Women’s Poetry and The Great War

I am posting this on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War. How do we remember that 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.

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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 price was 10s 6d. I was part of a generation that believed in ‘telling it like it is’, and was fiercely pacifist.

115 W OwenThe cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice and 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 up-to-the-minute example of this side-lining is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

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‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains in part the neglect of women’s experience – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

115 Scars coverI only know 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 called To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (p15)

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 (p100)

115 silhouettes TommyWomen paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all once had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancees, wives, daughters …

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. (p2)

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of women after the war:

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. (p22)

The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice women had to adjust to life with an unbalanced demography. 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’.A woman might suffer considerable hardship having 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.

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Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be 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 include also the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we can remember.

Among the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose novels are still available, we can name:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, Anderby Wold, (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.

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?

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.


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3 Responses to Women’s Poetry and The Great War

  1. This is a great post, Caroline, today of all days. I haven’t come across any of these poems and of your list of novelists I only knew of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby. As we are supposed to be commemorating this war from all angles (not just for the bloodlust of the political elite) it’s so important to recognise women’s testimonies from the time. I think there are a lot of good contemporary novels about the First World War by women (Pat Barker and Louisa Young perhaps being the most well-known) but this brings in another valuable perspective.

    • Caroline

      Thanks Anne for this encouraging response. I became rueful about the silhouetted Tommies comment as the coverage on BBC TV took this near-cliche for it’s introduction to the events.
      I recommend dipping into the poetry, of course.
      Thanks too for adding the dimension of present-day novels about the First World War.

  2. Helen Ashley

    In ‘Words out of War’, the two presentations of WW1 poetry at Totnes Library (Wed 17 Sept and Wed 15 Oct, both at 4.30pm), we’re covering British and other European poets. Out of 30 poems in total, 11 are by women. Helping to compile the programmes has certainly opened my eyes to women’s feelings and reactions at that time.

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