The First World War and Literature

The Impact of the First World War: Britain & Literature

There was no really good true war book during the entire four years of the war. The only true writing that came through during the war was in poetry. One reason for this is that poets are not arrested as quickly as prose writers”

– Ernest Hemingway, in “Men at War”

British Troops in Trench


The Great War, which took place between 1914-1918, shook the very foundations of the Western world, causing a societal upheaval that left immediate and lasting impressions on every aspect of society and culture. Great Britain, as one of the primary belligerents of the conflict, was no exception; and experienced a wave of social and artistic change as a direct result of the war. One of the most heavily impacted cultural arenas to be touched by the war was literature. Literature during the Great War often reflects upon and bitingly criticizes the horrors of war, as well as the changes society was undergoing and provides a drastic transition between pre and post war work. Many social, political, and economic shifts occurred during the war, and any of the writers of the time felt the need to speak out against the flaws they saw in their society, sometimes even while fighting for their lives in the trenches. The new style of war allowed soldiers an unprecedented amount of time to ponder the battles which they fought; not only in the literal sense, but battles of the mind and spirit which were of no shortage in the hellish conditions that they endured. Literature became a common way for the British soldiers to approach the reality of the war, whether to express dissent against it, or to simply understand it.

Women and men alike turned to writing as a means of emotional outlet. Back in Britain, the social order was being rocked by the war taking place across the channel, with women becoming key economic supporters in the absence of men and men suffering the physical and psychological stress of war. Women were forced to adopt a role that was traditionally considered masculine, taking on industrial work in factories in order to provide for their children, as well as assuming a leading role in the maintenance of the family. As a result many women began to speak out, discussing their view on the war and the impact it was placing on their families. Writers and poets of the Great War attempted to distinguish how this war was different than anything the world had seen before, both the manner in which it was fought and the changing attitude toward the purpose of the conflict, and it was a task shared by all of society, both those on the battlefield and back at home.

The Great War (1914-1918)

“Masses of dead bodies strewn upon the ground, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats—these are but some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914-18). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale.” – The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Online Topics: Intro to 20th Century

Intro film on WWI, authentic footage & images (10)

The Great War started on June 28, 1914, after a chain of events following the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife. The war was fought by two separate sides, the Central Powers (consisting of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied Powers (The United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire forming the Triple Entente). Due to the vast network of alliances and treaties between European nations, nearly the entire continent and beyond was eventually involved in the war, leading many to question whether or not they truly belonged in a conflict that seemingly had nothing to do with them. Britain, as a member of the Triple Entente, was one such case as they were obligated to follow into war as Germany declared war on their French allies. In addition, due to the 1839 Treaty of London, Britain had a treaty with Belgium that required the defense of the neutral country after Germany’s invasion on August 4th, 1914. On that day the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith declared war on Germany. By default they went to war with the rest of the Central Powers.

Trench warfare

The Great War saw the advent of a new type of warfare known as Trench Warfare, that would result in the stagnation of the conflict and drag it out as both the Allies and Central powers fought from heavily fortified positions that neither side could seem to overcome, leading to unprecedented slaughter with little, and often nothing, being gained. The horrid conditions of the trenches and the seeming futility of combat that followed their construction served as a macabre inspiration for many “trench poets” throughout the war.

  • Fighting from a network of fortifications dug or constructed at or below ground level.

  • Machine gun range and firing power made it impossible for troops to move to new positions

  • Trenches dug along battlefield fronts to fight without mobility

  • Resulted in stalemate, especially on Western Front, that lasted most of the war

  • Provided place and time for soldiers to get to know one another

  • Connected through networks; resting & off duty trenches

  • Soldier would eat, sleep, fight, rest in trenches

  • Area between trenches of opposing forces know as “No Man’s Land”

  • Significant to literature because Trench Poetry was produced; soldiers needed to pass time during long periods in trenches

Battle of the Somme (July 1 – Nov. 18, 1916):

  • Main allied attack on the Western Front

  • First British attack in war

  • 58,000 British troops lost in 1 day, remains record

  • 420,000 British troops lost total

  • Significant to British literature:

    • Loss of men during first attack brought morale of soldiers down immensely

    • Provided inspiration to utilize poetry as outlet for their emotions


Germany Crumbles

Germany lost the war due to a growing weariness of the conflict within its own population and the defeat of its key allies, as well as the arrival of the fresh American reinforcements on the western front ensuring that the allied forces would be able to carry on the fight for longer than Germany could afford. The sailors of the German Navy did not want to go back to see and began to mutiny. As a result, on November 9th, 1918, the Kaiser escaped across German lines into the Netherlands. On November 11th an armistice was signed and there was finally peace.

