Opening Lines – First World War Poetry
This revision guide is intended to support the work you have
been doing in class on the following poems:
E.A. Mackintosh
Joining the Colours
Katherine Tynan Hinkson
The Target
Ivor Gurney
The Send-Off
Wilfred Owen
Spring Offensive
Wilfred Owen
The Bohemians
Ivor Gurney
Siegfried Sassoon
The Deserter
Winifred M. Letts
The Hero
Siegfried Sassoon
Falling Leaves
Margaret Postgate Cole
In Flanders Fields
John McCray
The Seed-Merchant’s Son
Agnes Grozier Herbertson
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Wilfred Owen
Spring in War-Time
Edith Nesbit
Vera Brittain
Reported Missing
Anna Gordon Keown
Historical Context – The 1914-1918 War
The 1914 -1918 War was also known as the Great War, and is infamous for the
millions of young men who died, using old-fashioned battle tactics against the
first modern weapons, such as machine guns. Young men volunteered to go and
fight believing they were on a heroic mission.
The horror they faced when they got to the trenches is the subject of much of
their poetry. The soldiers felt betrayed by those who had persuaded them to go
and fight, and were desperate to show the reality of war.
E.A. Mackintosh
“Recruiting” shows that the reality of war is different to the propaganda. The
poem contains bitter criticism of the politicians who sent the soldiers off to war
and the journalists who write about it. The poem comments on the recruitment
drive in Britain, taking issue, in particular, with posters encouraging young men
to sign up to the army. Mackintosh focuses on the discrepancy between the
image of war as presented by the advertising campaign of the “fat civilians” and
the reality of war as experienced by the young “lads” called up to fight.
Consists of 11 stanzas, each made up of 4 lines (quatrains) with a regular
rhyme scheme abcb defe ghih.
The poem has a powerful rhythm, reflecting the way young men were
cajoled into going to war without giving it proper consideration.
The poem is an obvious attack written from a soldier’s perspective who
has experienced the reality of war and realised the falsity of such
advertising campaigns.
1. How does the poet use the following techniques to get the point across
 The four line verse (quatrain)
 Colloquial language
 Rhyme
 Alliteration
2. The poem uses accessible, straightforward language. What does this suggest
about the purpose and audience it was written for?
‘Joining the Colours’
Katherine Tynan Hinkson
The poem tells of a regiment of soldiers leaving Dublin to fight in France. Written
from a female perspective, the poem juxtaposes (directly contrasts) images of
the innocent naivety of the young soldiers with images of death. The poet speaks
of the sad realization that the love felt for these men by the women left at home
“cannot save” the soldiers from their uncertain futures and likely deaths.
1. Compare this poem to “The Send-Off” which is also about men going off to
Look at:
 Settings
 Verse forms
 Standpoint of both poets
 Each poet’s feelings
 Patterns of imagery
 Your own response to the poems
 Use of contrast
‘The Target’
Ivor Gurney
“The Target” is told from the perspective of a soldier who agonises over a man
he has killed.
The soldier says that his mother lives in fear of his death, suggesting that it
might be better for his mother if he died so that she might at least find some
peace in not having to worry about him anymore. The soldier then goes on to
contemplate the situation of the soldier that he shot, and remembers that the
man he shot is another mother’s son.
The soldier feels that God gives no guidance and does not seem to care. The
speaker wonders who “felt the bullet worst” – he questions whether it is better
to be the soldier shot than the soldier who did the shooting and has to live with
the guilt of taking another’s life. The poem ends in disillusionment, calling the
war a “bloody mess indeed”.
‘The Send-off’
Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen’s poem, “The Send-Off” was written at Ripon where there was a
huge army camp.
The troops in the poem have just come from a sending-off ceremony of cheering
crowds, bells, drums, and flowers given by strangers; the troops are now being
packed into trains for an unknown destination.
From the beginning of the poem the atmosphere is sinister: the lanes are
“darkening” and claustrophobic, the crowds have gone and the troops are
watched only by the “dull” and uninspiring faces of a porter and lowly tramp.
The flowers pinned on the chests of the soldiers in celebration become, for the
speaker of the poem, the funeral flowers garlanding the soldiers for the
slaughter that awaits them in war. The departure of the soldiers for war is
secret, “like wrongs hushed up”; the cheering celebration of the hours before
becomes a smoke screen for the harsh solemnity of war.
1. Owen’s choice of words adds to the effect of the imagery. What is the
effect of the oxymoron “grimly gay”?
2. Why does he use a rhetorical question in stanza 7?
3. Owen uses quite an unusual structure in the poem. Three-line stanzas
are followed by two-line stanzas and the rhymes connect the stanzas. He
also uses a combination of long and short lines. Look closely at the
structure. What kind of mood and feeling does it give to the poem?
