One might legitimately view war at the time of The Great War as a largely masculine endeavour – started by male politicians in parliament, fought by male civilians in the trenches. The poems of Wilfred Owen et al which emerged from the trenches are justifiably famous examples of (some) men seeking to make sense of an extraordinary situation. Next up as part of our week-long First World War theme to commemorate the centenary of the Somme, a collection of poems that shows how women also used poetry to make sense of the pain of war.
There are almost eighty female poets featured in Scars Upon My Heart, from famous ones such as Vera Brittain (the volume is named after a poem she wrote for her wounded brother four days before he died in June 1918: ‘your battle wounds are scars upon my heart’), to those for whom we have hardly any biographical details. Together, they quash the idea of the quiet female keeping the home fires burning while patriotically sucking up the misery of watching sons, brothers and lovers march to their deaths. Of this wonderful range of poems – of which there is also a Second World War counterpart, as men and women got to go through it all again less than a generation later – I have picked the following three for highlighting the role of women in war, the sacrifice of the working classes, and the injuries that were mental as well as physical.
Predictably, they are not all cheerful, so I would advise having a cat video on stand-by, for cheer.
A Recruit From The Slums – Emily Orr
Oh Emily, we hardly know you, and yet you wrote this excellent poem…
Child of a city slum,
That you should answer her ringing call
To man the gap and keep the wall
And hold the field though a thousand fall
And help be slow to come?
Her poor relation and friend?’
‘Oh, a fight like death for your board and keep,
And some pitiful silver coins per week
And the thought of the ”house” at the end.’
Dregs of the British race?’
‘She gave us little, she taught us less,
And why we were born we could hardly guess
Till we felt the surge of the battle press
And looked the foe in the face.’
That a man should die for his friend.’
‘We thought life cruel, and England cold;
But our bones were made from the English mould,
And when all is said, she’s our mother old
And we creep to her breast at the end.’
What Reward? – Winifred M. Letts
Letts (1882–1972) was an English-born writer of novels, plays and poetry who spent most of her life in Ireland but was educated in Bromley, London. Her war work included serving a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at Manchester Base Hospital.
You gave your life, boy,
But he who gave his precious wits,
Say, what reward for him?One had his glory,
One has found his rest.
But what of this poor babbler here
With chin sunk on his breast? Flotsam of battle,
With brain bemused and dim,
O God, for such a sacrifice
Say, what reward for him?