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War poets

Before the First World War, British war poetry had generally been about bravery in battle. Poems from the South African (Boer) War (1899-1901) such as Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’ focused on the bravery of the British soldier. However, by the First World War, poets who were soldiers began to write about the pointlessness and wastefulness of war. Many served as officers in the army and saw the destruction at first hand.

War poets Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves were both treated at Craiglockhart Hospital by William Rivers. Both wrote poetry while they were patients. Sassoon's poem Survivors describes the experience of some:

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're ‘longing to go out again,’
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride...
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon
October 1917.


P Leese, Shell Shock: Traumatic Neurosis and the British Soldiers of the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002)

D Roberts, Minds at War: Essential Poetry of the First World War in Context (West Sussex: Saxon Books, 1996)