Forgotten Poems of the Great War

‘All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory’, Viet Thanh Nguyen

One of the most moving books I read in 2021 was Constance Ruzich’s anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices (Bloomsbury) which I mentioned in my previous blogpost, ‘Lost Voices’. It’s a collection of 150 poems that draws together an international range of compelling voices, revealing a wider, more complex conversation about the war than we have become familiar with in the UK through the poetry of Siegried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. International Poetry of the First World War is structured in six thematic sections (‘Soldiers’ Lives’, ‘Minds at War’, ‘Noncombatants’, ‘Making Sense of War’, ‘Remembering The Dead’ and ‘Aftermath’) and men’s and women’s experiences are featured in each section. The poems range from Rupert Brooke’s rarely anthologized, moving ‘Fragment’, which he jotted in a notebook on the troopship he and his company sailed on to the Dardanelles, to ‘High Wood’, by John Stanley Purvis, who fought in the Battle of the Somme. Written in 1917, his poem already grimly predicts the throngs of tourists who would soon be buying souvenirs and dropping litter on this and other First World War battlefields (‘And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide/ Refreshments at a reasonable rate.’)

International Poetry of the First World War features a wide range of compelling and diverse voices, several of which also feature in Ruzich’s blog, Behind Their Lines: Poetry of the Great War. In a 2020 interview in The Modernist Review she describes how ‘in the writings of French, German, Italian, Austro-Hungarian, American, Australian, Canadian, and Russian poets (among others), I discovered a richer and more complex conversation about the war than I had previously known’, and the poems collected in this anthology bear this out. ‘Standing To/In Bereitschaft’ by Anton Schnack (‘I shall go into death as into a doorway filled with summer coolness…’) is translated by Patrick Bridgwater, who compares the German poet’s work to that of Wilfred Owen.

The biographical notes that follow each poem offer valuable context, and shine light on the lives of poets who are little known today. James Reese Europe (known as Jim Europe) was one of the most popular bandleaders in America before the war, the first to conduct a Black orchestra at Carnegie Hall, playing ragtime and early jazz. In 1917 he became the first Black American officer to lead his troops into war, and, as well as serving as a machine-gunner on the Western Front, he put together a popular military band known as the ‘Harlem Hell Fighters’ of the the 369th Infantry. He wrote the lyrics of the poem included here, ‘On Patrol in No Man’s Land’, while recovering in a field hospital from a gas attack. It’s a droll take on the terrifying experience he had just undergone: ‘What’s the time, nine, all in line,/ Alright boys, now take it slow/ Are you ready? steady! very good, Eddy,/ Over the top let’s go/.’

Europe’s words were set to music by Noble Sissle, and the Hell Fighters performed it all over wartime France, with Jim Europe’s musicians simulating the sounds of artillery explosions and machine-gun fire. Back in New York, it was recorded on the Pathé label in March 1919. Two years earlier Europe had said ‘if I live to come back, I will startle the world with my music’, but sadly he never got the chance. In May 1919 he was stabbed backstage by one of his own musicians during a concert, and later died. He was the first Black American to be given a public funeral in New York City, yet nowadays his contribution to music has largely been forgotten.

As Andrew Motion has said, “less familiar voices offer new perspectives” and Ruzich’s book acknowledges a range of experiences other than the one familiar to us of soldiers fighting on the Western Front. Poems by noncombatants include “Burning Beehives” by the poet and dramatist Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac. The poem is based on a report of the pointless destruction of a priest’s beehives in a French village. It uses dark humour and pathos to make its point: ‘”But why ever are you burning my bees?”/The curé of Fraimbois asked the German brute./”That’s war!” replied the General. – Yes, war as waged/ By the horde on the buzz and pride of freedom.’

The poem ends on an uplifting description of the French cavalry humming their national anthem, the Marseillaise, sounding like a swarm of bees. The men of France are ‘prepared to die/ For beehives and to save the honey of the world’ Rostand writes, perhaps mocking his own attempt at heroic poetry, like his romantic hero Cyrano. Rostand died in 1918, a victim of the influenza pandemic, and he is buried in Marseille’s city cemetery.

 As Ruzich points out, ‘women bore witness to new technologies of war, the assault on the environment, and the suffering of the wounded’. The Indian political activist and suffragist Sarojini Naidu, who in the late 1890s studied at Girton College, Cambridge, was a poet known as ‘the nightingale of India’. Her passionate poem ‘The Gift of India’ draws on the heroic sacrifices made by over one million Indian troops who served in the British army in World War I. Nearly 75,000 died on foreign fields, and over 70,000 were wounded. She asks the British to ‘Remember the blood of thy martyred sons!’ and honour the Indian soldiers’ heroism – implicitly, by granting India independence. Naidu was elected the President of the Indian National Congress in 1925, and became India’s first woman Governor in 1947.

With a more cynical eye, the American writer Dorothy Parker’s “Penelope” describes the invisibility of women’s war sacrifices, while Rose Macaulay’s ‘Spreading manure’ is more down to earth, describing the tedious exertions of a Land Army girl: ‘I think no soldier is so cold as we,/ Sitting in the Flanders mud.’ The poet Frances Cornford was Ida Darwin’s niece and a close friend of Rupert Brooke’s, grieving his death in 1915 and naming her son Rupert John Cornford after Brooke (he also became a poet, and died fighting against Franco’s troops in the Spanish Civil War in 1936.) But the poem by Frances Cornford that is included here is ‘Féri Bekassy’ (originally titled simply ‘Féri Dead 1915’) about her friend, the Hungarian poet and scholar Férenc Békássy, who was a student at King’s College, Cambridge before the war.

Békássy joined the Austro-Hungarian army soon after war was declared, and wrote the poem ‘1914’, also included in this anthology, before being killed in action on 25 June 1915. Cornford’s poem makes gentle fun of her friend: ‘Say, on that Galician plain,/Are you arguing again?/ Does a trench or ruined tree/ Hear your – “O, I don’t agree!”’. As Ruzich points out in her blog, ‘These were the lovely absurdities that made him a dear friend; he is remembered as a man and not as an idealized warrior’. Significantly, Frances Cornford chooses to ignore the fact that her two dearest poet-friends, Brooke and Békássy, fought on opposite sides of the war. In a side chapel of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge there is a wall commemorating the many members of the college killed in the Great War, including Rupert Brooke. On another wall there is just one name, that of Férenc Békássy, carved at John Maynard Keynes’s request, but in a separate space. In Ruzich’s wonderful book, many of those historical absences fall away, and the voices of forgotten poets of the First World War are no longer lost to our collective memory.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 21 December 2021

The paperback of International Poetry of the First World War is forthcoming in April 2022, and available for pre-order from Bloomsbury now. My next blogpost will be about my other Books of the Year 2021 – eleven books that I enjoyed reading and reviewing this year.

2 thoughts on “Forgotten Poems of the Great War

  1. simonboydsite says:

    Thanks for making me aware of this collection which I have now pre-ordered and which will join my other volumes of WW1 poetry. A good one is ‘Scars upon my Heart’ – a collection of women’s verse from WW1, published by Virago.

    Liked by 1 person

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