A war poet is a poet who participates in a war and writes about their experiences, or a non-combatant who writes poems about war. While the term is applied especially to those who served during World War I, the term can be applied to a poet of any nationality writing about any war, including Homer's Iliad, from around the 8th century BC, and the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, which celebrated the actual Battle of Maldon in 991, as well as poetry of the American Civil War, the Spanish Civil War, the Crimean War and other wars.
The Polovtsian Wars
The Tale of Igor's Campaign, an epic poem in the Old East Slavic language, describes a failed raid made in the year 1185 by Prince Igor Svyatoslavich of Novgorod-Seversk (of the Chernigov principality of Rus', in modern Ukraine) against the Polovtsians (Cumans), a tribe living along the southern banks of the Don River. Other historical figures are mentioned, including skald Boyan (The Bard), Princes Vseslav of Polotsk, Yaroslav Osmomysl of Halych, and Vsevolod the Big Nest of Suzdal. The author appeals to the warring Rus' princes and pleads for unity in the face of the constant threat of Pagan tribes from the Turkic East.
Since its 18th-century rediscovery and publication by Aleksei Musin-Pushkin, the poem, which has often been compared with The Song of Roland, has inspired other poems, art, music, and an opera by Alexander Borodin. It has also been translated into English literally by Vladimir Nabokov and into the original dactylic meter by Watson Kirkconnell.
The Battle of Lepanto
Jacobite Uprising of 1745
Jacobite songs penned by Alasdair such as: Òran Nuadh – "A New Song", Òran nam Fineachan Gaidhealach – "The Song of the Highland Clans" and Òran do'n Phrionnsa – "A Song to the Prince," serve as testament to the Bard's passionate loyalty to the House of Stuart. According to literary historian John MacKenzie, these poems were sent to Aeneas MacDonald, the brother of the Clanranald tacksman of Kinlochmoidart, who was a banker in Paris. Aeneas read the poems aloud to Prince Charles Edward Stuart in English translation and the poems played a major role in convincing the Prince to come to Scotland and to initiate the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
Other poems about the Uprising were written in both Gaelic and English by John Roy Stewart, who served as colonel of the Edinburgh Regiment and a close and trusted confidant of Prince Charles Edward Stuart.
The Irish language poem Mo Ghile Mear, which was composed by the County Cork Bard Seán "Clárach" Mac Domhnaill, is a lament for the defeat of the Uprising at the Battle of Culloden. The poem is a soliloquy by the Kingdom of Ireland, whom Seán Clárach personifies, according to the rules of the Aisling genre, as a woman from the Otherworld. The woman laments her state and describes herself as a grieving widow due to the defeat and exile of her lawful King.
The Scottish Gaelic song Mo rùn geal òg ("My fair young love"), alternately known as Cumha do dh'Uilleam Siseal ("The Lament for William Chisholm") is a lament composed by Christina Fergusson for her husband, William Chisholm of Strathglass.
Fergusson was possibly born in Contin, Ross-shire. She was married to William Chisholm, who was a blacksmith, armourer and standard bearer for the Chief of Clan Chisholm. Chisholm was killed in action on April 16, 1746, while bearing the standard of his Clan at the Battle of Culloden. In his memory, Ferguson wrote Mo Rùn Geal Òg (My Fair Young Love). In the poem, Christina Fergusson rebukes Prince Charles Edward Stuart, saying that the loss of her husband in the fight for his cause has left her desolate.
Poems about the Jacobite rising of 1745 have also been written in English by Sir Walter Scott, Carolina Nairne, Agnes Maxwell MacLeod, Allan Cunningham, and William Hamilton. Despite the suppression of Highland Scottish culture after the rising's defeat, Scotsmen, both Highlander and Lowlander, continued to enlist in the armed forces, with Scottish regiments becoming renowned worldwide as shock troops. For this reason, literary critic Wilson MacLeod has written that, in post-Culloden Scottish Gaelic literature, anti-colonial poets such as Duncan Livingstone "must be considered isolated voices. The great majority of Gaelic verse, from the eighteenth century onwards, was steadfastly [in favor of Empire], with several poets, including Aonghas Moireasdan and Dòmhnall MacAoidh, enthusiastically asserting the conventual justificatory rationale for imperial expansion, that it was a civilising mission rather than a process of conquest and expropriation. Conversely, there is no evidence that Gaelic poets saw a connection between their own difficult history and the experience of colonised people in other parts of the world."
German Revolutions of 1848–49
Hungarian Revolution of 1848
The uprising began on March 15, 1848, when Petőfi read his poem Nemzeti Dal ("National Song") aloud on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest. The poem triggered a massive demonstration in the streets of the city, which forced the Emperor's representatives to accept the end of censorship and the release of all political prisoners.
The Revolution eventually resulted in a civil war between a Hungarian Republican Government led by Lajos Kossuth and Hungarian Monarchists, many of whom were ethnic minorities, who remained loyal to the House of Hapsburg. In response, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, who had been raised on stories of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, ordered the Imperial Russian Army to enter Hungary and to ally themselves with the monarchists.
Despite efforts by General Józef Bem to keep him out of danger, Petőfi insisted on going into combat against the Monarchists and their Russian allies. Petőfi is believed to have either been killed in action during the Battle of Segesvár on July 31, 1849, or to have subsequently died in a Tsarist penal colony near Barguzin, in Siberia. At the time of his presumed death, Petőfi was only 26 years old.
János Arany's 1857 poem A walesi bárdok ("The Bards of Wales"), which retells the legend of 500 Welsh bards who were burned at the stake by King Edward I of England for refusing to sing his praises at Montgomery Castle, is Arany's coded response to the defeat of the 1848 Revolution. Like the poetry of Petőfi, Arany's poem is considered an immortal part of Hungarian literature.
Despite the defeat of the uprising, Petőfi and Arany's poetry and nostalgia for the 1848 Revolution have become a major part of Hungary's national identity.
According to Reg Gadney, the anti-communist Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began on October 23, 1956, when 20,000 student protesters gathered around the statue of Sándor Petőfi on the Pest side of the Danube River. During the gathering, Nemzeti Dal was recited to the demonstrators by Imre Sinkovics, a young actor from the Budapest National Theater. The demonstrators then read out a list of sixteen demands to the Communist Government of Hungary, laid wreaths at the foot of the statue, and crossed the Danube to Buda, where the demonstration continued before the statue of General Józef Bem.
Like Petőfi's first reading of the poem on March 15, 1848, the demonstration grew into a city-wide affair, and then into a temporarily successful nationwide uprising against the existing regime, which was only quelled by the intervention of the Russian Army.
Probably the most famous 19th-century war poem is Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade", which he supposedly wrote in only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times. As poet laureate, he often wrote verses about public events. It immediately became hugely popular, even reaching the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form.
Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Last of the Light Brigade", written some forty years after the appearance of "The Charge of the Light Brigade", in 1891, focuses on the terrible hardships faced in old age by veterans of the Crimean War, as exemplified by the cavalry men of the Light Brigade, in an attempt to shame the British public into offering financial assistance. Various lines from the poem are randomly quoted by Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.
American Civil War
As the American Civil War was beginning, American poet Walt Whitman published his poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" as a patriotic rally call for the North. Whitman volunteered for a time as a nurse in the army hospitals, and his collection Drum-Taps (1865) deals with his experiences during the War.
Novelist Herman Melville also wrote many poems about the war which support the Union side.
On the Confederate side, the most well known Civil War poet is Father Abram Ryan, a Roman Catholic priest and former military chaplain to the Confederate Army. Father Ryan, who eulogized the defeated South in poems like The Conquered Banner and The Sword of Lee, is sometimes referred to as "The Poet-Priest of the Confederacy," and as "The Poet Laureate of the South."
Rudyard Kipling wrote poetry in support of the British cause in the Boer War, including the well known "Lichtenberg", which is about a combatant's death in a foreign land. Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and others wrote also poems relating to the Boer War. Hardy's poems include "Drummer Hodge", and "The Man He Killed". '"Swinburne regularly donated work to the papers to rouse the spirit, from 'Transvaal', with the infamous closing line, 'Strike, England, and strike home', to 'The Turning of the Tide'."
"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
"I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although
"He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like – just as I –
Was out of work – had sold his traps –
No other reason why.
"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."
During the last phase of the war in the former Orange Free State, the Afrikaner people of Winburg taunted the Scottish regiments in the local British Army garrison with a parody of the Jacobite ballad Bonnie Dundee, which was generally sung in English. The parody celebrated the guerrilla warfare of Boer Commando leader Christiaan De Wet.
- De Wet he is mounted, he rides up the street
- The English skedaddle an A1 retreat!
