The commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the First World War have passed their second Christmas. Now the centenary events have become muted, part of the background. While male war poets have been justly celebrated, women’s poetry has been heard much less frequently. Indeed you could argue that ‘war poet’ means a soldier, a man.
The Great War impacted upon everybody. Women had to deal with the absence and possible death of their menfolk. At home the suffragette campaign was suspended and women found they were required to take over ‘men’s work’, including in munitions factories. Many did heroic medical work, including at the front. They managed rationing and the other restrictions on their lives. One of the most significant effects were the loss of nearly a million men from the population. I still find myself moved by the implications of these lines by Margaret Postgate Cole from Praematuri:
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.
Here is the slightly revised post I first published on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War.
Women’s Poetry and The Great War
How do we remember the First World War? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.
And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication.
The cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice. This is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An example is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.
All the dreariness of war
‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains the neglect – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.
I know of only one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain, To My Brother.
Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (15)
Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.
The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while his wind blow out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We can still dance, each night.
The final verse begins with the line
We are dull blind carrion-fly (100)
One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends
Here I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate. (2)
Women paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancées, wives, daughters …
Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice a woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of surplus women:
But we are young, and our friends are dead …
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (22)
A woman might suffer considerable hardship to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.
Lest we forget
Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be more poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us also remember the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we do not forget.
- Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
- Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
- Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
- Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
- Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.
The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981.
You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.
Women in War – Scars upon my Heart from DoveGreyReader Scribbles’ blog in November 2012.
Over to you
Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?
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