I discovered that when people think of World War One poetry, they think of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Both of these men fought in the war so, instantly you might consider their viewpoint reliable. However, viewpoints are taken from different peoples perspectives and might be influenced by others, making poetry, as a source, less reliable. Whilst it is dangerous to make generalisations about all soldiers based on just two individuals, you can’t write off their importance, as long as they are set alongside other primary sources of evidence.
Firstly, I looked at a Seigfreid Sassoon and thought about what his prejudices might have been that would make the source unreliable.
Sassoon enlisted in 1914 and served as a lieutenant. He fought on the Western Front, winning the Military Cross for exceptional bravery on the battlefield. Sassoon was wounded in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme and was sent home. He returned to
France to fight but as the war dragged on he became opposed to it. In 1917, he made an official protest against the continuation of the war which, he argued, was unnecessary.
In some ways Siegfreid is a reliable source because he was a valiant soldier who had experienced the war. However, his opinion is bound to be reflected in the poems he writes because he becomes strongly disillusioned.
This poem is called
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
The phrase ‘empty joy’ suggests that all of the happiness he once had has been removed from him and his smile is a mask – he feels terror. This is explained when he writes ‘crumps’ - this is a thudding sound made by bombs and exploding shells. He needs ‘rum’ to help him block the pain and because there is none, he kills himself.
When he talks about You, (the) smug faced crowds he is angry with peoples appreciation of what the soldiers have experienced and seen. They just glorify war.
From other sources we know that Siegfried is accurate about the effect of war on young soldiers and the horrific condition of the trenches. However, he does generalise that all glorify war, whereas some who cheered the soldiers home will have had empathy with their experience.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you…