- And the commander swore: They've got through the net
- That's been spread with such care for Christiaan De Wet.
- There are hills beyond Winburg and Boers on each hill
- Sufficient to thwart ten generals' skill
- There are stout-hearted burghers 10,000 men set
- On following the Mausers of Christian De Wet.
- Then away to the hills, to the veld, to the rocks
- Ere we own a usurper we'll crouch with the fox
- And tremble false Jingoes amidst all your glee
- Ye have not seen the last of my Mausers and me!
World War I
In a 2020 article for the St Austin Review about American WWI poet John Allan Wyeth, Dana Gioia writes, "The First World War changed European literature forever. The horror of modern mechanized warfare and the slaughter of nineteen million young men and innocent civilians traumatized the European imagination. For poets, the unprecedented scale of violence annihilated the classic traditions of war literature – individual heroism, military glory, and virtuous leadership. Writers struggled for a new idiom commensurate with their apocalyptic personal experience. European Modernism emerged from the trenches of the Western Front.
"British poetry especially was transformed by the trauma of trench warfare and indiscriminate massacre. The 'War Poets' constitute an imperative presence in modern British literature with significant writers such as Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Ivor Gurney, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and Isaac Rosenberg. Their work, which combined stark realism and bitter irony with a sense of tragic futility, altered the history of English literature.
"Similar cohorts of war poets occupy important positions in other European literature's. French literature has Charles Peguy, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Blaise Cendrars (who lost his right arm at the Second Battle of Champagne). Italian poetry has Eugenio Montale, Giuseppe Ungaretti, and Gabriele D'Annunzio. German poetry has Georg Trakl, August Stramm, and Gottfried Behn.
"These scarred survivors reshaped the sensibility of modern verse. The Great War also changed literature in another brutal way; it killed countless young writers."
The major novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) wrote a number of significant war poems that relate to the Napoleonic Wars, the Boer Wars and World War I, including "Drummer Hodge", "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'", "The Man He Killed" and ‘"And there was a great calm" (on the signing of the Armistice, Nov.11, 1918)’: his work had a profound influence on other war poets such as Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon". Hardy in these poems often used the viewpoint of ordinary soldiers and their colloquial speech. A theme in the Wessex Poems (1898) is the long shadow that the Napoleonic Wars cast over the 19th century, as seen, for example, in "The Sergeant's Song" and "Leipzig". The Napoleonic War is the subject of Hardy's drama in verse The Dynasts (1904–08).
At the beginning of World War I, like many other writers, Kipling wrote pamphlets and poems which enthusiastically supported the British war aims of restoring Belgium after that kingdom had been occupied by Germany together with more generalised statements that Britain was standing up for the cause of good.
For the first time, a substantial number of important British poets were soldiers, writing about their experiences of war. A number of them died on the battlefield, most famously Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Charles Sorley. Others including Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon survived but were scarred by their experiences, and this was reflected in their poetry. Robert H. Ross describes the British "war poets" as Georgian poets. Many poems by British war poets were published in newspapers and then collected in anthologies. Several of these early anthologies were published during the war and were very popular, though the tone of the poetry changed as the war progressed. One of the wartime anthologies, The Muse in Arms, was published in 1917, and several were published in the years following the war.
David Jones' epic poem of World War I In Parenthesis was first published in England in 1937, and is based on Jones's own experience as an infantryman in the War. In Parenthesis narrates the experiences of English Private John Ball in a mixed English-Welsh regiment starting with their leaving England and ending seven months later with the assault on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The work employs a mixture of lyrical verse and prose, is highly allusive, and ranges in tone from formal to Cockney colloquial and military slang. The poem won the Hawthornden Prize and the admiration of writers such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot.
In November 1985, a slate memorial was unveiled in Poet's Corner commemorating 16 poets of the Great War: Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas.
When the war began, Scotland was filled with patriotic euphoria and an enormous number of young men rushed up to enlist in the armed forces. During the First World War, kilt-wearing soldiers from the Scottish regiments were dubbed, "Die Damen aus der Hölle" ("The Ladies from Hell") by the soldiers of the Imperial German Army on the Western Front. In the 1996 memoir The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks, American author and explorer Clive Cussler revealed that his father, Eric Edward Cussler, served with the Imperial German Army on the Western Front during World War I. In later years, Eric Cussler used to tell his son that French Poilus were, "mediocre fighters", that British Tommies were, "tenacious bulldogs", and that American Doughboys, were, "real scrappers." Eric Cussler always added, however, "But my German comrades took anything they could all dish out. It was only when we heard the bagpipes from, 'The Ladies from Hell,' that we oozed cold sweat and knew a lot of us wouldn't be going home for Christmas."
In 1914, Scottish poet Charles Sorley, a native of Aberdeen, was living in Imperial Germany and attending the University of Jena. He later recalled that when the war began, his first feelings of patriotism were towards Germany. After being briefly interned as an enemy alien at Trier and ordered to leave the country, Sorley returned to Great Britain and enlisted in the Suffolk Regiment as a lieutenant. He was killed by a German sniper during the Battle of Loos in 1915 and his poems and letters were published posthumously.
Robert Graves described Charles Sorley in Goodbye to All That as "one of the three poets of importance killed during the war". (The other two being Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.) Sorley believed that Germans and British were equally blind to each other's humanity and his anti-war poetry stands in direct contrast to the jingoistic nationalism of Rupert Brooke.
The Scottish Gaelic poet John Munro, a native of Swordale on the Isle of Lewis, won the Military Cross while serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Seaforth Highlanders and was ultimately killed in action during the 1918 Spring Offensive. Lt. Munro, writing under the pseudonym Iain Rothach, came to be ranked by critics alongside the major war poets. Tragically, only three of his poems are known to survive. They are Ar Tir ("Our Land"), Ar Gaisgich a Thuit sna Blàir ("Our Heroes Who Fell in Battle"), and Air sgàth nan sonn ("For the Sake of the Warriors"). Derick Thomson – the venerable poet and Professor of Celtic Studies at Glasgow – hailed Munro's work in his Companion to Gaelic Scotland as being: "the first strong voice of the new Gaelic verse of the 20th century".
Pàdraig Moireasdan, a Scottish Gaelic bard and seanchaidh from Grimsay, North Uist, served in the Lovat Scouts during World War I. He served in the Gallipoli Campaign, in the Macedonian front, and on the Western Front. In later years, Moireasdan, who ultimately reached the rank of corporal, loved to tell how he fed countless starving Allied soldiers in Thessalonica by making a quern. Corporal Moireasdan composed many poems and songs during the war, including Òran don Chogadh (A Song to the War"), which he composed while serving at Gallipoli.
In 1969, Gairm, a Scottish Gaelic publishing house based in Glasgow, posthumously published the first book of poems by Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, a combat veteran of the King's Own Cameron Highlanders during World War I and war poet in the Gaelic language. Unlike Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Dòmhnall Ruadh believed himself to be fighting a just war against a terrible enemy. His anger over the futility of the war only boiled over after the Armistice, when he returned to his home in North Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, and found that none of the promises that had been made to soldiers from the Scottish Highlands and Islands were going to be kept. The rents were still high, the population was still impoverished, hunting and fishing were still prosecuted as poaching, and the omnipotence of the island's Anglo-Scottish landlord was exactly as it had been before the war began.
Dòmhnall Ruadh's poetry proved very popular and began being used to teach the Gaelic language in the schools of the Scottish Highlands and Islands. An expanded and bilingual edition was published by the Historical Society of North Uist in 1995. In 2016, Scottish folk singer and North Uist native Julie Fowlis performed Dòmhnall Ruadh's wartime love song An Eala Bhàn ("The White Swan") at the Thiepval Memorial on the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Three senior members of the British Royal Family, Prince William, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry were in attendance.
At the outbreak of World War I, the vast majority of the Welsh populace were against being involved in the war. Throughout World War I, voluntary enlistment by Welshmen remained low and conscription was ultimately enacted in Wales to ensure a steady supply of new recruits into the armed forces. The war particularly left Welsh non-conformist chapels deeply divided. Traditionally, the Nonconformists had not been comfortable at all with the idea of warfare. The war saw a major clash within Welsh Nonconformism between those who backed military service and those who adopted Christian pacifism.
Born in the village of Trawsfynydd, Wales, Evans wrote much of his poetry while working as a shepherd on his family's hill farm. His style, which was influenced by romantic poetry, was dominated by themes of nature and religion. He also wrote several war poems following the outbreak of war on the Western Front in 1914. Like many other Welsh nonconformists, Hedd Wyn was a Christian pacifist and refused to enlist in the armed forces, feeling that he could never kill anyone.