‘Spring Offensive’
Wilfred Owen
In a letter dated 25th April 1917, Wilfred Owen recalls a day in which “we were
rushed up into line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our
objectives. Our ‘A’ company led the attack and of course lost a certain number
of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells and bullets”.
Owen’s poem “Spring Offensive” is an account of the action, its prologue and
aftermath and the men involved in it. The poem is composed of six stanzas; each
describes a different phase of the attack – the scene, the pause before the
attack, the tension, the attack, the casualties, and the survivors.
“Like an injected drug”
Type of
“sky burned / With fury”
“like sorrowing arms”
“like trees unstirred”
“like a cold gust”
“earth set sudden cups
/In thousands for their
“surf of bullets”
“hell’s upsurge”
Emphasises the dramatic healing
effect of the sun.
Suggests the intensity of the
bombardment – as if they were
being attacked by a vengeful god.
Perhaps relating to Christ’s crown of
thorns, the brambles create an
image of sacrifice
Emphasises how silently the men
breathe, creates a sense of man in
communion with nature
The May breeze becomes a cold
gust, emphasizes the manner in
which the men stiffen and brace
themselves in preparation for
The cups are metaphors for the
craters left by shells, filling with the
blood as the men die. A graphic
image of the blood shed and lives
Creates an image of bullets being
fired in waves.
Suggests that the war has created
hell on earth.
The poem’s structure reflects the different stages of the offensive:
1: sets the scene;
2: pause before the attack;
3: tension;
4: attack;
5: casualties;
6: survivors.
The majority of the lines are composed of 10 syllables. The rhythm of the poem
is broken by irregularities in the number of syllables in some of the lines and by
the irregular rhymes. Owen uses rhyming couplets to create and emphasise
Trace what actually happens to the soldiers by rearranging the following
sentences into the right order.
a. As they attack they are exposed on an open stretch of ground.
b. The soldiers who survive cannot speak of those who died.
c. The soldiers have a chance to rest
d. The enemy opens fire
e. A “Little word” sends them into battle
f. But many soldiers just stare at the place they will attack
g. Many of the soldiers are shot or blown up.
‘The Bohemians’
Ivor Gurney
A bohemian is someone who is unconventional, rebellious and does not conform.
The poem discusses the different people who join up to the army, satirizing the
punishments the soldiers received for not wearing the correct uniform. The
individuality of the soldiers is erased.
The soldiers who “burnished brasses, earned promotions” (i.e. the soldiers who
conformed to the army rules were promoted). However, as the poem progresses,
the speaker suggests that the soldiers no longer need to worry about conforming
or not conforming as they eventually “died off one by one”: “In Artois or Picardy
they lie – free of useless fashions” (i.e. ultimately conforming proved “useless”)
“Barely escaping
hanging, indeed hardly
“others burnished
brasses, earned
“While others argued of
army ways, and
wrenched / What little
soul they had still further
from shape”
Type of
Emphasises the action of polishing
brass as an act that “earned
The use of alliteration reinforces the
message of these lines – that
conforming to army ways was soul
The poet satirizes the punishments
for not wearing the correct uniform
“The Bohemians” is written in only two sentences, the first encompassing 14 out
of the 15 lines of the poem. The rhythm of the poem is broken up mid line,
creating a sense of the poem as an accumulative list and producing a casual
1. Why is the conversational and casual tone of the poem deceptive?
2. What kind of individuality is stamped on the bohemians?
Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon’s poem, “Lamentations”, is a funeral song. The speaker of the poem
describes the pain and anguish of a young soldier, who after having been told of
the death of his brother, had to be removed to the guard room. The speaker,
hearing the pain of the grieved man, entered the guard room where the young
soldier had broken down. A sergeant looks on puzzled and patiently at the man
half-naked kneeling on the floor. The guard appears to lack compassion and
understanding for the situation of the grieving man.
The poem establishes a contrast between the reality of war as experienced by
the grieving soldier and the sergeant who has experienced no personal cost for
the war. The soldier who has lost his brother is in such despair he would not be
interested in fighting for a country which has effectively killed his brother.
This poem relies on montage. It is a single scene in the guard room and one
which depicts the violence of grief. This is displayed in the verbs ‘moaned’,
‘shouted’, ’sobbed’, ‘choked’, ‘howled’ and ‘beat’. The use of a list is employed to
show the situation rising in violence and despair. All the language is familiar and
universal to the reader and this helps Sassoon to establish his perspective. The
scene is also reminiscent of a child’s tantrum and this helps to display the futility
of war.