  • Treaty of Versailles
    • June 28, 1919
    • Peace treaty at the end of the war between Germany and the Allied Powers
    • Negotiations took 6 months at the Paris Peace Conference

Timeline of WWI Events & British Literature


  • Outbreak of first World War
  • Panama Canal opened
James Joyce, Dubliners

  • First air attacks on London
  • Germans use poison gas in war
D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow;
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier
Ezra Pound, Cathay
Rupert Brooke, 1914 and Other Poems

  • Britain enters the Great War at the First Battle of the Somme
  • Battle of Verdun
  • Australians slaughtered in Gallipoli campaign
  • Easter Rising in Dublin
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Robert Graves, Over the Brazier

  • USA enters the war
  • October Revolution in Russia
  • Battle of Passchendaele
T.S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations
Robert Graves, Goliath and David

  • Second Battle of the Somme
  • German offensive collapses; end of war [Nov 11]
  • Votes for women over 30
  • Influenza pandemic kills millions
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
Robert Graves,Fairies and Fusiliers

  • Peace Treaty ratified at Versailles
  • Einstein’s Relativity Theory confirmed during solar eclipse
  • Breakup of former Habsburg Empire
  • Alcock and Brown make first flight across Atlantic
  • Prohibition enacted in US
1920 Robert Graves, Treasure Box ; Country Sentiment
1921 Robert Graves, The Pier-Glass
1922 T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

  • T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, a poem famous for satire and its exclusion of change in time, place, speaker, and location in part make it so significant

British Poetry of the Great War


Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)

“In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death’s pulleys creak;”
Edgell Rickword (Trench Poets, 1921)

  • Officer in the British Army
  • Developed a severe infection in his left eye that resulted in its removal
  • Released his first collection of poetry in a book called Behind The Eyes in 1921
  • Poems like “Trench Poets” from Behind The Eyes have been described as “[possessing] darker energies and a daring wit which were part of Rickword’s already distinctive style.”

Edgell Rickword.jpgTrench Poets.png

__Wilfred Owen (1893-19____18)__

“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” – Wilfred Owen, 1916

  • British Soldier
  • Known for realistic style
  • Wrote on horrors of trench & gas warfare
  • Endured many war injuries, resulting in “shell-shock”
  • Intended to publish book of poetry, but killed in action on November 4, 1918
  • Most of his poetry published after his death
  • “His poetry often graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brooke.” (9)


Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

“I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is if I am lucky enough to come through it alright” – Isaac Rosenberg, 1916

  • British Soldier
  • Heavily influenced by Keats and other Romantics
  • Enlisted in war because he was out of work poet
  • Killed in action, 1918
  • All works published after death
  • “Rosenberg’s poems, such as ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ or the often-anthologized ‘Break of Day in the Trenches,’ are characterized by a profound combination of compassion, clarity, stoicism, and irony” –


Julian Grenfell (1888-1915)

“The thundering line of battle

Literature through other Media

Trench Songs

Trench songs were poems written by soldiers to alleviate the stress and fear that they encountered from the war. With these songs, soldiers were able to create bonds with one another. The soldiers sang these songs at their base camps, while marching, and during the front lines. These short songs and poems included rhyme which created a musical sound quality to their pieces; these poems often became known throughout the writers’ barrack. The tone of the songs, often times, were bitter with the use of obscene language. This was due in part by the soldiers’ mistreatment by higher ranking soldiers, the acknowledgement of certain death, and the miseries of the war. However, other times these songs would be humorous and witty; even being parodies of famous songs of the time. They used writing as an outlet for emotions which could not be honorably spoken. Their songs and poems revolved around topics such as their desire to go home, their personal lack of support for the war, problems with superiors, and other general annoyances in the camp. But the purpose of most trench songs was to foster and express the camaraderie among the soldiers as they fought and lived together under those conditions. These are some famous trench songs from the First World War:

  • “Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away”
    • Don’t take my darling boy away from me,

      Don’t send him off to war
      You took his father and brothers three,
      Now you’ve come back for more
      Who are the heroes that fight your war
      Mothers who have no say
      But my duty’s done so for god’s sake leave one!
      And don’t take my darling boy away.

  • “I don’t want to join the Army”
    • I don’t want to join the army,
      I don’t want to go to war.
      I’d rather hang around Piccadilly underground,
      Living off the earnings of a lady typist.
      I don’t want a bayonet in my belly,
      I don’t want my bollocks shot away.
      I’d rather stay in England, in merry merry England,
      And fornicate this bleeding life away.

  • “It’s a long way to Tipperary”
    • It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go.

      It’s a long way to Tipperary, to the sweetest girl I know.
      Good-bye, Piccadilly,
      Farewell Leicester Square.
      It’s a long long way to Tipperary, but my heart’s right there.


