was fiercely patriotic. Her poems now thought to be jingoistic in nature, were originally published in the Daily Mail to encourage enlistment. Her poems consisted of simple rhythms and rhyme schemes with extensive use of rhetorical questions to persuade and pressure young men to join the war. “Who’s for the game” is typical of her style. In this poem she uses an extended metaphor to compare war to a ‘game’, she makes war sound appealing, convincing young men that it will be fun, like a game. Words such as ‘grip’ and ‘tackle’ enable the reader to imagine a rugby game. The poem plays heavily on young men’s guilt. Her rhetorical questions such as ‘And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?’ and ‘And who wants a seat in the stand?’ scorns at cowardliness, manipulating the reader to feel pressured that it is his ‘duty’ to fight for his country.
This pressure is fuelled further by Pope personifying the country as a woman. ‘Your country is up to her neck in a fight’ Men at the time were expected by society to take care of and protect their women. The lines ‘Who knows it won’t be a picnic – not much’ and ‘Who would rather come back with a crutch’ implies there is little danger on the battlefield and allows the reader to believe that war is nothing more dangerous than a game of rugby. Pope’s use of conversational language and simple rhyme is deliberate; ‘Come along lads’ and ‘looking and calling for you’ its affect is to appeal to the young working classes on a personal level. The rhythm of the poem is jaunty and is affective to cajole the young men into to signing up, almost like a rugby coach encouraging his team before a match. The technique used is similar to children’s poetry and as such trivialises the subject. It was written at the beginning of the war when the dreadful reality experienced by soldiers was not yet realised.
In contrast, “Recruiting” by Ewart Alan Mackintosh is a bitter satirical poem which attacks propaganda poetry and the people who sent young men off to war with false stories of glory. Mackintosh served as a soldier during the war and had experienced the horrors it entailed. He was wounded at the Somme and was hospitalised in England. It was during this time that he wrote this poem as a response to the attitude that he experienced on the home front. His poem criticises the ‘fat civilians’ who are the people who set up the recruiting campaign. People, who wish that they ‘could go and fight the Hun’. In reality they are glad they are too old. The noun ‘civilians’ underlines the fact that they won’t be involved in the fighting. Mackintosh also attacks the ‘girls with feathers’ as women used to give men who hadn’t joined up white feathers as a sign of their cowardice. Men were often pressured to join up to please their women. After stanza three, Mackintosh speaks of what the recruiting poster should say if it were honest. He paints a real picture of the war ‘shiver in the morning dew’ gives the reader an image of a cold unforgiving place.
He speaks of the Germans as ‘poor devils’ and ‘waiting to be killed by you’ suggesting that these men were ordinary men and not the ‘wicked German foe’ as the propagandists would claim. At first glance the reader would think the poem was anti-war. In actual fact it isn’t as the last 3 stanzas suggest that young men might gain something from the experience if they face it honestly. The tone of the poem changes to a more rationalised stance. ‘Better twenty honest years’ implies it is better to die at twenty if it is for a good reason. ‘To live and die with honest men’ the emphasis is on the word ‘honest’. It suggests that the civilians are not honest as they give out a false description of the war. The poem has a simple rhythm with rhymes on lines 2 and 4 in each stanza. Mackintosh deliberately mimics the style of propaganda poetry used to encourage the men to enlist which further illustrates his contempt towards it.
Siegfried Sassoon’s attitude to conflict was very anti-war. He too served as a soldier but soon became horrified by the realities of war and had grown increasingly angry about the tactics being employed by the propagandists. Sassoon’s hostility to war is reflected in his poetry. His poem “Suicide in the trenches” is a parody of the patriotic propaganda poems that enticed young men to enlist. The rhythm and simple rhyme style mirrors the jovial style of propaganda poems yet the tone is bitter and sarcastic. In the first stanza Sassoon creates an image of a young boy who has no concerns with life. ‘Who grinned at life in empty joy’ suggests the boy was happy yet his life was empty. The use of alliterations ‘simple soldier’ and ‘slept soundly’ emphasises the innocence of the young boys life. However, there’s an underlying tone of anger and bitterness. It suggests that because the boy was so young and naive he was influenced and motivated by the patriotic propaganda to enlist in the army in the hopes of finding adventure In contrast, the second stanza creates an image of horror and a true reflection of the conditions of war. Sassoon describes this horror by using the word ‘winter’ to create a dark, cold and forbidding place. ‘cowed’ and ‘glum’ paints a picture of a beaten and broken down soldier who is traumatised by the realities of war. By using ‘crumps’ ‘lice’ and ‘lack of rum’ Sassoon highlights the inhumane conditions that soldiers were under, that it was a living ‘hell’ and that the soldier ‘put a bullet through his brain’ to end his sorry existence. The line ‘no one spoke of him again’ is an angry attack at the propagandists suggesting the soldier was forgotten and was dispensable as many more young men would be recruited via their tactics. Sassoon’s third stanza is a bitter attack aimed at the ‘smug-faced crowds’ on the home front. It implies they are glad the young lads are going to war and not them. The final line uses emotive language to sum up the waste of young life and it’s destruction of innocence.
Attitudes of conflict expressed through poetry differ because each poet writes from their own perspective. Jessie Pope hadn’t experienced war and like the majority of society had a romanticised view of the glory of war. Ewart Mackintosh criticised the way in which war was promoted; he felt that young soldiers should have been given an honest picture to help the recruits make their own decisions. Siegfried Sassoon criticised the way in which the truth about war was censored to stop society learning of the true horrors. If we compare Pope’s poem to Sassoon’s, it is hard to believe they are writing about the same war. Sadly, the true reality of World War 1 was not made fully apparent until after the war had ended.