Poem Sampler

The Poetry of World War I

From poems written in the trenches to elegies for the dead, these poems commemorate the Great War.

The Poetry of World War I

Roughly 10 million soldiers lost their lives in World War I, along with seven million civilians. The horror of the war and its aftermath altered the world for decades, and poets responded to the brutalities and losses in new ways. Just months before his death in 1918, English poet Wilfred Owen famously wrote, “This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.”

To mark the WWI centenary, we’ve put together a sampling of poems written in English by both soldiers and civilians, chosen from our archive of over 250 poems from WWI. We’ve also compiled a sampler showcasing the poets who served and volunteered in World War I.

While many of these poems do not address a particular war event, we’ve listed them by year, along with a selection of historical markers, to contextualize the poems historically. You may notice that more poems in 1914 and 1915 extoll the old virtues of honor, duty, heroism, and glory, while many later poems after 1915 approach these lofty abstractions with far greater skepticism and moral subtlety, through realism and bitter irony. Though horrific depictions of battle in poetry date back to Homer’s Iliad, the later poems of WWI mark a substantial shift in how we view war and sacrifice. 

 

1914
Archduke Ferdinand assassinated. Outbreak of war in July/August. Germany invades Belgium. First Battle of the Marne, First Battle of Ypres. United States remains neutral. Trench warfare begins. The Siege of Antwerp. The Christmas truce.

Channel Firing” by Thomas Hardy
On Receiving News of the War” by Isaac Rosenberg
Peace” by Rupert Brooke (published in Poetry)
The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke (published in Poetry)
The Dead” by Rupert Brooke
Joining the Colours” by Katherine Tynan
Men Who March Away” by Thomas Hardy
War Girls” by Jessie Pope
On Heaven” by Ford Madox Ford (published in Poetry)
To Germany” by Charles Sorley
For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
Phases” by Wallace Stevens (published in Poetry)
Iron” by Carl Sandburg (published in Poetry)
The Bombardment” by Amy Lowell (published in Poetry)
War Yawp” by Richard Aldington (published in Poetry)
Fallen” by Alice Corbin Henderson (published in Poetry)
August 1914” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
August 1914” by Isaac Rosenberg
August, 1914” by Vera Mary Brittain

 

1915
Germans sink RMS Lusitania. The Dardenelles campaign. Battle of Gallipoli. Second Battle of Ypres. First use of poison gas.

In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae
Absolution” by Siegfried Sassoon
Home” by Edward Thomas
Champagne, 1914-15” by Alan Seeger
Belgium” by Edith Wharton
Before Marching and After” by Thomas Hardy
In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)” by Edward Thomas
The Owl” by Edward Thomas
A Lament” by Katherine Tynan
The Spring in War-Time” by Sara Teasdale
Into Battle” by Julian Grenfell
On Being Asked for a War Poem” by William Butler Yeats
Rouen” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
Marching” by Isaac Rosenberg (published in Poetry)
Such, Such is Death” by Charles Sorley
The Falling Leaves” by Margaret Postgate Cole
When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” by Charles Sorley
This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong” by Edward Thomas

 

1916
Battle of Verdun, Battle of the Somme. President Wilson re-elected with campaign slogan, “He kept us out of the war.” Rasputin is murdered. 

Rain” by Edward Thomas
Break of Day in the Trenches” by Isaac Rosenberg (published in Poetry)
The Troop Ship” by Isaac Rosenberg
The Kiss” by Siegfried Sassoon
The Poet as Hero” by Siegfried Sassoon
As the Team’s Head Brass” by Edward Thomas
Sonnet 9: On Returning to the Front after Leave” by Alan Seeger
In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’” by Thomas Hardy
Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats
The Trumpet” by Edward Thomas
The Messages” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson
The Death Bed” by Siegfried Sassoon
Lights Out” by Edward Thomas
The Night Patrol” by Arthur Graeme West
The War Films” by Henry Newbolt
The Twins” by Robert Service
Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” by Alan Seeger
At the Movies” by Florence Ripley Mastin

 

1917
Germans issue Zimmerman Telegram to Mexico, United States declares war on Germany, draft begins. U.S. troops land in France. Third Battle of Ypres. Bolshevik uprising in Russia, led by Lenin, headed by Trotsky. 

Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
I Have a Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger
Blighters” by Siegfried Sassoon
Two Fusiliers” by Robert Graves
Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen
Returning, We Hear the Larks” by Isaac Rosenberg
The Dead Kings” by Francis Ledwidge
Servitude” by Ivor Gurney
from Battle of the Somme: The Song of the Mud” by Mary Borden
Dead Man’s Dump” by Isaac Rosenberg
Counter-Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon
Sergeant-Major Money” by Robert Graves
The Work” by Gertrude Stein
To His Love” by Ivor Gurney
After the War” by Mary Wedderburn Cannan
To Any Dead Officer” by Siegfried Sassoon
Photographs” by Ivor Gurney
Breakfast” by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

 

1918
U.S. President Wilson issues Fourteen Points to peace. Germany launches Spring Offensive, bombs Paris. United States launches attacks at Belleau Wood and Argonne Forest. Bolsheviks murder Tsar Nicholas II and Romanov family. Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, Germany signs armistice on November 11. Paris Peace Conference.

Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen
Futility” by Wilfred Owen
Attack” by Siegfried Sassoon
The Veteran” by Margaret Postgate Cole (published in Poetry)
Repression of War Experience” by Siegfried Sassoon
Grass” by Carl Sandburg
Dawn on the Somme” by Robert Nichols
God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men” by Arthur Graeme West
Lettres d'un Soldat” by Wallace Stevens (published in Poetry)
Ypres” by Laurence Binyon
Spring Offensive” by Wilfred Owen
Epitaph On My Days in Hospital” by Vera Mary Brittain
Roundel” by Vera Mary Brittain
War Mothers” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Glory of Women” by Sigfried Sassoon
Smile, Smile, Smile” by Wilfred Owen
S. I. W.” by Wilfred Owen
And There Was a Great Calm” by Thomas Hardy

  

1919 and After
Armies demobilize, return home. Peace Treaty of Versailles ratified by Germany; U.S. Senate votes to reject treaty and refuses to join League of Nations. Proposal and constitution for League of Nations. The Cenotaph unveiled in London. Treaty of Sevres in 1920 ends war on Eastern Front.

January 1919” by Christopher Middleton (1919)
Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon (1919)
The Cenotaph” by Charlotte Mew (1919)
First Time In” by Ivor Gurney (1919)
from Epitaphs of the War, 1914-18” by Rudyard Kipling (1919)
Gethsemane” by Rudyard Kipling (1919)
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (Part I)” by Ezra Pound (1920)
A.E.F.” by Carl Sandburg (1920)
To E.T.” by Robert Frost (1920)
In Memory of George Calderon” by Laurence Binyon (1920)
War and Peace” by Edgell Rickword (1921)
Trench Poets” by Edgell Rickword (1921)
“Soldier-Poet” by Hervey Allen (1921)
For a War Memorial” by G.K. Chesterton (1921)
Festubert, 1916” by Edmund Blunden (1921)
Elegy in a Country Churchyard” by G.K. Chesterton (1922)
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries” by A.E. Housman (1922)
Soldier from the wars returning” by A.E. Housman (1922)
I Saw England — July Night” by Ivor Gurney (1922)
Champs d’Honneur” by Ernest Hemingway (1923) (published in Poetry)
Laventie” by Ivor Gurney (1925)
A War Bride” by Jessie St. John (1928) (published in Poetry)

       

Read more poets who served or volunteered in WWI

Browse more War Poems

 

  

AUDIO

Poet's Choice: Of Love and War: D.A. Powell reads poems from Rupert Brooke and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Anything But Sweet: Wilfred Owen's “Dulce et Decorum Est” and modern warfare.

 

ARTICLES

“100 Years of Poetry: The Magazine and War”: A historical look at the role of poetry in wartime.

How Should We Write About War and Trauma?: Tom Sleigh Looks to David Jones

Now Online: Siegfried Sassoon’s War Diaries

Poetry in the First World War” from Poetry magazine (1940)

 

 

ONLINE WWI RESOURCES

PBS: The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century 

Oxford University: The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

U.S. National WWI Museum

The Telegraph: Life on the Eve of War

Originally Published: August 4, 2014

COMMENTS (5)

On August 6, 2014 at 9:44am John Hall wrote:
Little can exact a response so intense as that of war...

Yellow Ribbons
(At the Anniversary of our Entry Into War, March 19, 2003)
By J.K. Hall

When I was young resplendent
Ribbons adorned the hair of mysterious
Elementary-school girls…
Sentinels of fair weather

Now they are functionaries flashing
Displays of the domestic
Patriot bought
At a fueling stop
Yellow looped to form a hole
A thin morning noose
Around the neck of the Republic

Residing here on the hind quarters
Of our conveyances is
Our commitment all the while
An eternity separates us from Eden’s sands
Which now sepulcher bones ancient and new

Some yearn not for blandishments
Or mortal games abstracted from myth
But for an armature
Upon which the
Tissue of justice is formed
Adding layer by layer the clay of
Collective sacrifice
Until the body is whole

With Victory so compelling
Why so content
So comfortable
With blank action
Paraded here on that which craves
A meal of blood and bone

Are they amulets
Fortifying our virtues
Watching over our progeny
With hollow eye
These distant yawning ribbons
Yellow as old teeth

Blind to their coarse ubiquity
We see them
Hear them
Chattering
Speaking a vacant tongue
Travelling endless colorless motionless miles
On the highways of our
Disconnection

On August 10, 2014 at 6:43am Tim McGrath wrote:
A cathedral filled with mourners and flowers, and the
only sound that can be heard is a strew of weeping verse.

On August 14, 2014 at 11:57pm Tim McGrath wrote:
WWI produced a lot of great poems, Vietnam hardly any.
But in between, Karl Shapiro wrote "Scyros," a great poem
by any standard, published in this magazine.

On August 15, 2014 at 10:47am Lillie wrote:
This is beautifully done. Thank you!

On August 15, 2014 at 11:02am lou lipsitz wrote:
A wonderful selection. Readers however should not neglect Wilfred Owen's
brief and unforgettable poem: Parable of the Old Man and The Young.
Perhaps nothing more powerful has been written on war in the 20th
century.

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