The Great War of 1914-18 created what we think of as “modern times”. The magnitude of the catastrophe, along with the resulting Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, irretrievably destroyed the world that went before and ushered in, for good or ill, the world we know now.
For Western Civilization the Great War altered the way that war itself is generally perceived. Before 1914, war was a grim but noble undertaking in which all that was good and heroic in men could manifest itself. After 1918, war was seen as senseless slaughter that could only debase those nations which practiced it.
The nature of English war poetry changed at the same time. Before 1914, and in the early stages of the war, the heroic model still prevailed: If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. (Rupert Brooke) By the war’s end, the poetic sentiment could be summed up in these lines: I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,/Lurching to ragtime tunes and “Home, sweet Home”,/And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls/To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume. (Siegfried Sassoon)
A poet whose long career bridged the chasm between these two worlds was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is well known as the unabashed booster of Empire, the poet of “Gunga Din” and “The White Man’s Burden”. More than any other poet he embodied the British Empire in its ideal form (for an informative and very readable study of Kipling, see this article by John Derbyshire in The New Criterion).
But the First World War dealt Kipling a tragic blow: his beloved son John was killed the first time he saw action, at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling had pulled strings to get his boy, whose eyesight was deficient, into the Irish guards. The loss of his son brought a melancholy into Kipling’s work which had not been previously seen. The brief and poignant “Gethsemane” is an example of the result:
|The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass — we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
|The Garden called Gethsemane,
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
I prayed my cup might pass.
|It didn’t pass — it didn’t pass —
It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
The reference, of course, is to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:39): “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
There, in succinct form, is the soldier’s lot: his fate is not his to will. The cup may or may not pass from him, but it does not lie under his control. After the Great War the image of the slaughter as a mass crucifixion of Christ-like soldiers became widespread, and the ideal of the soldier’s submission to his commander’s will was tarnished beyond repair.
From the trenches of the Western Front, poems celebrating the nobility of the warrior were superseded by poems of doom and resignation. In the years that followed the First World War, war poetry became antiwar poetry, and so it has remained.
Later posts will explore more on this topic.