WW1 poems: Remembrance Day poetry to remember the fallen

In times of turmoil, trouble and strife, when words fail us, we often turn to poetry for solace and comfort.

It was no different during the war, and on the centenary of the World War One, people are turning to poetry again to give them a better understanding of the reality of war.

Wilfred Owen called it the “pity of war” and his poetry, and the poets of the time captured that in their words.

The Great War is reflected in their rhymes and lines, with many soldiers putting pen to paper to try and convey the terrible conditions.

From Owen to John McRae, they all cast of a light on the situation.

Those who came after have also tried to do that.

Here are a few poems to read on Remembrance Day.

British soldiers at Ypres, Belgium, First World War, photograph from the magazine L’Illustration, year 73, no 3770, June 5, 1915
(Image: De Agostini via Getty Images)
Flowers bloom in front of an Australian soldier’s gravestone at Tyne cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, West Flanders, Belgium
(Image: Moment Editorial/Getty Images)

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Who was Brooke?

Rupert Brooke cira. 1902
(Image: PA)

Brooke joined the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in WW1. He died of an infection in 1915 on his way to Gallipoli. The poem is often read to remember those dying away from home at war.

Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest

Uncoffined — just as found:

His landmark is a kopje-crest

That breaks the veldt around:

And foreign constellations west

Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew —

Fresh from his Wessex home —

The meaning of the broad Karoo,

The Bush, the dusty loam,

And why uprose to nightly view

Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain

Will Hodge for ever be;

His homely Northern breast and brain

Grow up some Southern tree,

And strange-eyed constellations reign

His stars eternally.

English novelist, poet and dramatist, Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928)
(Image: Hulton Archive)

Hardy’s poem is similar to Brooke’s in his devices. While it was written before, Hardy composed it in 1899 in response to the Ango-Boer War. It focuses on the drummers.

In Flanders Fields by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Flanders fields 1914
(Image: ullstein bild via Getty Images)

McRae’s poem, written in 1915, is written from the perspective of the dead soldiers lying in their graves.

It urges the reader to avenge their deaths. The poem became very popular and was often used in motivational adverts and recruitment campaigns for the war. Now it is used in remembrance. McRae was a Canadian doctor and Lt Crpl in the First World War. He died of pneumonia on the battlefield in January 1918.

Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Someone had blundered.

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell.

They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death,

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble six hundred!

English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892)
(Image: Getty Images)

The poem about the Crimean War was written in 1854. It was popular when written with: “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die”

And Death Shall Have No Dominion by Dylan Thomas

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;

Though they go mad they shall be sane,

Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;

Though lovers be lost love shall not;

And death shall have no dominion.

The poem was written in 1933, between the wars. The full poem is here .

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death by WB Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

Yeats’ poem is seen as a measured commentary on being on the front line.

MCMXIV by Philip Larkin

Never such innocence,

Never before or since,

As changed itself to past

Without a word – the men

Leaving the gardens tidy,

The thousands of marriages,

Lasting a little while longer:

Never such innocence again.

Read the full poem here .

Philip Larkin, who is immortalised in stone in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner
(Image: PA)

Larkin’s poem has a more optimistic tone. Written in 1964 it’s more reflective.

Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen’s poem was posted posthumously in 1920. It rages against the “lie” of war.

Owen served in the Manchester Regiment and suffered shell shock.

He was killed on November 4, 1918 in action.