In a report on the ‘Ladies’ War Relief Fund’ in Hyderabad in 1915, the Indian nationalist and feminist poet Sarojini Naidu included lines from a poem which she had recently composed:
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands.
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.
And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones,
Remember the blood of thy martyred sons!1
Titled ‘The Gift of India’, Naidu’s poem was a paean to the memory of more than one million soldiers from undivided India who had served in the First World War. The sensuous vocabulary – ‘pale brows’, ‘broken hands’, or ‘blossoms mown down by chance’ with their murmur of labials and sibilance – links the poem with the verse of Wilfred Owen, going back to Alfred Tennyson and W.B. Yeats. However, Naidu at once inherits and interrogates the stock images of English pastoral-elegiac tradition that informs much of war poetry: the meadows of Flanders and France are for her blood-brown, not blood-red, as she quietly throws a challenge to the very colour of war memory. The ‘martyred sons’ in her poem are not British Tommies but Indian soldiers who had fought for the empire but would soon, as Naidu had rightly feared, be airbrushed out of the grand narrative of the Great ‘European’ War.
More than four million non-white men were recruited into the armies of Europe and the United States during the First World War. Between 1914 and 1918, in a grotesque reversal of Conrad’s vision, hundreds of thousands of South Asians, Africans and Pacific Islanders voyaged to the heart of whiteness and beyond – Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, East Africa, Palestine, Egypt – to take part in the horror of Western warfare.2 For them, the trauma of the war was compounded with the ignominies of race and rank. In the recently recovered volume Negroes Call to the Colors and Soldiers Camp-life Poems (1919), the African-American poet Walter E. Seward bitterly reimagined Naidu’s ‘blood-brown’ battlefields not as the site of sacrifice but as a democratic space – ‘Bullets have no special people,/No one especially they hate;/And the Germans’ large artillery/Sure did not discriminate’3 – as he joined the African-American experience of fighting against a German enemy to their ongoing fight against white America.
Both poems provide unusual vantage-points to view the First World War – or the very different wars people experienced in 1914-1918 – and puts pressure on any conventional or homogenous understanding of the term ‘war poetry’. Indeed, what is ‘war poetry’ and when did it come into being? The ‘war poet’ and ‘war poetry’, observed the war writer and veteran Robert Graves in 1942, were ‘terms first used in World War I and perhaps peculiar to it’.4 Of course, poetry, as Jon Stallworthy’s classic The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984) shows, has always been interested in combat, from the Iliad and The Battle of Maldon to Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’; such poems were almost always written by civilians. But ‘war poetry’, as a distinct category and genre, emerged in the English-speaking world with the extraordinary outpouring of verse between 1914 and 1918. A late Victorian culture of heroism, the spread of education, the conscription of an enormous number of highly educated men in the army ranks and a dominant public-school ethos meant that there was a flowering of verse both within and beyond the trenches of France and Flanders. Some 2,225 poets from Britain and Ireland alone wrote poetry about the war, though we remember only a handful of them today: Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, to name perhaps the perhaps five best-known First World War poets.5 Yet, these ‘anti-war’ poets were during the war years a very small group as the overwhelming majority of these aspiring poets wrote poems that were patriotic, jingoistic, and imperial.
On Easter Sunday 1915, when Dean Inge read out ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke from the pulpit of St. Paul’s Cathedral, he was at once creating and anointing a secular saint: the ‘poet soldier’. Over the next three years, the ‘poet-soldier’ would morph into ‘soldier-poet’ and by 1930s, he had become, according to Edmund Blunden, ‘as familiar as a ration-card’.6 The term ‘war poetry’ or ‘war verse’, by contrast, starts gaining currency from 1917 and crests in popularity in the post-war years. Interestingly, the most famous of these poets – Wilfred Owen – referred to the term ‘war poet’ but then crossed it out in the celebrated Preface (1918) to his intended collection of poems: ‘That is why the true
War Poets must be truthful’.7 This makes Ivor Gurney perhaps the first soldier-poet to consciously lay claim on the title; from 1923, he referred to himself as ‘First War Poet’ [sic], signing it on the back of the envelope in the place of the seal.8
The conflation of First World War poetry with the trench lyric was encouraged by the soldier-poets themselves and was consolidated with the publication of memoirs such as Robert Graves’s Good-Bye to All That (1929) and Siegfried Sassoon’s The Diary of an Infantry Officer (1930). In the politicized climate of the 1930s, Owen and Sassoon became cultural icons. However, it was with the renewed swell of interest in the war poets in the 1960s, with the musical Oh What A Lovely War (1963) and anthologies, such as Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death (1964) and I.M. Parsons’s Men Who March Away (1965), that the canon began to take shape more firmly. In both anthologies, the trench poets claimed centre-stage; civilian poets such as Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling, who wrote powerfully and movingly about the war, were pushed to the margins. This process of reduction was completed, as it were, by two literary critics – Paul Fussell, with his enormously influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) and Jon Silkin with the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1979) – who focussed on poems only by soldier-poets to showcase war poetry.