The war, however, inspired some of Hedd Wyn's most noted poems, including Plant Trawsfynydd ("Children of Trawsfynydd"), Y Blotyn Du ("The Black Dot"), and Nid â’n Ango ("[It] Will Not Be Forgotten"). His poem, Rhyfel ("War"), remains one of his most frequently quoted works.
Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng,
Why must I live in this grim age,
Although farm work was classed as a reserved occupation, in 1916 the Evans family was ordered to send one of their sons to sign up for conscription. The 29-year-old Ellis enlisted rather than his younger brother Robert. In February 1917, he received his training at Litherland Camp, Liverpool.
In June 1917, Hedd Wyn joined the 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers (part of the 38th (Welsh) Division) at Fléchin, France. His arrival depressed him, as exemplified in his quote, "Heavy weather, heavy soul, heavy heart. That is an uncomfortable trinity, isn’t it?" Nevertheless, at Fléchin he finished his awdl Yr Arwr ("The Hero"), his submission to the National Eisteddfod of Wales, and signed it "Fleur de Lis". It is believed it was sent via the Royal Mail around the end of June.
The Battle of Passchendaele began at 3:50 a.m. on July 31, 1917, with heavy bombardment of German lines. However, the troops' advance was hampered by very effective German artillery and machine gun fire, and by heavy rain which turned the battlefield into a swamp.
Private Evans, as part of the 15th (Service) Battalion (1st London Welsh), was advancing towards an Imperial German Army strongpoint –created within the ruins of the Belgian hamlet of Hagebos ("Iron Cross")– when he was mortally wounded by shrapnel from a German nose cap shell.
Hedd Wyn was carried by stretcher bearers to a first-aid post. Still conscious, he asked the doctor, "Do you think I will live?" though it was clear that he had little chance of surviving; he died at about 11:00 a.m. on July 31, 1917.
Just a few weeks later, Hedd Wyn's awdl, Yr Arwr ("The Hero"), was posthumously awarded the Chair before a weeping audience at the National Eisteddfod of Wales. The Bardic Chair was delivered to the farmhouse of the Bard's parents draped in a black sheet. Ever since, the 1917 National Eisteddfod has been referred to as "Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu" ("The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair").
Ellis H. Evans was buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery, near Boezinge, Belgium. After a petition was submitted to the Imperial War Graves Commission, his headstone was given the additional words Y Prifardd Hedd Wyn (English: "The Chief Bard, Hedd Wyn").
Another great Welsh language war poet was Rev. Albert Evans-Jones, who served on the Salonica front and on the Western Front as a RAMC ambulance man and later as a military chaplain. After the war, he became a minister for the Presbyterian Church of Wales and wrote many poems that shocked the Welsh population with their graphic descriptions of the horrors of the trenches and their savage attacks on wartime ultra-nationalism. Also,in his work as Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod, Rev. Evans-Jones altered the traditional rituals, which were based in 18th century Celtic neopaganism, to better reflect the Christian beliefs of the Welsh people.
Welsh poet Alan Llwyd's English translations of many poems by both poets appear in the volume Out of the Fire of Hell; Welsh Experience of the Great War 1914–1918 in Prose and Verse.
The United States only entered the Great War in May 1917. By that time, the mass mechanized slaughter at the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele, which still haunt the other combatant nations, had already taken place.
By the time large numbers of soldiers from the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in France, they faced an Imperial German Army that was starving, exhausted, and which had already been bled white by three years of war. Furthermore, the German people were being systematically starved by a Royal Navy blockade and were increasingly on the brink of overthrowing the Monarchy. Although American Doughboys helped stem the 1918 Spring Offensive, captured Chipilly Ridge during the Battle of Amiens, won the Meuse-Argonne Campaign, and saved the Allies from having to contract a negotiated peace with the Central Powers, America's losses were far fewer than those of the other combatant nations, which lost an entire generation of young men. For this reason, World War I is a forgotten war in America today.
Alan Seeger, the uncle of songwriter Pete Seeger, enlisted in the French Foreign Legion while America was still neutral and became the first great American poet of the First World War. Seeger's poems, which passionately urged the American people to join the Allied cause, were widely publicized and remained popular.
In the end, Seeger was killed in action on July 4, 1916, during the French Army's attack against the trenches of the Imperial German Army at Belloy-en-Santerre, during the Battle of the Somme. His fellow French Foreign Legion soldier, Rif Baer, later described Seeger's last moments: "His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend." As he lay mortally wounded in no man's land, Seeger cheered on the passing soldiers of the Legion until he died of his injuries.
In the United States, Alan Seeger's death was greeted with national mourning. Alan Seeger is sometimes called, "The American Rupert Brooke."
According to former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, decades after Alan Seeger's death, his poem I Have a Rendezvous with Death, was a great favorite of her husband, U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who often asked her to read it aloud to him.
American poet and Roman Catholic convert Joyce Kilmer, who was widely considered America's answer to G.K. Chesterton, served in France as a sergeant with the Fighting 69th. Sgt. Kilmer was beginning to write war poetry at the time that he was killed by a German sniper during the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918.
In 1928, American poet and World War I veteran John Allan Wyeth published This Man's Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets. The collection, which is written in an experimental form unique in the history of the sonnet, traces Wyeth's military service as a lieutenant and military intelligence officer with the 33rd U.S. Infantry Division from the time he received orders to embark for France, during the ocean voyage and through his journey into the firing line. Although the collection was very well reviewed, the 1929 Stock Market Crash soon followed its publication and Wyeth's poetry was swiftly forgotten. When John Allan Wyeth died on May 11, 1981, his obituary made no mention of the fact that he had been a poet.
According to B.J. Omanson and Dana Gioia, who rescued Wyeth's poetry from oblivion during the early 21st century, Wyeth is the only American poet of the First World War who can be compared with English war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen. Ormanson has also found that every event that Wyeth relates in his sonnets, down to the way he describes the weather, can be verified by other sources as completely accurate.
In response to the 2008 re-publication of The Man's Army, British literary critic Jon Stallworthy, the editor of The Oxford Book of War Poetry and the biographer of Wilfred Owen, wrote, "At long last, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice, an American poet takes his place in the front rank of the War Poet's parade."
The fact that 49,400 Irish soldiers gave their lives fighting in the British Army during the Great War remains very controversial. This is because the Easter Rising of 1916 took place during the Great War and the Irish War of Independence began only a few months after the Armistice. Ireland's national identity has been forged out of an extremely bitter conflict of independence against the British that both preceded and followed the Great War. For this reason, Irish republicanism has traditionally viewed Irishmen who serve in the British military as traitors. This view became even more prevalent after 1949, when Ireland voted to become a Republic and to leave the Commonwealth of Nations. For this reason, Ireland's war poets were long neglected.
One of them was Tom Kettle, a former member of the paramilitary Irish Volunteers and M.P. for the Irish Parliamentary Party. Despite his outrage over the Rape of Belgium, Kettle was very critical of the war at first. Comparing the Anglo-Irish landlord class to the big estate owners who similarly dominated the Kingdom of Prussia, Kettle wrote, "England goes to fight for liberty in Europe and for Junkerdom in Ireland."
Later, when he was serving as a Lieutenant with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the Western Front, Kettle learned of the Easter Rising of 1916. After also learning of the executions of Roger Casement and sixteen of the Rising's other leaders, including every one of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Kettle prophetically wrote, "These men will go down in history as heroes and martyrs and I will go down – if I go down at all – as a bloody British officer."
Mere months later, on September 9, 1916, Lieut. Kettle was shot in the chest during the Battle of Ginchy, in which the 16th (Irish) Division successfully captured and held the French village of the same name, which the Imperial German Army had been using as an artillery observation post during the Battle of the Somme. Lieut. Kettle's body was never found.
G. K. Chesterton later wrote, "Thomas Michael Kettle was perhaps the greatest example of that greatness of spirit which was so ill rewarded on both sides of the channel [...] He was a wit, a scholar, an orator, a man ambitious in all the arts of peace; and he fell fighting the barbarians because he was too good a European to use the barbarians against England, as England a hundred years before has used the barbarians against Ireland."
- "In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
- To beauty proud as was your mother's prime,
- In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
- You'll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
- And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
- To dice with death. And oh! they'll give you rhyme
- And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
- And some decry it in a knowing tone.
- So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
- And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
- Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
- Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor
- But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed
- And for the secret Scripture of the poor."
When Francis Ledwidge, who was a member of the Irish Volunteers in Slane, County Meath, learned of the outbreak of the war, he decided against enlisting in the British Army. In response, the Unionist National Volunteers subjected Ledwidge to a show trial, during which Ledwidge was accused of cowardice and of being pro-German. Soon after, Ledwidge enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Despite his twin beliefs in socialism and Irish republicanism, Ledwidge later wrote, "I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions."
