The Great War brought about passionate feelings in all that it touched – from soldiers in the fray to the families left behind to mind the home. There were many who truly believed in the cause and saw it to be a battle of good against evil. For those American soldiers, thousands of miles away from home, in a foreign land, fighting foreign enemies – they needed something to hold onto, some hope to keep them going. For the Great War was not a pretty war. It was fought in trenches, and the use of toxic gases, such as Agent Orange, was commonplace. It was a brutal, brutal war that took many lives, and left many scars – both physical and psychological – on those that did survive. Two poems by soldiers of the Great War exemplify the range of emotions – The Choice: The American Spirit Speaks by Rudyard Kipling and Jimmy Doane by Rowland Thirlmere (Clark, 2003). The spirit of patriotism was the prime motivator for soldiers entering into the war. For America, this was especially important as America was never directly threatened by the events of World War I. Meaning, America was never directly physically attacked, as no battles ever took place on American soil. The threat was to our allies, and thus, indirectly to America. A sense of patriotism was needed to motivate soldiers to enthusiastically leave their homeland, travel to a foreign land and fight a foreign enemy.
Kipling expresses this patriotic fervor in his poem, The Choice: The American Spirit Speaks. In this poem, the speaker speaks of a choice – a choice between good and evil. The American soldiers saw themselves as the army of the righteous, fighting a great evil. By this reasoning, they see themselves, and America, serving a higher purpose. A sense of unity and purpose is presented by the author. The American soldier is called upon by God to fulfill his duty of fighting against evil. The author admits that the battle may lead to the death of the soldier in body, but insists that by fighting for good, he gives eternal life to his soul (Clark, 2003).
While patriotism and moral righteousness may have given the soldiers encouragement in the beginning, after years of hard fighting in the trenches, their spirits were probably less inspired. When we read the words of Thirlmere regarding his friend Jimmy Doane, we are given insight into the heart and soul of a soldier who lost a brother in arms. In war, soldiers depend on each other for survival. They share many experiences that bring them close. Losing a brother in battle is traumatic to a soldier, and the soldiers of the Great War lost many. In their poetry, we hear their heartbreak, their loss, and their loneliness. It is a type of sadness that bites deep into the soul.
The poetry of war gives insight into the soldiers souls. We feel their motivation, understand their inspiration, and are empathetic to their sadness. The soldiers are symbolic of their country. Through their words are expressed the cultural values and attitudes of the people they represent. Their poetry also has the ability to heal cultural trauma on multiple levels. On the individual level of the soldier, it allows them to express their feelings – the sadness they hold inside them, the idealism that led them into battle, the trauma of seeing their brothers broken and slain.
Writing about war experiences also keeps those memories alive in the cultural mind. The dead are honored and remembered. Jimmy Doane’s braveness and kindness will never be forgotten, thanks to the poetry of Rowland Thirlmere. The trauma of battle is recorded, so that those deeds done by brave soldiers are not forgotten. We will forever remember the brave and patriotic heart of Rudyard Kipling and his fellow soldiers. Ultimately, and most importantly, poetry gives soldiers a way to talk about their experiences, and that can be very healing to the traumatized soul.
- Clark, George Herbert, editor (2003) A Treasury of War Poetry British and American Poems of the
World War 1914-1917. Retrieved online from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/8820/pg8820-images.html