Over the last three decades, the First World War and its literature have been powerfully reconfigured. If works such as Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (1995) have broadened our understanding of the war and its plural legacies, feminist scholars have drawn attention to the experience of women and children, fundamentally changing the way we ‘reconceptualise war – and therefore the vocabulary of war’.9 Consequently, we have progressed from an understanding of the First World War war as ‘combat’ between men in the Western Front to that of a global ‘conflict’ it actually was, affecting men and women, soldiers and civilians from Bombay to Basra, Tanga to Tsingtao. First World War literature has not remained untouched: the broader understanding of the war has resulted in a far more expansive definition of war poetry. The frameworks and critical idiom used to understand even the popular ‘war poets’ have shifted: we have moved from a moral register about the ‘truth of war’ to an exploration of textual complexity and ambivalence; there is closer interrogation of the relationship between poetic form and historical, geo-political and psychic processes, and greater attention is being paid to questions of difference (particularly class, gender and race, among others). The recovery in recent years of poetry by women, civilians, dissenters, working-class, non-English (particularly Irish, Scottish, Welsh and American) has led both to the powerful expansion and rethinking of the canon, though poems by non-white writers (for example, South Asian, West Indian, African, African-American, Arab, or Turkish) are still largely missing from most anthologies.10 War poetry by colonial and non-white writers, coming out of different political, social and cultural contexts, has proved remarkably resistant to assimilation within the canon of war poetry.
As mentioned earlier, total of four million non-white men, including two million Africans, one and half million South Asians, served as soldiers or labourers in the armies of the Europe and the United States during the First World War. Most of these men did not know how to read or write and have left us with very few textual records, but it will be an error to confuse the non-literate with the non-literary. The villages in Asia, Africa or the South Pacific from where these men came often had remarkably rich oral cultures where the poetic was diffused through a variety of forms from everyday prayers, chants and songs to verse recitations, storytelling and heightened speech rhythms.11 In places such as India, the Middle East or Egypt, such oral cultures existed alongside and continually interacted with highly developed cultures of printed verse of the literary cognoscenti.12 To engage with Asian or Arabic 'poetry' of the First World War is thus not just a process of 'adding to' or 'expanding' the conventional repertoire but involves putting pressure on what constitutes the 'poetic', as we need to embrace the textual, the oral and the aural and understand the interplay between them. Second, literary historians of the war often feel a pressure to 'find' an Indian Owen or an African Sassoon, as if colonial war poetry were a variation or mimicry of British trench poetry. The contexts were actually very different: like colonial war memory, war poetry in South Asia or the Middle East is far more oblique, fraught and diffused, filtered through or interrupted by other conflicts.
