Wilfred Owen only published five poems during his lifetime, but his harrowing descriptions of combat have since made him into one of the towering figures of World War I literature. Just 21 years old when the war broke out, he enlisted in the British army in 1915 and later took part in heavy fighting in France. “I have not been at the front,” he wrote his mother. “I have been in front of it.” After being diagnosed with shellshock in 1917, Owen was sent to convalesce at a hospital in Scotland. He soon began writing about his experiences at the urging of fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, and by 1918 he had produced several now-famous works including “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” “Strange Meeting” and “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which describes a gas attack in grim detail. Despite his increased opposition to the war—he described soldiers being sent to “die as cattle”—Owen returned to the front lines in August 1918 and was later killed while leading men across a canal in France. His mother received notice of his death on November 11, 1918—the same day that World War I finally came to an end.
A doctor by trade, Canada’s John McCrae volunteered for World War I in 1914 and served as a brigade surgeon for an artillery unit. The following year, he had a front row seat to the horrors of the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans launched an assault that included the war’s first use of poisonous chlorine gas. While tending to the wounded and mourning the dead—who included his good friend, Alexis Helmer—McCrae put pen to paper on “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written from the point of view of fallen soldiers whose graves are overgrown with wild poppy flowers. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow,” it reads, “Between the crosses, row on row.” John McCrae died from pneumonia and meningitis in 1918, but not before the poem became one of World War I’s most popular and widely quoted works of literature. Among other things, it inspired the use of the poppy as the “flower of remembrance” for the war dead.
Soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon was twice decorated for heroism and earned the nickname “Mad Jack” for his suicidal courage on the battlefield, but he was also one of the most impassioned critics of the savagery and waste of World War I. In popular works such as “Attack,” “The General” and “Atrocities,” the British-born aristocrat satirized the conflict’s leaders and described his combat experiences in searing detail. He even flirted with a court-martial by publishing a 1917 letter in which he branded the war “evil and unjust,” but avoided punishment after fellow poet Robert Graves argued that he was suffering from shellshock. Sassoon would eventually write some 100 antiwar poems before being wounded in the head and removed from active duty in 1918. After surviving the war, he went on to a long career as a poet, novelist and lecturer.
In August 1914, more than two and a half years before the United States entered World War I, poet Alan Seeger joined the French Foreign Legion and took up a post on the Western Front. The New York native wrote several works over the next two years including “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France,” but he is best known for “I Have a Rendezvous With Death,” a haunting poem that describes a meeting with a personified Death, “At some disputed barricade / When Spring comes back with rustling shade.” Seeger’s own rendezvous with death came on July 4, 1916, when he was mortally wounded in the stomach during an assault on the French village of Belloy-en-Santerre. His only collections of poems debuted the following year, and he’s since become one of the war’s most widely quoted American writers. One notable admirer was President John F. Kennedy, who supposedly listed “Rendezvous” among his favorite poems.
While most World War I versifiers dwelled on the misery and toil of life in the trenches, avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire often portrayed it as an intoxicating feast for the senses. A bohemian artist with a mysterious past—he was once jailed on suspicion of having stolen the “Mona Lisa”—Apollinaire enlisted in the French army in 1914 despite being older than the age of conscription. He took to the life of a soldier with gusto, and later turned his experiences into a collection of experimental verse titled “Calligrammes.” “How lovely these flares are that light up the dark,” he wrote in a poem titled “Wonder of War.” “They climb their own peak and lean down to look / They are dancing ladies whose glances become eyes arms and hearts.” Apollinaire’s battlefield reveries were cut short in 1916, when he suffered a severe head wound from a piece of shrapnel. He survived the injury, but later became one of the millions to perish in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. He’s now considered a founding figure in the Surrealist movement that flourished in the 1920s.
Though not a soldier, Vera Brittain had a firsthand glimpse of the carnage of World War I through three years as a British Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in France and Malta. During that time she suffered several personal tragedies including the deaths of her brother and fiancé, both of whom were killed in action. Brittain captured her anguish in 1919’s “Verses of a V.A.D,” a collection of poems that describes the war from a female perspective. “Poets praise the soldiers’ might and deeds of war,” she wrote in one poem about nurses who died during the Gallipoli Campaign. “But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory / Of Women dead beneath a distant star.” Brittain continued her literary career in the years after the war and later became a leader in the pacifist and feminist movements. She also penned the famous 1933 memoir “Testament of Youth,” which chronicled her experiences as a wartime nurse.
Most of the best-known World War I poets fought for Allies, but there were also several talented writers who served with the Central Powers nations. Perhaps the most influential was August Stramm, a German officer who is now considered a pioneer in the Expressionist movement. Stramm fought in dozens of battles across both the Eastern and Western fronts, and he captured the primal nature of warfare in short, staccato poems that often feature abstract imagery and one or two-word lines. “A star frightens the steeple cross,” reads one work titled “Guard-Duty.” “A horse grasps smoke / iron clanks drowsily/ mists spread / fears / staring shivering / shivering.” Stramm’s courage under fire won him the Iron Cross in early 1915, but he was killed later that year during hand-to-hand fighting in Eastern Europe. His war poetry was published posthumously in 1919 under the title “Dripping Blood.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Rupert Brooke was already an established literary figure before he took up arms in World War I. The handsome, sandy-haired writer had traveled the world and published several acclaimed poems, and he counted Virginia Woolf and William Butler Yeats among his friends and acquaintances. After enlisting in Britain’s Royal Naval Division in 1914, Brooke won national attention for a string of sonnets that expressed the patriotic fervor of a young man at war. Most famous of all was “The Soldier,” which included the verse, “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” The lines proved to be prophetic. When he later shipped out for the Allied invasion of Gallipoli in 1915, Brooke died from blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite and was buried on a Greek island. His untimely demise was widely reported in England. In an obituary penned by Winston Churchill, the young poet was hailed as having epitomized the sacrifice of “the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought.”