Like Kettle, Ledwidge was also deeply moved by the executions that followed the Easter Rising of 1916 and eulogized the dead in several of his most famous poems. In his letters, Ledwidge also expressed a belief that he was fighting to defend Ireland rather than for the British Empire.
During a major rainstorm on the early morning of 31 July 1917, Ledwidge's battalion was laying beech-wood road planks in the boggy soil near the village of Boezinge, Belgium, in preparation for the offensive later that day that would become known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
Shortly after the Fusiliers, who were soaked to the skin, were permitted a short break and issued hot tea, a German long range shell landed next to Ledwidge, who was killed instantly.
A Roman Catholic military chaplain, Father Devas, was the first on the scene. That night, Father Devas wrote in his diary, "Crowds at Holy Communion. Arranged for service but washed out by rain and fatigues. Walk in rain with dogs. Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P."
William Butler Yeats' first war poem was "On being asked for a War Poem" written on February 6, 1915, in response to a request from Henry James for a political poem about World War I. Yeats changed the poem's title from "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations" to "A Reason for Keeping Silent" before sending it in a letter to James, which Yeats wrote at Coole Park on August 20, 1915. When it was later reprinted the title was changed to "On being asked for a War Poem".
Yeats' most famous war poem is An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. The poem is a soliloquy by Major Robert Gregory, an Anglo-Irish flying ace, in which the narrator predicts his imminent death in an aerial dogfight. Maj. Gregory, who died when his Sopwith Camel crashed near Padua, Italy, on January 23, 1918, was an Irish nationalist, a friend of Yeats, and the son of his patroness Lady Augusta Gregory. Royal Flying Corps records in the British National Archives state that Maj. Gregory was "shot down in error by an Italian pilot", a claim that has been repeated by both Yeats' and Lady Gregory's biographers. In 2017, Geoffrey O'Byrne White, a director of the Irish Aviation Authority, the great-grandnephew of Lady Gregory, and a former pilot in the Irish Air Corps, said he believed Major Gregory had become incapacitated at high altitude, attributing this to an inoculation that morning against influenza.
In Yeats' poem, Maj. Gregory declares that he does not hate the Germans he fights against or love the British whom he fights for. He comments that his countrymen are the poor Irish Catholic tenants of his mother's estate at Kiltartan, County Galway, that they will not mourn his death, and that his passing will have done nothing to improve their lives. He comments that he signed up to fight not for law, duty, the speeches of politicians, or the cheering crowds, but for, "a lonely impulse of delight."
"The Second Coming" is a poem written by Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which followed the Easter Rising of 1916, but before David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill sent the Black and Tans to Ireland. The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse, the Antichrist, and the Second Coming to allegorise the state of Europe during the Interwar Period.
Russia also produced a number of significant war poets including Alexander Blok, Ilya Ehrenburg (who published war poems in his book "On the Eve"), and Nikolay Semenovich Tikhonov (who published the book Orda (The Horde) in 1922).
The Acmeist poet Nikolay Gumilyov served in the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. He saw combat in East Prussia, the Macedonian front, and with the Russian Expeditionary Force in France. He was also decorated twice with the Cross of St. George. Gumilyov's war poems were assembled in the collection The Quiver (1916).
Gumilyov's wife, the poetess Anna Akhmatova, began writing poems during World War I that expressed the collective suffering of the Russian people as men were called up and the women in their lives bade them goodbye. For Akhmatova, writing such poems turned into her life's work and she continued writing similar poems about the suffering of the Russian people during the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the Red Terror, and Joseph Stalin's Great Purge.
The French Symbolist poet Louis Pergaud considered himself a Pacifist and, at the outbreak of war in 1914, he tried in vain to register as a conscientious objector. Instead, he was conscripted into the French Army and sent to the trenches of the Western Front.
On 7 April 1915, Pergaud's regiment attacked the Imperial German Army's trenches near Fresnes-en-Woëvre, during which he was wounded. Pergaud fell into barbed wire, where he became trapped. Several hours later, German soldiers rescued him and other wounded French soldiers and took them to a temporary field hospital behind German lines. On the morning of April 8, 1915, Pergaud and many other POWs were killed by friendly fire, when a French artillery barrage destroyed the hospital.
According to Ian Higgins, "Although unfit for active service, Jean de La Ville de Mirmont volunteered immediately when the war broke out, but it was only after being repeatedly turned down that he finally managed to enlist."
In 1914, he was called to the front with the rank of sergeant of the 57th Infantry Regiment.
According to Ian Higgins, "It has been suggested that here at last was the great adventure he had been longing for. Certainly, the prelude to the war 'interested' him, and he was keen to witness and, if possible, take part in a war which was probably going to 'set the whole of Europe on fire.' His Lettres de guerre develop movingly from initial enthusiasm for the defense of Civilization and a conviction that the enemy was the entire German people, through a growing irritation with chauvinistic brainwashing and the flagrancy of what would now be called the 'disinformation' peddled through the French press (so much more heavily censored than the British, he said), to an eventual admiration, at the front, for the heroism and humanity often shown by the enemy."
On November 28, however, he was buried alive by a landmine explosion at Verneuil, near Chemin des Dames. Sergeant de La Ville de Mirmont was still alive when his comrades dug him out, but the explosion had broken his spinal column and he died soon afterwards. One account alleges that he died after saying, Maman. Other accounts, allege, however, that there were no last words."
The Breton language poet and activist Yann-Ber Kalloc'h, a former Catholic seminarian who was best known by his Bardic name of Bleimor, enlisted in the French Army on the outbreak of war in 1914. Like many others, Kalloc'h believed that France's war against Germany was a defense of civilization and Christianity and that it would lead to the resurrection of the Roman Catholic Church in France, the Breton language, and Breton culture. Kalloc'h, who wielded a sailor's axe in hand-to-hand combat in the trenches, was killed when a German shell landed near his dugout on April 10, 1917. His last poetry collection, Ar en Deulin, was published posthumously.
Despite the last ditch efforts of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II to avert the outbreak of the Great War through the Willy-Nicky Telegrams, the German people greeted the international crisis of August 1914 with patriotic euphoria. Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of Berlin, singing patriotic songs and loudly cheering the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador, the Kaiser, and their elected representatives. So great was the popular enthusiasm, that both the Kaiser and politicians from every political party concluded that if they did not go to war, they would never survive politically. A few anti-war rallies were organized by elements of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, but even that Party's far-left ultimately bowed to the popular will and agreed to support the war effort.
August Stramm, who is considered the first of the expressionists, has been called by Jeremy Adler one of, "the most innovative poets of the First World War." Stramm, Adler writes, treated, "language like a physical material" and, "honed down syntax to its bare essentials." Citing Stramm's fondness for "fashioning new words out of old," Adler has also written that, "what James Joyce did on a grand scale for English, Stramm achieved more modestly for German."
A reserve officer in the Imperial German Army, Stramm was called up to active service immediately upon the outbreak of World War I. Serving as a company commander on both the Eastern and Western Fronts, Stramm repeatedly distinguished himself by acts of courage under enemy fire and was highly decorated by both the German and Austro-Hungarian Governments.
At the beginning of August 1915, Stramm was sent home to Berlin on what would be his final furlough. His daughter Inge, who adored her father, later recalled how Stramm made her ten-year-old brother promise, "never to let himself down," by being, "a Schweinhund before himself."
His family would later learn that throughout his furlough, Stramm had carried a letter in his pocket which he needed only to countersign in order to be released from all future military service at his publisher's request. By this time, Stramm had come to detest the war and believed that his death in combat was imminent. His mind was also filled with projects that he longed to write down. In the end, however, Stramm was, according to Patrick Bridgwater, "unable to accept the alibi of a higher duty to literature," and left the letter unsigned.
On September 1, 1915, mere weeks after returning to his unit, Captain August Stramm was shot in the head during brutal hand-to-hand combat against the Imperial Russian Army in the Rokitno Marshes during the Great Retreat of 1915.
According to Patrick Bridgwater, "What is quite extraordinary is that he appears to have found in the hell-on-earth of total warfare around Brest-Litovsk in 1915 the sense of harmony he had sought for so long."
A few weeks before his death, Stramm had written to Herwarth Walden, "Singularly, life and death are one... Both are one... Battle and the night and death and the nightingale are all one. One! And fighting and sleeping and dreaming and acting are all one! There is no separation! All goes together and swims and shimmers like sun and whirlpool. Only time goes forward, time this. So do fighting, hungering, singing, dying. All! Soldier and officer! Day and night! Sorrowing and bleeding! And a hand shines over me! I swim through everything. Am everything! I!".