Let us consider one such ‘war poem’ which includes multiple histories, identities and conflicts, and see what it does to our understanding of the genre. The West Indian-American poet Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ is often considered as the ‘inaugural address’ of the ‘Harlem Renaissance’, that extraordinary explosion of black literature and culture in New York from 1919 to the early 1930s.13 Some of the most politically engaged war literature came from here. During the war, some 347,000 African Americans were inducted into the army, of whom some 47,000 saw active service. They fought, as the novelist Jessie Fauset notes, ‘a double battle in France, one with Germany and one with white America’. The civic rights leader W.B. Du Bois, who closed ranks with the whites for the war, noted that the black veteran returned ‘to fight a sterner, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land’: ‘We return./We return from fighting./We return fighting’ (‘Returning’). Such fighting was often ‘literal’ for race riots erupted across the US in the ‘red summer’ of 1919.14 Moreover, at least sixteen veterans were lynched between November 1918 and the end of 1920, some of whom were still serving.15 In this context, McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’, published in the July 1919 Liberator, accretes fresh intensities of meaning:
If we must die – let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but – fighting back!16
Writing about the poem’s genesis, McKay noted: ‘The World War had ended. But its end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white.’17 McKay rewrites the war sonnet as protest poetry, starting with Brooke and ending with Du Bois. His conscious echo of Brooke and use of the sonnet-form is at once an acknowledgement of British influence and a sign of dissent: the war’s dominant vocabulary and values – courage, sacrifice and comradeship – are appropriated for a different war as Brooke’s ‘richer dust’ is refashioned as ‘precious blood’ shed not in foreign fields but against fellow country-men. And from there, it is a short distance to Richard Wright’s claim in 1941: ‘Our black boys do not die for liberty in Flanders. They die in Texas and Georgia. Atlanta is our Marne, Brownsville, Texas is our Chateau-Thierry’.18
In his poem ‘The War Graves’, the Irish poet Michael Longley writes, ‘There will be no end to cleaning up after the war’.19 As we move fully from remembrance to history with the passing of the centenary of the conflict, we can perhaps see more clearly how the war’s traumatic debris got lodged in different places – in trenches, civilian zones, far-flung communities, racial memory – and how it was shaped anew in different parts of the world, joined to other conflicts and histories. This gives Wilfred Owen’s claim on ‘mystery’ for his art in his poem ‘Strange Meeting’ (‘Courage was mine, and I had mystery’) a peculiar resonance and explains too, perhaps, why ‘strange’ remains one of the recurring words in First World War poetry.
About the Author
Santanu Das is a Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, University of Oxford, where he is the Professor of Modern Literature and Culture. He is the author of the award-winning monograph Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2006) and India, Empire and First World War Culture: Literature, Images, and Songs (Cambridge, 2018) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2014). He wrote and presented the series 'Soldiers of the Empire' for BBC Radio 4 and has been involved in various commemorative projects in the UK, from radio and television programmes with the BBC to advising on concerts, exhibitions, and dance-theatre.
1 ‘The Gift of India’, The Broken Wing: Songs of Love, Death and Destiny 1915-1916 (London: William Heinemann, 1917), 5-6. For detailed discussion of this poem and the experience of Indian troops, see Santanu Das, India, Empire and First World War Culture: Literature, Images, and Songs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).
2 See Santanu Das, Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge: CUP, 2011).
3 Walter E Seward, ‘Who Went Over the Top?’ in Negroes’ Call to the Colours and Soldiers: Camp-Life Poems (Athens, GA: Knox Institute Press, 1919), 46.
4 Robert Graves, ‘The Poets of World War II’ (1942), The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949), 307.
5 Catherine Reilly, English poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography (London: George Prior, 1978), xix.
6 Edmund Blunden, ‘Introduction’ to Frederick Brereton ed. An Anthology of War Poems (London, 1930). 13.
7 ‘Preface’ in The Poems of Wilfred Owen ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 192.
8 I am indebted to the research of Philip Lancaster and Tim Kendall for this information about Gurney: hear Kendall on ‘Gurney: First War Poet’, http://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/tim-kendall-ivor-gurney-first-war-poet-audio.
9 Margaret R. Higonnet, ‘Not So Quiet in No-Woman’s Land’ in Gendering War Talk ed. Miriam Cooking and Angela Woollacott (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 208.
10 An exception is Margaret R. Higonnet’s Lines of Fire: Women Writers of World War I (New York: Penguin/Plume, 1999) which includes female writers from a range of countries.
11 See Jack Goody, Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968); Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Oral Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).
12 See, for example Dina Rizk Khoury, 'Ambiguities of the Modern: The Great War in the Memoirs and Poetry of the Iraqis' in Heike Libau et al. ed. The World in World Wars: Experiences, Perceptions and Perspectives from Africa and Asia (Leiden: Boston, 2010), 313-340.
13 For the connections between the Great War and the Harlem Renaissance, see Mark Whalan, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro (Gainesville: Florida University Press, 2008).
14 See Mark W. Van Wienen’s anthology Rendezvous With Death: American Poems of the Great War (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 251-252.
15 See David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Oxford: OUP, 1981), 14-24.
16 Claude McKay, ‘If We Must Die’, extracted in Rendezvous With Death, 263.
17 Cited in http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/m_r/mckay/mustdie.htm
18 Quoted in Whalan, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro, 284.
19 Michael Longley, ‘The War Graves’ in Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 256.