Because of universal education, the First World War was a “literate” war. For the first time in history virtually all the soldiers who took part were able to read and write. And many of them, perhaps feeling sentimental, perhaps being shaken and appalled by what they had experienced, wrote poetry. Newspapers -happily printed these poems in their pages.
Strangely, there was little attempt at censorship during the First World War, the monitoring of mail from the trenches invariably being left to the officers in charge of the various units. Thanks to things like the Pals Battalions 1 many officers and other ranks came from the same towns, even the same villages, and soldiers often wrote home with stories of dreadful conditions and terrible battles.
The soldier’s poetry provided a vivid insight for readers back home. It was often little more than doggerel, not every Private being a latent Wilfred Owen, but it was invariably heart-felt. Take this example about the qualities of the British Tommy –
“He’s the pepper and the mustard and the salt, you see,
And the Germans they will rue it.
He isn’t only one of them but all the blessed three.
He’s a perfect breakfast cruet.”
Even when cynicism tinged the writing the papers were still happy to print the soldiers’ efforts:-
“Now out here things are different
And life is fancy free;
We have no butter on our bread
Or cow’s milk in our tea.
And all we have to bother us
Are bullets, bombs and shells,
Bully beef and biscuits
And awful nasty smells.”
(Private C Maunder – The Penarth Times)
The local papers had circulations in the tens of thousands – poets like Siegfried Sassoon were read by a mere handful, if they were lucky. And sometimes their efforts resulted in poems of real quality:-
“Above your graves no wattle blooms
Nor flowers from English dells,
You men who sleep uneasily
Beside the Dardanelles.”