When the war broke out in 1914, Gerrit Engelke, a working-class poet from Hanover, was in neutral Denmark. He at first hesitated to return, but was ultimately forced to do so by financial pressures. He served in combat for four years, experiencing the battles of Langemarck, St. Mihiel, the Somme, Dünaberg, and Verdun. In 1916, he was awarded the Iron Cross for swimming across the flooded Yser River. Engelke was wounded in 1917 and, during his recovery, he became engaged to a war widow, but was forced to return to combat in May 1918. His friends attempted to have him transferred away from the firing line, much to Engelke's outrage, as he felt a deep loyalty to his brothers in arms. He was fatally injured during a successful British assault on October 11, 1918, and died the following day at a British field hospital. He had previously written, "The greatest task which faces us after the war will be to forgive our enemy, who has, after all, been our neighbour on Earth since Creation."
Gerrit Engelke is best known for his anti-war poem An die Soldaten Des Grossen Krieges ("To the Soldiers of the Great War"), a poem in rhymed dactylic hexameter modeled after the Neo-Classical odes of Friedrich Hölderlin. In the ode, Engelke urges the soldiers of all the combatant nations to join hands together in universal brotherhood. An English translation exists by Patrick Bridgwater.
Walter Flex, who is best known as the author of the war poem Wildgänse rauschen durch die Nacht and the novella Der Wanderer zwischen Beiden Welten, was a native of Eisenach, in the Grand Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, and had attended the University of Erlangen. At the outbreak of the war, Flex was working as a private tutor to a family from the German nobility. Despite weak ligaments in his right hand, Flex immediately volunteered for the Imperial German Army.
According to Tim Cross, "His poetic outpourings on the war were prolific. Two collections, Sonne und Schild and Im Felde Zwischen Tag und Nacht were produced in the first months of the war. His body, soul, and literary talent were placed wholly at the disposal of the war-effort. The Christmas Fable for the 50th Regiment earned him the Order of the Red Eagle with Crown."
Flex's epitaph was a quote from his 1915 war poem, Preußischer Fahneneid ("The Prussian Military Oath"):
- "Wer je auf Preußens Fahne schwört,
- Hat nichts mehr, was ihm selbst gehört."
- "He who on Prussia's banner swears
- Has nothing more his own to bear.")
In 1940, his body was moved to a new military cemetery in Königsberg, East Prussia. Walter Flex's grave, along with the rest the city, were completely destroyed during the three-month siege that preceded the city's surrender to the Soviet Army on April 9, 1945.
Owing to Flex's idealism about the Great War, the posthumous popularity of his writing, and the iconic status that was attached to his wartime death, he is now considered Germany's answer to Allied war poets Rupert Brooke and Alan Seeger.
Yvan Goll, a Jewish poet from Sankt Didel, in the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine, wrote bilingually in both German and French. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Goll fled to Zürich, in neutral Switzerland, to evade conscription into the Imperial German Army. While there, he wrote many anti-war poems, in which he sought to promote better understanding between Germany and France. His most famous war poem is Requiem. Für die Gefallenen von Europa (Requiem for the Dead of Europe).
Stefan George, a German poet who had done his literary apprenticeship with the French Symbolist poets in Paris, still had many friends in France and viewed the Great War as disastrous. In his 1916 anti-war poem Der Krieg ("The War"), George attacked the horrors that soldiers of all nations were facing in the trenches. In the poem, George famously declared, "The ancient god of battles is no more."
Reinhard Sorge, the Kleist Prize winning author of the Expressionist play Der Bettler, saw the coming of the war as an idealistic recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church. Sorge wrote many poems, many of which are in the experimental forms pioneered by August Stramm and Herwarth Walden, about both his Catholic Faith and what he was witnessing as a soldier with the Imperial German Army in France. Shortly before being mortally wounded by grenade fragments during the Battle of the Somme, Sorge wrote to his wife expressing a belief that what he called, "the Anglo-French Offensive" was going to succeed in overrunning German defenses. Sorge died in a field hospital at Ablaincourt on July 20, 1916. Sorge's wife only learned of his death when a letter, in which she informed her husband that he had gotten her pregnant during his last furlough, was returned to her as undeliverable.
In 1920, German poet Anton Schnack, whom Patrick Bridgwater has dubbed, "one of the two unambiguously great," German poets of World War I and, "the only German language poet whose work can be compared with that of Wilfred Owen," published the sonnet sequence, Tier rang gewaltig mit Tier ("Beast Strove Mightily with Beast").
Also according to Bridgwater, "The poems in Tier gewaltig mit Tier follow an apparently chronological course which suggests that Schnack served first in France and then in Italy. They trace the course of the war, as he experienced it, from departing for the front, through countless experiences to which few other German poets with the exception of Stramm have done justice in more than isolated poems, to retreat and the verge of defeat."
The 60 sonnets that comprise Tier rang gewaltig mit Tier, "are dominated by themes of night and death." Although his ABBACDDCEFGEFG rhyme scheme is typical of the sonnet form, Schnack also, "writes in the long line in free rhythms developed in Germany by Ernst Stadler," whom in turn had been inspired by the experimental free verse which had been introduced into American poetry by Walt Whitman.
Patrick Bridgwater, writing in 1985, called Tier rang gewaltig mit Tier, "without question the best single collection produced by a German war poet in 1914–18." Bridgwater adds, however, that Anton Schnack, "is to this day virtually unknown even in Germany."
There were also war poets from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Franz Janowitz, a Jewish poet from the Kingdom of Bohemia, had enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a one-year volunteer in 1913. According to Jeremy Adler, "Franz Janowitz conflicts with the received idea of the best German war poets. Neither realistic, nor ironic, nor properly expressionistic, while he excoriated the battlefield that the whole world had become, he still preserved a Faith in nobility, innocence, and song. Forced into maturity by the war, his poetic voice never lost a certain childlike note – indeed, in some of his best poems, naivety and wisdom coexist to an almost paradoxical degree. Such poetry was fired by a vision of a transcendental realm that lay beyond conflict, but never sought to exclude death. His 25 years, the last four of which were spent in the Army, scarcely left him time to develop a wholly independent voice, but his work displays an increasing mastery of form and deepening of vision. His small oeuvre consists of Novellen, essays, aphorisms, and a handful of the best German poems connected with the Great War."
Janowitz was wounded by machine-gun fire during an assault on Monte Rombon and died of his wounds on November 4, 1917.
Georg Trakl, an Expressionist poet from Salzburg, enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army as a medical officer in 1914. He personally witnessed the Battle of Gródek, fought in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, in which the Austro-Hungarian Army suffered a bloody defeat at the hands of the Imperial Russian Army. After the battle, Trakl was left in command of a field hospital filled with wounded soldiers and mentally collapsed from the ensuing strain.
One evening following the battle Trakl ran outside and attempted to shoot himself in order to escape from the screams of the wounded and the dying. He was prevented from doing so and was sent to a mental hospital. On the night of November 3–4, 1914, Georg Trakl died in a military hospital in Cracow from an overdose of cocaine. Trakl's batman, however, who was the last person to whom the poet spoke, believed that the overdose was an accident, rather than suicide. Georg Trakl is best known for the poem Grodek.
After the police investigation into the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand revealed the involvement of Serbian Army military intelligence chief Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević, Gyóni, like many other Austro-Hungarians, accepted the Imperial Government's allegations of, "a plot against us," and the necessity of fighting, "a defensive war." Some Hungarian intellectuals felt that World War I provided an excellent opportunity to pay back the House of Romanov for Tsar Nicholas I's pivotal role in the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
Gyóni re-enlisted and seemed initially to enjoy the soldier's life, regularly writing poetry that was sent back home from the front for publication.
According to Peter Sherwood, "Gyóni's first, still elated, poems from the Polish Front recall the 16th century Hungarian poet Bálint Balassi's soldiers' songs of the marches, written during the campaign against the Turks."
During the Siege of Przemyśl, Gyóni wrote poems to encourage the city's defenders and these verses were published there, under the title, Lengyel mezőkön, tábortúz melett (By Campfire on the Fields of Poland). A copy reached Budapest by aeroplane, which was an unusual feat in those days.
In Hungary, the politician Jenő Rákosi, used the popularity of Gyóni's collection to set up Gyóni as a brave soldier poet and as the paragon of the Hungarian poetic ideal, as opposed to Endre Ady, who was a pacifist. Meanwhile, Gyóni's poetry took an increasingly depressive turn.
According to Erika Papp Faber, "His leaning toward Socialism and his anti-militarist attitude were, for a brief time, suspended, as he was caught up in the general patriotic fervor at the outbreak of World War I. But once he experienced the horrors of war first hand, he soon lost his romantic notions, and returned to the more radical positions of his youth, as it evident in his further volumes."
