‘No one expected a woman to understand anything about war, much less to record it’ – Vera Brittain.
Updated: Oct 29, 2020
With Remembrance Day approaching I wanted to write about the Poetry of the First World War. The ‘trench lyric’ beautifully and tragically crafted by the soldier poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. It has become synonymous with the First World Wars ‘lost generation’. I have always found the study of the First World War to have an undertone of persistent sadness and quiet tragedy. Despite my military experience, Remembrance Day, for me, always resonates with trench warfare, of a brave young Tommy going ‘over the top’ being met by a cacophony of bullets as he walks calmly towards the enemy line. Yet, during my study I stumbled upon a lost narrative. I was surprised to find a volume of First World War poetry written by women. On examination, this poetry opened my eyes to a new perspective of the First World War. The soldier poets wrote about combat, the horrific dismantling, by savage weapons of shells and gas, of bodies and minds. This can be argued as the centre of war, the pinnacle of human experience. However, what women’s poetry does is write about everything that surrounds that combat; ‘opening up the battlefield’. This article will shed light on this seemingly lost narrative, that I believe adds to the cultural understanding of the First World War and provides a new perspective of a lost generation. To understand why we don’t know about women’s poetry of the First World War. It is important to clarify that anthologies since the First World War have struggled to come to terms with women as writers and poets due to the academic anxiety around literature written without front-line experience. In debunking war, women’s literature, it seems has the same authority as men, yet the explicit privileging of the soldier's authority, which excludes women, is evident in most anthologies. However, changing attitudes towards the legitimacy of the subject matter for war poetry began to highlight women’s work written during and after the First World War. Anthologies of only women’s poems about the war have been published; such as Scars Upon My Heart (the anthology that sparked my interest in this unknown narrative) and The Virago Book of Women's War Poetry and Verse. Both these volumes highlight significant aspects of war and its impact on women, men, their families and indeed the nation. Women writers created remarkable perspectives of the war and its aftermath. Some like Rose Macaulay in her early works challenged her gender as she was unable to go and fight, while Nora Bomford takes a small step towards feminism; ‘O damn the shibboleth of sex! God knows we’ve equal personality. Why should men face the dark while women stay To live and laugh and meet the sun each day’. Rose Macauley was much vilified over her early work, and it can be argued it was written before 1915 when the appalling casualty lists began to be published. Indeed, Rose Macaulay’s later poems are very different and could reflect the changing social attitude towards the war. Yet, it seems that both women did lament their ineligibility to fight for their country. Women’s poetry also sheds light on the immediate aftermath of battle. Literature written by nurses and Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) volunteers create an often-forgotten part of the battlefield; the medical aid stations. Vera Brittain'sTestament of Youth is the quintessential elegy for the lost generation, her autobiography and other nurse’s literature create a picture of despair, anguish, horror and ultimately endurance. However, its key here to note the mediatisation of women nurses in the First World War. Nurses were idealised as heroines that sacrificed and served building on already established stereotypes of nurturing mother figures. They were considered 'white angels' and war propaganda drew upon these representations of the nurse and red cross volunteer. Nevertheless, still, there were negative connotations attached to women in what could be constituted as a war role. Nurses were considered fake or frivolous, playing at being the nurse or being sexually deviant. Emphasising the socio-cultural constructions of women at the time. What is interesting is that women’s poetry subverts this image by allowing the women to tell their own stories about their own experiences. Such as May Henderson, who wrote of witnessing dressing the wounds of young boys; ‘He was just a boy, as I could see, For he sat in the tent close by me. I held the lamp with its flickering light, And felt the hot tears blur my sight As the doctor took the blood-stained bands From both his shell-shattered hands…’ Many women who had experienced treating wounded men wrote with grit and compassion; some are satirical, raising issues of the disabled lives of the broken men they were treating. While Mary Borden’s poetrycaptures her ‘obsession’ with ‘obscenity’ that strikes me as an extraordinarily honest and revealing articulation of her emotional state. Her book, The Forbidden Zone, represents her experience of the First World War as a VAD with the French army and frames her memories in a visceral, profoundly descriptive narrative that transports the reader into her remembrance of the past. She blurs the lines between prose, poetry and documentary and creates an almost post-apocalyptic world inhabited by bodies and functions. ‘Again, there was a great noise, a cloud of debris was flung into the air as from a great volcano, and flames leapt after it. A part of the wharf with a shed on it reeled drunkenly into the sea with a splash. The white beach was crawling now with vermin; the human hive swarmed out onto the sands. Their eyes fixed on the evil flying thing in the sky and at each explosion they fell on their faces like frantic worshippers.’ Borden's writing here is modern, penetrating and unrelenting in its ability to present war in a very primaeval way. As a female non-combatant, her stories create a vivid picture of life within the war zone and as a medical professional. Her experience of witnessing the physical trauma of combat and experience of warfare can be seen as blurring the binary definitions of the non-combatant and combatant and the genders inherently attached to them. The machine gun, long-range artillery, tanks, chemical weapons and aerial warfare created new dimensions of the battlefield and circumstances for specialisations, such as the medical services to experience the trauma of war in greater proximity to actual combat, as well as on a grander scale. Mary Bordens work forced me to understand her representation of the hospital as a poisoned and mad space. However, only a small percentage of women were nurses or VAD’s. The vast majority of women poets also highlight aspects of endurance and survivability at home. Ana Gordon Keown writes of waiting for a loved one that is missing; ‘My thought shall never be that you are dead… Scornful I hear the flat things they have said And all the piteous platitudes of pain. I laugh! I laugh! – For you will come again…’ Such emotional trauma seems to be compounded by the practicality of living without a male provider. Many poems signify the financial difficulties many families faced when a brother, father or husband was killed or severely wounded during the war. While other women wrote about broken hearts and powerfully portray war fatigue and hysteria. Alternatively, women also wrote about the very real terror of their children marching to the horrors of war. Theresa Hooley writes after watching a war film; ‘My little son Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so, Naked upon my knee. How could he know The terror that assaulted me? . . . The body I had borne Nine moons beneath my heart, A part of me . . . If, someday, It should be taken away To War. Tortured. Torn. Slain. Rotting in No Mans Land, out in the rain – My little son . . . Yet all those men had mothers, every one.’ The verses are infused by horror, bereavement and helplessness that encapsulated so many women's lives during and post-war. It is a tragic encapsulation of a mother’s torment, Hooley's understanding of warfare is protracted by the imagined loss of her son and the factual knowledge of the death of so many soldiers. It shows the level of anguish many women must have felt that is not represented in the poetry of the soldier-poets. Indeed, Siegfried Sassoon even lobby’s criticism at women in his poem Glory of Women for supporting the war and sending their male family members to enlist. Thus, women’s poetry can present an alternative narrative of the social understanding of war. Analysis and study of this topic has led me ascertain that women’s poetry both encapsulated support for the war and protestations against it. Poetic contributions had contrasting themes of patriotism, lamentations from women poets not able to fight, the pride and honour of seeing men march into battle, protestations against violence and conflict and uncertainty. Women’s First World War poetry has on rediscovery and re-examination been able to provide a new understanding of the female perception and knowledge of war. The literary grasp of human emotions in the agony of waiting, loneliness, anticipation, fevered imaginings, guilt, anger and love has produced a greater understanding of the impact of war, death and physical disability on gender, families, society and indeed the nation. While the legitimacy and masterful craft of the soldier-poets cannot be argued, with women now able to serve in the armed forces, and Remembrance Day approaching, I think it is fitting to also highlight and give credit to these remarkable women poets alongside their male counterparts. It should be understood that studying and examining all perspectives, both male and female, combatant and non-combatant can build greater depth and breadth of understanding of the impact of war and conflict. Vera Brittain wrote ‘no one expected a woman to understand anything about war, much less to record it’, well it seems such an expectation has indeed been overturned.
Martin Evans, "Opening Up The Battlefield: War Studies And The Cultural Turn", Journal Of War & Culture Studies, 1.1 (2007), 47-51 <https://doi.org/10.1386/jwcs.1.1.47_0>. Anne Varty, "Women's Poetry In First World War Anthologies And Two Collections Of 1916", Women's Writing, 24.1 (2016), 37-52 <https://doi.org/10.1080/09699082.2016.1233772>. Nora Bomford ‘ Drafts’, in Scars Upon My Heart, ed. by Catherine Reilly (London: Virago Press, 2006), p. 12 Reilly, Scars Upon My Heart, p. xxxv. Vera Brittain, Testament Of Youth (London: Virago Press Ltd, 2004). Alison S. Fell, "Remembering First World War Nursing: Other Fronts, Other Spaces", Journal Of War & Culture Studies, 11.4 (2018), 269-272 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17526272.2018.1523779>. Mary Henderson, ‘An Incident’, in Scars Upon My Heart,p. 52 Ariela Freedman, "Mary Borden's Forbidden Zone: Women's Writing From No-Man's-Land", Modernism/Modernity, 9.1 (2002), 109-124 <https://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2002.0006>. BordenA Forbidden Zone, p. 13. Carol Acton, ' Obsessed By The Obscenity Of War’: Emotional And Physical Wounds In Mary Borden’S Poetry And Lesley Smith’S Four Years Out Of Life", Journal Of War & Culture Studies, 11.4 (2018), 335-347 <https://doi.org/10.1080/17526272.2018.1530408>. Anna Gordon Keown ‘Reported Missing’ in The Virago Book Of Women's War Poetry And Verse., ed. by Catherine Reilly (London: Virago, 1997), p. 58 Theresa Hooley. ‘A War Film’ in The Virago Book Of Women's War Poetry, p. 56 Stallworthy, Anthem For Doomed Youth, pp. 5 – 9 Khan, Women's Poetry of the First World War, p. 3.