German soldiers in the trenches of the Eastern Front (1916)Today we know it as World War I, but those who lived through it called it the Great War. At first, the war was predicted to last only a few months and to result in a resounding success for the British Empire and its allies. But as the years passed and the casualties mounted into the millions, it became clear that this conflict was quite different from its predecessors. With nearly nine million soldiers killed (one in five of those who fought) and survivors afflicted with prolonged physical and mental suffering, the war marked a sea-change in the course of military and political history. It also represented a challenge to anyone wishing to give meaning to the enormity of the death toll and the futility of trench warfare. Soldiers living in rat-infested and water-saturated trenches fired machine-guns at unseen soldiers in other trenches; when they went “over the top” into no-man’s-land, they became completely vulnerable. The use of the term “Great War” suggests the challenge of representing something so new and awful, so vast and traumatic.

Click to EnlargeOnce it became clear that both sides had settled into their trenches, which stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea, people naturally wondered what had gone wrong. Patriotic poems and songs from previous wars, such as Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada” (1897-98), linked the British soldier’s fighting prowess with his moral superiority, fairness, and skill.  World War I also elicited representations that blurred the line between war and athletics,  such as Jessie Pope’s jingoistic poem “The Call” (1915) and the recruiting poster “The Army Isn’t All Work.”  But as soldiers’ expectations of a just, valorous, sporting war gave way to hideous, anonymous carnage, characteristic expressions of irony emerged. For soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, irony proved a useful means of representing the gulf between expectation and reality, the murderous war and the unsuspecting nation, the soldier’s comrades in the trenches and the unseen enemy across no-man’s-land. Bitterly ironic statements such as Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Soldier’s Declaration” helped call attention to the rage and bewilderment of the trench soldier; but their chilly reception by an equally bewildered reading public reinforced cultural divisions. Some readers at home condemned the war poets’ attacks as unpatriotic, and opinion remained divided between those who had fought and knew, and those who preferred not to know.

Some poets also disliked the soldier poets’ graphic and caustically ironic depictions of the war. In the words of W. B. Yeats in his 1936 preface to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the bitterness of war poets was an unconstructive “passive suffering.” Yeats refused to include in his anthology combatant poets such as Owen and Sassoon. He preferred in poetry a more active heroism, such as that he invented for the speaker of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”

We Need You, Red CrossAs casualties from both the Allied and Central Powers ran into the millions, military tactics became increasingly desperate. These included the deployment of mustard gas, submarine attacks on shipping lines, and howitzer shelling and zeppelin bombings of cities miles behind the front lines. Such tactics signaled a breakdown of the rules of warfare in favor of indiscriminate killing of both the soldiers and the civilians they protected. Civilian artists now found they had an authentic, lived experience of war they could express. The involvement of millions of women in the war effort, such as those depicted in the poster “We Need you, Redcross,” eroded the distinction between civilian women and the men who went off to save the country. Munitions, factory, and textile jobs were vacated by enlistees and quickly filled by women for whom the war represented an economic opportunity. Although recruiting posters such as “Women of Britain say—GO!” associated women with the English countryside that valiant soldiers ought to defend, poems such as Jessie Pope’s “War Girls” represent women as empowered by the challenge of their wartime jobs.  An aerial view of a German mustard gas attack on the Eastern Front. Frustrated by the war’s length and carnage, some poets, such as Sassoon and Ezra Pound, allude disparagingly to the women and the civilization soldiers were supposedly protecting. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, for example, refers to Britain as “an old bitch gone in the teeth.”  

Because of its massive scale and controversial impetus, monuments to the war often indicate the difficulty of representing it. Commemorative physical structures tend to look like a mixture of massiveness and stripped-down, minimalist gestures, as if trying to speak volumes and remain silent at the same time. The Menin Gate and the Cenotaph of Whitehall both stand in mute remembrance of a massive loss that can barely be imagined, much less represented. The spareness of the Cenotaph, meanwhile, allowed two contemporaries to draw different conclusions about its significance: Henry Morton’s Heart of London records his impression of the monument as a symbol of Mourners lay flowers at the base of the Whitehall Cenotaph during a Remembrance Day observance, Nov. 11, 192unity and communal reverence, while Charlotte Mew cannot help but notice, in her poem “Cenotaph,” how incongruous this great static symbol of grief appears in the middle of a degraded mercantile hub. Like the divergences between jingoists and satirists, soldiers and civilians, feminists and antifeminists, these differences over war memorials reflect competing views over how to represent a war that ultimately defies representation.

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