One of his poems from this period, Csak egy éjszakára (For Just One Night), in which he calls for Hungary's war profiteers, industrialists, and armchair patriots to come and spend just one night in the trenches, became a prominent anti-war poem and its popularity has lasted well beyond the end of the First World War.
Gyóni was ultimately captured by the Imperial Russian Army after the surrender of Przemyśl in 1915. After being held in atrocious conditions as a Prisoner of War, he died in a POW camp at Krasnoyarsk, in Siberia, on June 25, 1917. His last book of poems was published posthumously in 1919.
Géza Gyóni's anti-war poem Csak egy éjszakára ("For just one night"), remains very popular and is still taught in Hungarian schools. It has been translated into English by Canadian poet Watson Kirkconnell and by Hungarian American poet Erika Papp Faber.
Although Kirkconnell's translation renders Gyóni's poem into the same idiom as British war poets Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, Erika Papp Faber's version is far more faithful to the original poem in Hungarian.
Serbian World War I poets include: Milutin Bojić, Vladislav Petković Dis, Miloš Crnjanski, Dušan Vasiljev, Ljubomir Micić, Proka Jovkić, Rastko Petrović, Stanislav Vinaver, Branislav Milosavljević, Milosav Jelić, Vladimir Stanimirović. and others.
John O'Donnell was born in Tuam, County Galway, in 1890, and served in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I. He arrived at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and later fought at the Battle of the Somme. In 1918 he was invalided back to Australia, during which time he wrote the last six poems of his only poetry collection, dealing with the war from the perspective of an Australian poet.
The Spanish Civil War
The Spanish Civil War produced a substantial volume of poetry in English (as well as in Spanish). There were English-speaking poets serving in the Spanish Civil War on both sides. Among those fighting with the Republicans as volunteers in the International Brigades were Clive Branson, John Cornford, Charles Donnelly, Alex McDade and Tom Wintringham.
On the Nationalist side, the most famous English language poet of the Spanish Civil War remains South African poet Roy Campbell. Campbell was living in Toledo with his family when hostilities started. As a recent convert to the Roman Catholic Church, Campbell was horrified to witness the systematic religious persecution and mass murder of Catholics by the Republican forces. A particularly chilling moment for Campbell was when he came across the bodies of Toledo's Carmelite monks, whom he had befriended, after Republican forces had subjected them to execution without trial. The monks' executioner's had then written in blood above their bodies, "Thus strikes the CHEKA." According to Campbell's biographer, Joseph Pearce, and his daughters Anna and Tess, Campbell's subsequently pro-Nationalist stance has caused him to be unfairly labeled as a Fascist and left out of poetry anthologies and college courses.
Meanwhile, Campbell's close friend and fellow South African poet, Uys Krige, sided with the Republicans. Krige eventually published "The Hymn of the Fascist Bombers", which outraged both extreme Afrikaner nationalists and the Catholic Church in South Africa.
The best Spanish language poets of the Civil War are Federico García Lorca and the Machado brothers. Antonio Machado wrote a poem to honor the Communist General Enrique Líster, and died a refugee in France after the defeat of the Republic. Meanwhile, his brother, Manuel Machado, dedicated a poem to the saber of the Nationalist Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda became intensely politicised for the first time during the Spanish Civil War. As a result of his experiences in Spain, Neruda became an ardent Communist and remained one for the rest of his life. The radical leftist politics of his literary friends were contributing factors, but the most important catalyst was the abduction and execution without trial of the Republican poet Federico García Lorca by Nationalist soldiers. By means of his speeches and writings, Neruda threw his support behind the Second Spanish Republic, publishing the collection España en el corazón (Spain in Our Hearts) in 1938. He lost his post as Chilean consul due to his refusal to remain politically neutral.
World War II
By World War II the role of "war poet" was so well-established in the public mind, and it was anticipated that the outbreak of war in 1939 would produce a literary response equal to that of the First World War. The Times Literary Supplement went so far as to pose the question in 1940: "Where are the war-poets?" Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas are the standard critical choices amongst British war poets of this time. In 1942, Henry Reed published a collection of three poems about British infantry training entitled Lessons of the War; three more were added after the war. Sidney Keyes was another important and prolific Second World War poet.
The revival in interest in Hamish Henderson has increased awareness of his Somerset Maugham Award winning poetry book Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica which drew heavily on Henderson's experience in the North African Campaign.
Scottish Gaelic poet Duncan Livingstone, a native of the Isle of Mull who had lived in Pretoria, South Africa, since 1903, published several poems in Gaelic about the war. They included an account of the Battle of the River Plate and also a lament, in imitation of Sìleas na Ceapaich's 17th-century Lament for Alasdair of Glengarry, for Livingstone's nephew, Pilot Officer Alasdair Ferguson Bruce of the Royal Air Force, who was shot down and killed during a mission over Nazi Germany in 1941.
Scottish Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, a Communist-sympathiser from the Isle of Raasay, was also a soldier poet who wrote about his combat experiences with the British Army during the Western Desert campaign. MacLean's time in the firing line ended after he was severely wounded at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1941.
MacLean's most famous Gaelic war poem is Glac a' Bhàis ("Valley of Death"), which relates his thoughts on seeing a dead German soldier in North Africa. In the poem, MacLean ponders what role the dead man may have played in Nazi atrocities against both German Jews and members of the Communist Party of Germany. MacLean concludes, however, by saying that whatever the German soldier may or may not have done, he showed no pleasure in his death upon Ruweisat Ridge.
During the Second World War, North Uist Scottish Gaelic poet Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna served in the Home Guard, about which he composed the song Òran a' Home Guard ("The Song of the Home Guard"), which pokes fun at an exercise in which a platoon from North Uist was ordered to simulate taking the airfield at Benbecula from the enemy.
At the same time, Dòmhnall's son Calum MacDonald served in the Merchant Navy, and regularly sailed within sight of North Uist on his travels between the port of Glasgow and the United States. With this in mind, the Bard composed the poem Am Fianais Uibhist ("In Sight of Uist").
Aonghas Caimbeul (1903–1982), a Scottish Gaelic poet from Swainbost on the Isle of Lewis, had served during the Interwar Period with the Seaforth Highlanders in British India. While there, Caimbeul had heard Mahatma Gandhi speak and had also seen the aviator Amy Johnson. Therefore, upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Caimbeul rejoined his old regiment and saw combat against the invading Wehrmacht during the Fall of France. After the 51st (Highland) Division surrendered at Saint-Valery-en-Caux on June 12, 1940, Caimbeul spent the rest of the war in POW camps in Occupied Poland, where he mostly did unpaid agricultural labor.
In his award-winning memoir Suathadh ri Iomadh Rubha, Caimbeul recalled the origins of his poem, Deargadan Phòland ("The Fleas of Poland"), "We called them the Freiceadan Dubh ('Black Watch'), and any man they didn't reduce to cursing and swearing deserved a place in the courts of the saints. I made a satirical poem about them at the time, but that didn't take the strength out of their frames or the sharpness out of their sting."
Caimbeul composed other poems during his captivity, including Smuaintean am Braighdeanas am Pòland, 1944 ("Thoughts on Bondage in Poland, 1944").
After a three-month-long forced march from Thorn to Magdeburg which he graphically describes in his memoirs, Caimbeul was liberated from captivity on April 11, 1945. He returned to his native Swainbost and spent his life there as a shopkeeper until he died at Stornoway on January 28, 1982.
Caimbeul's memoirs, Suathadh ri Iomadh Rubha, which won the £200 prize in a contest offered by the Gaelic Books Council, were also published at Glasgow in 1973. Of the memoir, Ronald Black has written, "It is a remarkable achievement consisting as it does of the memoirs of an exciting life, woven together with a forthright personal philosophy and much detailed ethnological commentary on tradition and change in island communities during the twentieth century, all steeped in a solution of anecdote, sometimes brilliantly funny. It is the twentieth century's leading work of Gaelic nonfictional prose."
The mass slaughter and futility of World War I were so deeply ingrained upon the American people, that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's efforts to bring the United States into the war against Nazi Germany were very unpopular.
The America First Committee, of which Charles Lindbergh was the spokesman, and the Communist Party of the United States of America were both organizing protests against Roosevelt's foreign policies. Opposition to American involvement in the war vanished completely, after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Although the Second World War is not usually thought of as a poet's war, there were American war poets.
In an interview for the documentary The Muse of Fire, U.S. Poet Laureate Richard Wilbur commented that there was a great difference between the war poets of World War I and those, like himself, who wrote and served during World War II. Wilbur explained that, unlike Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, American World War II poets believed themselves to be fighting a just war and that Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan were terrible enemies which needed to be confronted and destroyed. He did add that many World War II poets, including himself, felt sympathy for the plight of conscientious objectors.
