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99 lines of British poetry that express the futility of World War One

World War One created a brilliant canon of poetry.

Initially great optimism was often expressed in verse, but as the reality of industrial warfare soured the mood, poets became focused on the futility of the bloodshed born from their own horrible observations.

Here are 99 lines of British poetry that reflect the futility of World War One.


Painting – The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920)

Painting – The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920).


Painting – Finale by Albin Egger-Lienz (1918)

Painting – Finale by Albin Egger-Lienz (1918).


1st Canadian Field Ambulance by Muirhead Bone (1916)

Chalk on paper – Inside the Main Dressing Station. 1st Canadian Field Ambulance by Muirhead Bone (1916). Beaverbrook Collection of War Art.


Painting – Resurrection of the Soldiers by Stanley Spencer (1929)

Painting – Resurrection of the Soldiers by Stanley Spencer (1929).


Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1918). IWM.

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1918). IWM.


Painting – Den Namenlosen by Albin Egger-Lienz (1925)

Painting – Den Namenlosen by Albin Egger-Lienz (1925).


Painting – Self Portrait as Mars by Otto Dix (1915)

Painting – Self Portrait as Mars by Otto Dix (1915).


Painting – Over The Top by John Nash (1918). IWM.

Painting – Over The Top by John Nash (1918). IWM.


Lithograph – Making Soldiers in the Trenches by Eric Kennington (1917). IWM.

Lithograph – Making Soldiers in the Trenches by Eric Kennington (1917). IWM.


Painting – Harvest Of Battle by Christopher Nevinson (1918). IWM.

Painting – Harvest Of Battle by Christopher Nevinson (1918). IWM.


Painting – General Officers of World War One by John Singer Sargent (1922)

Painting – General Officers of World War One by John Singer Sargent (1922)


Sketch by Der Krieg by Otto Dix (1924). MoMA.

Sketch by Der Krieg by Otto Dix (1924). MoMA.


Painting – We are Making a New World by Paul Nash (1918). IWM

Painting – We are Making a New World by Paul Nash (1918). IWM.


Painting – Night Bombardment by Paul Nash (1918-1919)

Painting – Night Bombardment by Paul Nash (1918-1919)


Painting – Zonnebeke by William Orpen (1918). IWM.

Painting – Zonnebeke by William Orpen (1918). IWM.


Painting – Paths of Glory by CRW Nevinson (1917). IWM.

Painting – Paths of Glory by CRW Nevinson (1917). IWM.


Painting – Reliefs at Dawn by CRW Nevinson (1917). IWM.

Painting – Reliefs at Dawn by CRW Nevinson (1917). IWM.


Painting – Der Krieg by Otto Dix (1929–1932)

Painting – Der Krieg by Otto Dix (1929–1932)


Painting – A Battery Shelled by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1919). IWM.

Painting – A Battery Shelled by Percy Wyndham Lewis (1919). IWM.


Painting – Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia by Stanley Spencer (1919). IWM.

Painting – Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia by Stanley Spencer (1919). IWM.


The Lines of Poetry:
From Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1918)

My friend you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro Patria mori

From Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg (1916)

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with dust
From Therefore is the Name of it called Babel by Osbert Sitwell (1916)

Deep sunk in sin, this tragic star
Sinks deeper still, and wages war
Against itself; strewn all the seas
With victims of a world disease
-And we are left to drink the lees
Of Babel’s direful prophecy

From Insensibility by Wilfred Owen (1917)

By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns may leave these shores;
Whatever shares
The eternal reciprocity of tears

From Casualty by Robert Nichols (1917)

Who were you? How did you come,
Looking so wanly upon me? I know –
And O, how immensely long I have known-
Those aching eyes, numb face, gradual gloom,
That depth without groan!

From Mental Cases by Wilfred Owen (1917)

-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful flaseness of set-smiling corpses.
-thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

From The Last Post by Robert Graves (1916)

Dead in a row with the other broken ones,
Lying so stiff and still under the sky,
Jolly young Fusiliers, too good to die.’
The music ceased, and the red sunset flare
Was blood about his head as he stood there

From The Death-Bed by Siegfried Sassoon (1916)

Light many lamps and gather round his bed.
Lend him your eyes, warm blood, and will to live.
Speak to him; rouse him; you may save him yet.
He’s young; he hated war; how should he die
When cruel old campaigners win safe through?

From For a War Memorial by G. K. Chesterton (1919)

Still to the last of crumbling time
Upon this stone be read
How many men of England died
to prove they were not dead.

From Dead Man’s Dump by Isaac Rosenberg (1917)

These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An End!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home

Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

From Sergeant-Major Money by Robert Graves (1917)

His Old Army humouu rwas so well-spiced and hearty
That one poor sod shot himself and one lost his wits;
but discipline’s maintainted, and back in rest-billets
The Colonel congratulates ‘B’ company on their kits
From My Company by Herbert Read

Then again I assume
My human docility,
Bow my head
And share their doom.

From Exposure by Wilfred Owen

To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice, But nothing happens.

From An Irish Airman Forsees His Death by W. B. Yeats (1918)

I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

From When You See the Millions of Mouthless Dead by Charles Sorley (1915)

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Percieve one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.

Great death had made all his for evermore.

The General by Siegfried Sassoon (1917)

‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

From Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen (1917)

I am the enemy you killed my friend
I knew you in this dark : for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried ; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .’

From A Terre by Wilfred Owen

Yet now… I’d willingly be puffy, bald,
And patriotic. Buffers catch from boys
At least the jokes hurled at them. I suppose
Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting,
Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting.
Well, that’s what I learnt, – that and making money

From In the Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ by Thomas Hardy (1915)

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come wispering by:
War’s annals will fade into night
Ere their story to die.

From A Lament by Wilfred William Gibson

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun, or feel the rain,
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly, and spent
Their all for us, loved, too, the sun and rain?

Source: Made From History


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