Women in the War

Gender Role Change and the Fatherless Family

Due to the absence of men on the home front, typically domestic British women occupied jobs that men usually did. Approximately two million women replaced men employment between 1914-1918. Many jobs were in factories that required heavy physical work, creating a new image of the woman worker. In addition to their masculine occupations, women had to care and provide for their families while their husbands were serving in the war. The change in gender role for women helped women suffrage in the future, however, the woman worker image was unfortunately only a temporary one. Immediately after the war, women resumed being the housewives they were prior to the Great War, even though it was not entirely voluntary on the woman’s part.

Expression through Literature

Although the men were more physically affected by the Great War, women were also emotionally affected. Between their high level of stress from assuming the role of men in the workplace and home life and their sadness from being separated from their husbands, women found writing as a means of expressing their feelings and drastic situations. Women who became nurses used their exposure to and observations of wounded soldiers and hospital life as the main subjects of their writing.

Original manuscript of “Perhaps” by Vera Brittain

Select Women Writers:

Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

During the war, Vera Brittain left Oxford to become a VAD nurse for four years. She married quartermaster-sergeant Roland LeigVera Brittain Portrait.pnghton, whose writing also played a major role in British literature during the war. They wrote letters and poems to each other while he was away before his untimely death in the war.

  • Verses of a VAD (1918)
  • The Dark Tide (1923) – first novel
  • Not Without Honour (1924)
  • Testament of Youth (1933)
  • Testament of Friendship (1940)
  • Testament of Experience (1957)

Eva Dobell (1867-1963)

Eva Dobell drew from her experiences as a volunteer nurse for inspiration when writing. She wrote to boost the morale of the wounded soldiers and was known to write about specific patients. A fan of sonnets, Eva was deeply affected by the war, which is easily visible in her poetry.
Eva Dobell.jpg
Eva Dobell’s “Advent, 1916”

I dreamt last night Christ came to earth again
To bless His own. My soul from place to place
On her dream-quest sped, seeking for His face
Through temple and town and lovely land, in vain.
Then came I to a place where death and pain
Had made of God’s sweet world a waste forlorn,
With shattered trees and meadows gashed and torn,
Where the grim trenches scarred the shell-sheared plain.

And through that Golgotha of blood and clay,
Where watchers cursed the sick dawn, heavy-eyed,
There (in my dream) Christ passed upon His way,
Where His cross marks their nameless graves who died
Slain for the world’s salvation where all day
For others’ sake strong men are crucified.

Thematic Outcomes & Trends


One of the prominent trends of poetry and other kinds of literature during the first world war was a persistent propensity for irony. At the onset, the war was greeted with a sort of ironic enthusiasm, with soldier-poets such as Julian Grenfell professing that “I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy.” (12) The nature of the war, costly as it was in so many different ways stood in stark contrast to the flood of propaganda that was being pushed by the government in an attempt to drum up more support for the war, often to attract new volunteers in the face of overwhelming casualties being suffered on a regular basis. In their works, poets like Grenfell continued to mock such propaganda that glorified the war or service in it, having experienced the horrors of the trenches firsthand and relating the reality of the war through their writing.

Soldier’s Point of View

Much of the poetry produced by the “trench poets” presented the war from the point of view of the average soldier, depicting in graphic detail the sights and experiences that were their lives day in and day out that the people back at home never saw, from descriptions of combat, to the sordid living conditions, to the nightmarish instances of chemical warfare and the general feelings of hopelessness that the soldiers often faced. In his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est”, Wilfred Owen describes all of this:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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 too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
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. (13)

Beginning of Modernism

“The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war’s end in 1918, the centuries-old European domination of the world had ended and the “American Century” had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when the avante-garde experiments that had preceded the war would, like the technological wonders of the airplane and the atom, inexorably establish a new dispensation, which we call modernism.” – A Brief Guide to Modernism,

Religious Views

Much of the writing being produced in Britain during the war was religiously charged, or at least carried religious themes or evoked religious imagery, such as in Eva Dobell’s “Advent 1916” where she describes the timely return of Christ in her dreams as he visits the battlefields and compares the fallen soldiers to him, saying that they are “crucified” for the sake of others. Sometimes, it was used to drum up support for the war, positing that God was on the side of the British and that they would be protected as a result such as in Harold Begbie’s “Fall In” where he urges young men to join the war effort, proclaiming that “England’s call is God’s”. Others, particularly a few years into the conflict, expressed a deep internal conflict between their religious beliefs and the realities that they faced that called said beliefs into question.


Bourke, Joanna. “Women on the Home Front in World War One.” BBC, 2003.
Crawford, Fred D. British Poets of the Great War. Selinggrove, PA. Susquehanna University Press, 1988.
Miller, Alisa.The Vera Brittain Collection. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

Pyecroft, Susan. “British Working Women and the First World War.” The Historian, Vol. 56, 1994. – Trench warfare songs (cite) (cite)








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