Richard Wilbur served in the European theatre as a sergeant and radio operator with the 36th U.S. Infantry Division. He was in combat during the Italian Campaign at the Battle of Anzio, the Battle of Cassino, and in the Liberation of Rome.
Sergeant Wilbur's war continued through the Allied Landings in Southern France and in the final invasion of Nazi Germany. During his war service and over the decades that followed, Richard Wilbur wrote many war poems.
One of Wilbur's best-known war poems is Tywater, about the combat death of Corporal Lloyd Tywater, a former Texas rodeo cowboy with a talent for rope tricks, knife throwing, and shooting swallows out of the sky with a pistol.
Another famous war poem by Richard Wilbur is First Snow in Alsace, which lyrically describes the horrors of a recent battlefield in Occupied France being covered up by the beautiful sight of new-fallen snow.
Anthony Hecht, an American poet of German Jewish ancestry, served in the European Theater as a G.I. with the 97th U.S. Infantry Division. Hecht not only saw combat in the Ruhr pocket and in Occupied Czechoslovakia, but also helped liberate Flossenbürg concentration camp. After the liberation, Hecht interviewed survivors in order to gather evidence about German war crimes. Decades later, Hecht sought treatment for PTSD and used his war experiences as the subject of many of his poems.
American poet Dunstan Thompson, a native of New London, Connecticut began publishing his poems while serving as a soldier in the European Theater during World War II. Thompson's poems depict military service through the eyes of a homosexual, who is engaged in casual encounters with soldiers and sailors in Blitzed London.
Karl Shapiro, a stylish writer with a commendable regard for his craft, wrote poetry in the Pacific Theater while he served there during World War II. His collection V-Letter and Other Poems, written while Shapiro was stationed in New Guinea, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945, while Shapiro was still in the military. Shapiro was American Poet Laureate in 1946 and 1947. (At the time this title was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress which was changed by Congress in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.).
Also, while serving in the U.S. Army, the American poet Randall Jarrell published his second book of poems, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) based on his wartime experiences. The book includes one of Jarrell's best-known war poems, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." In his follow-up book, Losses (1948), he also focused on the war. The poet Robert Lowell stated publicly that he thought Jarrell had written "the best poetry in English about the Second World War."
After SS General Jürgen Stroop suppressed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, anti-Nazi Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote the poem Campo dei Fiore. In the poem, Miłosz compared the burning of the Ghetto and its 60,0000 inhabitants to the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno by the Roman Inquisition in 1600. Miłosz criticized the people of Warsaw for just going on with their daily routines while the Ghetto was burning. He ended by urging his listeners and readers to feel outraged over the Holocaust in Poland and to join the Polish Resistance in their fight against the Nazi Occupiers.
Also in response to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Hirsh Glick, a Yiddish language poet who was imprisoned in the Vilna Ghetto, wrote the song Zog Nit Keynmol, in which he urged his fellow Jews to take up arms against the Holocaust. Despite Glick's own murder by the Nazis in 1944, Zog nit keyn mol was adopted by Jewish partisan groups throughout Eastern Europe and became a symbol of resistance against Nazi Germany's persecution of the Jews and to the Holocaust. The song is still sung at memorial services around the world on Yom HaShoah.
In 1974, Anna Świrszczyńska published the poetry collection Budowałam barykadę ("Building the Barricade"), about her experiences as both a combatant and battlefield nurse with the Armia Krajowa during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising.
According to Czesław Miłosz, "During the war, Świrszczyńska lived in Warsaw. In August and September of 1944, she took part in the Warsaw Uprising. For sixty-three days she witnessed and participated in a battle waged by a city of one million people against tanks, planes, and heavy artillery. The city was destroyed gradually, street by street, and those who survived were deported. Many years later, Świrszczyńska tried to reconstruct that tragedy in her poems: the building of barricades, the basement hospitals, the bombed houses caving in burying the people in shelters, the lack of ammunition, food, and bandages, and her own adventures as a military nurse. Yet these attempts of hers did not succeed: they were too wordy, too pathetic, and she destroyed her manuscripts. (Also, for a long time the Uprising was a forbidden topic, in view of Russia's role in crushing it). No less than thirty years after the event did she hit upon a style that satisfied her. Curiously enough, that was the style of miniature, which she had discovered in her youth, but this time not applied to paintings. Her book Building the Barricades consists of very short poems, without meter or rhyme, each one a microreport on a single incident or situation."
About one Świrszczyńska poem set during the Uprising, Miłosz writes, "The small poem, A Woman Said to her Neighbor, contains a whole way of life, the life in the basements of the incessantly bombed and shelled city. Those basements were connected by passages bored through the walls to form an underground city of catacombs. The motions and habits accepted in normal conditions were reevaluated there. Money meant less than food, which was usually obtained by expeditions to the firing line; considerable value was attached to cigarettes, used as a medium of exchange; human relations also departed from what we are used to considering the norm and were stripped of all appearances, reduced to their basest shape. It is possible that in this poem we are moved by the analogy with peacetime conditions, for men and women are often drawn together not from mutual affection but from their fear of loneliness:
- "A woman said to her neighbor:
- 'Since my husband was killed I can't sleep,
- I tremble all night long under the blanket.
- I'll go crazy if I have to be alone today,
- I have some cigarettes my husband left, please,
- Do drop in tonight.'"
During World War II, Anna Akhmatova witnessed the 900-day Siege of Leningrad and read her poems over the radio to encourage the city's defenders. In 1940, Akhmatova started her Poem without a Hero, finishing a first draft in Tashkent, but working on "The Poem" for twenty years and considering it to be the major work of her life, dedicating it to "the memory of its first audience – my friends and fellow citizens who perished in Leningrad during the siege".
After the war, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was stunned to see Akhmatova given a standing ovation by Russians who remembered her wartime broadcasts. Stalin gave orders to find out who organized the standing ovation and launched a campaign of blacklisting and defamation against the poetess, in which she was called, "Half harlot, half nun."
In the 1974 poem Prussian Nights, Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a former captain in the Red Army during World War II, graphically describes Soviet war crimes in East Prussia. The narrator, a Red Army officer, approves of his troops' looting and rapes against German civilians as revenge for German war crimes in the Soviet Union and he hopes to take part in the atrocities himself. The poem describes the gang-rape of a Polish woman whom the Red Army soldiers had mistaken for a German. According to a review for The New York Times, Solzhenitsyn wrote the poem in trochaic tetrameter, "in imitation of, and argument with the most famous Russian war poem, Aleksandr Tvardovsky's Vasili Tyorkin."
According to Radnóti's English translator Frederick Turner, "One day, one of Radnóti's friends saw him on the streets of Budapest, and the poet was mumbling something like, 'Du-duh-du-duh-du-duh,' and his friend said, 'Don't you understand?! Hitler is invading Poland!' And Radnóti supposedly answered, 'Yes, but this is the only thing I have to fight with.' As his poetry makes clear, Radnóti believed that Fascism was the destruction of order. It both destroyed and vulgarized civil society. It was as if you wanted to create an ideal cat, so you took your cat, killed it, removed its flesh, put it into some kind of mold, and then pressed it into the shape of a cat."
Like many other Hungarians of Jewish descent or "unreliable" political views, Radnóti was drafted into a forced labor battalion by the Royal Hungarian Army during World War II. During this experience of slave labor in the copper mines of Occupied Yugoslavia, Radnóti continued to compose new poems, which he wrote down in a small notebook that he had purchased. In the last days of the Second World War, Radnóti fell ill during a forced march from Bor towards Nazi Austria.
In early November 1944, along with 21 other sick and emaciated prisoners like him, Radnóti was separated from the march near the Hungarian city of Győr. They were taken in a cart by three NCOs of the Royal Hungarian Army first to a village hospital, and then to a school that housed refugees. But both the hospital and the school, however, insisted that they had no room for Jews.
Between November 6 and 10, 1944, the three NCOs took the 22 Jewish prisoners to the dam near Abda, where they were forced to dig their own mass grave. Each prisoner was then shot in the base of the neck and buried. After the end of the war, the mass grave was re-exhumed and Radnóti's last five poems were found in the dirty, bloodstained notebook in his pocket. Miklós Radnóti was reburied in Kerepesi Cemetery in Budapest. After the death of his wife in 2013, she was buried next to him.