The structure of the poem aids the impression it gives of being an eye-witness
account, creating a sense of intimacy with the reader as the speaker imparts
what he has seen. The use of enjambment in the poem aids flow between lines
and sentences reinforcing the idea that this is a story being recalled from
1. What are the similarities between “Lamentations” and Sassoon’s “The
‘The Deserter’
Winifred M. Letts
In the First World War many soldiers suffered from shell shock, which was not
generally recognized as a condition at the time. They ran off from the guns and
were shot as deserters. The speaker of Winifred M. Letts’s poem tells of the fate
of a deserter; the deserter is not named – it could be any soldier.
The story of the deserter is told sympathetically, imagining the fear felt by the
soldier who ran off only to be caught and shot by his own army. The speaker
tells of the deserter’s mother who thinks her son died a hero, serving his country
in battle. The speaker suggests that it is best for the mother not to know that
her son “lies in a deserter’s grave”.
“Fear had dogged by
night and day”
Type of
“who can judge him, you
or I?”
“was scared as any
frightened child”
“throbbing heart and
sobbing breathe”
Internal rhyme
“I’ve seen a hare with
eyes as wild”
“An English bullet in his
Emphasises the strong feelings of
fear felt by the soldier. Suggests
that Fear has its own will separate
to the will of the person who
experiences it.
The speaker suggests that it is not
the place of the others to judge the
deserter’s guilt
Suggests the vulnerability of the
soldier, provokes sympathy from
the reader.
The repetition of sound mimics the
repetitious pounding of the
deserter’s heart. It emphasizing the
physical experience of fear as
something that takes over the body.
The comparison to a hare
emphasizes again the fragility of the
soldier but also suggests the erratic
and unpredictable manner in which
the deserter ran off
Suggests the disbelief of the
speaker that such killings should
Beginning the poem with “There was a man” gives the poem a story-like
structure, and the man remains nameless – suggesting this could be the fate of
any man.
The rhyme scheme of the poem is based on repetition of whole words and
phrases – “turned and ran away”, “to die”, “wild”, “death”, “when the dawn was
grey”, “An English bullet in his heart”, “strife”. All of the repeated phrases serve
to emphasise the speaker’s sympathy for the deserter.
In the closing lines of the poem the poet rhymes “gave” with “grave” linking the
image of the mother giving her son to war with an image of death.
1. Winifred Letts feels a sense of outrage and injustice at the treatment of
the deserter. What are the main ways she communicates these feelings?
2. Why do you think the army lied to the families of deserters about the way
in which they died? Do you think it was right or wrong?
‘The Hero’
Siegfried Sassoon
The speaker of the poem tells of the fate of a young soldier named Jack, and the
moment that his mother received a letter from the colonel informing her of her
son’s death.
The mother reacts to the eloquent words of the letter with both pride and grief;
the letter was ironic as the speaker continues to reveal Jack as a coward who in
reality wanted nothing more than to return home. He is referred to as “coldfooted” (nervous), a “useless swine” about whose death no one cared.
The poem builds sympathy for both the mother and Jack; it also criticizes Jack’s
comrades and the manner in which nervous soldiers were condemned. Like the
mother in “The Deserter”, Jack’s mother will never know the truth and pain (both
physical and psychological) of her son’s death.
1. Is Sassoon on the side of the Brother Officer or is he criticising him?
‘The Falling Leaves’
Margaret Postgate Cole
The actual falling leaves in this poem symbolise the falling solidiers who are
dying in the battlefield. The poet uses what we call in poetry an extended
metaphor. The leaves are the soldiers. The persona is riding a horse in the
autumn time. She observes the leaves turning brown and falling from the trees
and her mind is cast to the young men fighting and literally falling to their deaths
at war.
The poem is written in one sentence, as one long stanza consisting of twelve
lines. This is because it is a single thought which has consumed her there and
Usually when leaves die in nature they are swept away by the wind, but these
leaves are falling like snowflakes from the trees on a ‘still afternoon’ and the
speaker finds it odd. This prompts her to consider how the soldiers die ‘slain by
no wind or age or pestilence’.
Thence- and then, for that reason
Gallant- brave, chivalrous, stately (representative of the country)
Pestilence- fatal epidemic disease
‘In Flanders Fields’
John McCrae
Sickened by what he had seen during the Boer War, John McCrae nevertheless
signed up in August 1914, and headed for France with his horse, Bonfire, in tow.
He would have found few opportunities for riding in that hell on earth. Knee
deep in mud and freezing water, men's feet rotted where they stood, waiting for
the next attack of gas to insinuate its way down the trenches, or the signal to go
"over the top", often into direct machine gun fire.
McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields" the day after presiding at the funeral of a
friend and former student. McCrae was to number among the 9,000,000 fatalities
that the war would claim.
Poppy seed will lie in the ground for years if the soil is undisturbed. That churned
up cemetery known as the Western Front provided the ideal medium for masses
of poppies to blanket the graves.
Like ‘The Falling Leaves’, the poem relies heavily on visual imagery.
‘The Seed-Merchant’s Son’
Agnes Grozier Herbertson
The poet chose to make the subject of her poem the son of someone who grows
and sells seeds. Herbertson probably chose this occupation because seeds
signify new life and the possibility of growth and renewal. The poem gives many
facts about the young soldier who died, this emphasizes the youthfulness of the
boy – his “bright, bright eyes” and “cheeks all red”; he is “fair and healthy and
long of limb”. The seed merchant is described as being old to have such a
young son. The poet sympathises with the man and the fact that his family line
will now and with him and unlike the seeds will not be renewed. The speaker
questions what we can say to a man in his situation. The answer to her question
comes from her observations of the seed-merchant himself as she observes him
looking at the seeds in his hand and the realization that life will go on. The
seed-merchant manages to keep his faith in God as he thanks God – he thought
that life was over but realizes it is not when he looks at the seed.
1. How does the structure of the poem reflect the themes of youth and age?
2. Why do you think the poet chose a two-line stanza in rhyming couplets?
‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’
Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen chooses to base his poem on the biblical story of Abraham and his
son Isaac. In the bible, when Abraham has demonstrated his obedience, God
sends a ram for Abraham to sacrifice rather than his son. The bible story is
meant to emphasise the mercy of God. Abraham is considered the father of the
Jewish people and also is important in Islam. The story parallels God’s later
sacrifice of his own son Jesus Christ, to redeem the sins of the world.
Owen reworks the traditional parable, setting his story in the trenches of World
War One rather than in the Holy Land. Owen’s poem is a sinister reworking of
the parable in which Abraham becomes representative of the British government
and instead of sacrificing the Ram of Pride chooses to slay his son and “half the
seed of Europe”. The failure of the Angel to persuade Abraham to slay the Ram
suggests that the war could have been prevented had proper negotiations taken
place. The speaker of the poem feels that the government has gone against the
teachings of God.
1.Why do you think Owen chose this particular parable of Abraham and Isaac to
parody in his poem?
’Spring in War-Time’
Edith Nesbitt
The female speaker of the poem addresses a lost lover. She laments the passing
of the seasons and the fact that she will no longer walk down “lover’s lane” with
her lover.
Spring, which holds connotations of new life, only serves to remind the speaker
of the poem of what she has lost and will not experience. She remembers the
previous spring when she and her lover were, like the birds, ready to build a nest
The comparison of the lovers to the nesting birds emphasizes the lost
opportunities of the women left behind. “Lover’s lane”, named so because it was
often frequented by lovers, is evocative of the marital tradition of showering
newly weds in confetti, as the blossoming flowers scatter their petals on the
1. Nesbit has chosen a ballad form for the poem. Why is this appropriate?
Vera Brittain
The poem reflects on the beauty of nature which the speaker can no longer
appreciate. The speaker uses nature to demonstrate the passing of time and her
feelings of grief for her lost lover.
The speaker questions whether she will ever be able to appreciate the beauty of
nature again after experiencing such loss. The poem is both personal and
universal in its address; the capitalization of “You” is both the speaker’s named
lover and the name of any loved one lost in the war.
The ending is poignant and optimistic at the same time and reflects the British
fashion of resilience common during the period. Time is a healer and life does go
on. Nature aids the process of grief as it is a constant phenomenon and
continues to live on and provide familiar structure for those coping with loss.
Five quatrains are used with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efef ghgh ijij. This
reflects the monotony of the seasons and the steady rhythm of change.
The poem would have been appreciated by many young women at the time,
since such a vast number of men died during the war, and as a consequence the
birth rate dropped significantly and many women lived their lives as spinsters or
‘Reported Missing’
Anna Gordon Keown
This is a sonnet, traditionally a poetic form associated with love poetry. It is
ambiguous as to whether the speaker in this poem is the soldier’s mother or
lover. It is moving because the speaker is in denial and will soon have to accept
the death of the missing soldier.
The poem can be divided into two sections – the first 12 lines express anger at
the manner in which others so readily assume that the soldier is dead; the final
rhyming lines express her certainty that he will he is not dead and will come
again. The final lines are poignant as the reader realizes that one day the
speaker will have to accept that the soldier is not returning to her.
N.B. Do NOT forget to use the WIKI
pages on First World War poetry, at
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