Since his murder, Radnóti has become widely recognized as one of the greatest Hungarian language poets of the 20th century. His English translator Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, who carried a volume of Radnóti's poems with her when she fled across the Austrian border after the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, has written that Radnóti's verses have been translated into Hebrew, English, and many other European and Asian languages. His importance to 20th-century poetry, to Hungarian literature, and to the literature of the Holocaust in Hungary resulted in Oszsváth and Turner's own collaboration, which was assisted by the poet's widow, and which resulted in the 1992 collection Foamy Sky: The Major Poems of Miklós Radnóti.
The Romanian-born poet Paul Celan wrote war poetry including "Todesfuge" (translated into English as "Death Fugue", and "Fugue of Death",) a German language poem written by probably around 1945 and first published in 1948. It is "among Celan's most well-known and often-anthologized poems". The is regarded as a "masterful description of horror and death in a concentration camp". Celan was born to a Jewish family in Cernauti, Romania; his parents were murdered during the Holocaust, and Celan himself was a prisoner for a time in a concentration camp.
Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French avant-garde poet, essayist, and performance artist, best for being one of the founders and central figures of the anti-establishment Dada movement. During the final part of his career, Tzara combined his humanist and anti-fascist perspective with a communist vision, joining the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance during World War II, and serving a term in the National Assembly. Having spoken in favor of liberalization in the People's Republic of Hungary just before the Revolution of 1956, he distanced himself from the French Communist Party, of which he was by then a member. In 1960, he was among the intellectuals who protested against French war crimes in the Algerian War.
Ryuichi Tamura (1923–98) who served in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II is a major Japanese war poet. Following the war, he "helped begin a poetry magazine, The Waste Land" and those poets who contributed to it were "the Waste Land Poets." The work of these writers was especially influenced by T. S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, C. Day-Lewis and W. H. Auden. Tamura's first book of poems, Four Thousand Days and Nights was published in 1956.
Sadako Kurihara was living in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and it was then "that her life was transformed from being a shopkeeper to becoming one of Japan’s most controversial poets. Her first major collection of poems, Black Eggs, published in 1946", but it was heavily censored by the American Occupation Forces Censor, because of how she dealt with the horrors following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Kurihara has also "taken a stand on Japan’s aggressive rule" during the occupation of China, "the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan, and the need for a world-wide ban on nuclear weapons".
General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the overall commander of the Japanese forces during the Battle of Iwo Jima, was a poet and former diplomat who had been assigned to Washington, D.C., during the Interwar Period. Having seen America's military and industrial power first hand, Kuribayashi opposed Prime Minister Hideki Tojo's decision to attack Pearl Harbor, saying, "The United States is the last country in the world Japan should fight." It was ultimately decided to assign Kuribayashi to the suicide mission of defending Iwo Jima in order to silence his criticisms of the war.
On 17 March 1945, the General sent his farewell message to Imperial Headquarters accompanied by three traditional death poems in waka form. Both were, according to historian Kumiko Kakehashi, "a subtle protest against the military command that so casually sent men out to die."
Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.
The poems and the message were heavily rewritten by Japanese military censors before being published and all anti-war sentiments were removed. Instead of describing the General and his soldiers as feeling "sad" to fall in battle, Japanese censors rewrote the poem to say that they died in Banzai charges, which the General had forbidden on Iwo Jima as an unnecessary waste of his men's lives. The uncensored text of both the message and the poems were only published after the Surrender of Japan.
Amongst Serbian poets during World War II, the most notable is Desanka Maksimović. She is well known for "Krvava bajka" or "Bloody Fairy Story". The poem is about a group of schoolchildren who fell victim to the Nazis in 1941 in Kragujevac massacre.
On March 28, 1956, when BBC Scotland played a recording of a Scottish Gaelic language ceilidh by the soldiers of the King's Own Cameron Highlanders during the Korean War, North Uist poet Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, who has served in the same regiment during World War I, was listening. He later composed the poem Gillean Chorea ("The Lads in Korea"), in which he declared that the recording had brought back his youth.
The Vietnam War also produced war poets, including Armenian-American poet Michael Casey whose début collection, Obscenities, drew on his service with the Military Police Corps in the Quảng Ngãi Province of South Vietnam. The book won the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award.
Rob Jacques, a Vietnam-Era United States Navy veteran, has explored the tension between love and violence in war from the perspective of homosexual servicemen in his collection, War Poet, published by Sibling Rivalry Press.
Yusef Komunyakaa, an African-American poet from Bogalusa, Louisiana, served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War and has since used his experiences as the source of his poetry. Komunyakaa has said that following his return to the United States, he found the American people's rejection of Vietnam veterans to be every bit as painful as the racism he had experienced while growing up the American South before the Civil Rights Movement.
At the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, American poet Richard Wilbur composed A Miltonic Sonnet for Mr. Johnson on His Refusal of Peter Hurd's Official Portrait. In a clear cut case of "criticism from the Right", Wilbur compares U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson with Thomas Jefferson and finds the former to be greatly wanting. Commenting that Jefferson "would have wept to see small nations dread/ The imposition of our cattle brand," and that in Jefferson's term, "no army's blood was shed", Wilbur urges President Johnson to seriously consider how history will judge him and his Administration.
War on Terror
Most recently, the Iraq War has produced war poets including Brian Turner whose début collection, Here, Bullet, is based on his experience as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from November 2003 until November 2004 in Iraq. The book won numerous awards including the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the 2006 Maine Literary Award in Poetry, and the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Poetry. The book also was an Editor's Choice in The New York Times and received significant attention from the press including reviews and notices on NPR and in The New Yorker, The Global and Mail, and the Library Journal. In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote that, "As a war poet, [Brian Turner] sidesteps the classic distinction between romance and irony, opting instead for the surreal."
In popular culture
- In the 1990 film Memphis Belle, directed by Michael Caton-Jones, United States Army Air Force Sgt. Daniel Daly (Eric Stoltz), a proudly Irish-American radio operator serving with the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress during World War II, recites William Butler Yeats' An Irish Airman Forsees His Death.
- The Welsh language anti-war biopic Hedd Wyn was released in 1992. The film, which stars Huw Garmon as the Welsh war poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, is based on a screenplay by Alan Llwyd. Hedd Wyn depicts the protagonist as a tragic hero, with an intense dislike of the wartime jingoism and ultranationalism which surrounds him. The film also focuses on Evans' efforts to win the Bardic Chair at the National Eisteddfod of Wales and on his doomed struggle to avoid military service during the First World War. Hedd Wyn won the Royal Television Society's Television Award for Best Single Drama. It also became the first British motion picture to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 66th Academy Awards in 1993.
- The 1997 film Regeneration focuses on the stay of English war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockart War Hospital. The film focuses on the story of Siegfried Sassoon, his open letter reprinted in The Times criticising the conduct of the war and his eventual return to the front.
- The 2017 stage play Death Comes for the War Poets, by Joseph Pearce, weaves, "a verse tapestry," about the military and spiritual journeys of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
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- Westminster Abbey: Poets of the First World War
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It was perhaps seven or eight hundred yards from our trenches to the German line, nearly half a mile, and over this space went the Ladies from Hell, as the Germans call the Scottishers.
- Riguidel, Lt., Donna (7 July 2010). Queens' Own Camerons History Made With History Book Presentation. National Defence and the Canadian Forces. Department of National Defence (Canada).
"Ladies from Hell" was a nickname given to kilted regiments during the First World War, by the Germans that faced them in the trenches (Die Damen aus der Hölle).
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Lars Koch. Der Erste Weltkrieg als Medium der Gegenmoderne: Zu den Werken von Walter Flex und Ernst Jünger. (Title Translation: "The First World War as a Means of Counter-Modernity: To the Works of Walter Flex and Ernst Jünger.") Königshausen & Neumann, 2006, p. 117 and p. 117 n. 544. ISBN 3-8260-3168-7
- Fritz Gause. Königsberg in Preußen. (Gräfe und Unzer, 1968), p. 226.
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- The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, edited by Valentine Cunningham (Penguin, 1980); see also War Poets Association: Spanish War
- Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders of the Spanish Civil War in Verse, edited by Jim Jump. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006)
- A Líster, jefe en los ejércitos del Ebro, Antonio Machado, June 1938.
- Tarn (1975) p. 16
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- BBudgen, David: Literature (Version 1.1), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
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- Japanese War poets 
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- Whalan, Mark: Literature (USA), in: 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War.
- A selection of Boer War poems 
- War Poems From Iraq
- War Poets Association
- The First World War Poetry Digital Archive
- Pro Patria (1917) by Philadelphia poet Florence Earle Coates (1850–1927) pamphlet of poems in support of American involvement in WW1
- Dean F. Echenberg War Poetry Collection at the Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin. Over 7000 volumes of War Poetry
- Works written on the topic War poetry at Wikisource