Discovering the war poets

Discover more about the poets of the First World War.

Photographs of Ivor Gurney, Patrick MacGill, and John McCrae.

L-R: Ivor Gurney (© The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford); Patrick MacGill; John McCrae in 1914 (Image © Guelph Museums, M968.354.1.2x).

Many ‘war poets’ of the First World War are well known. Poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, for example, are widely studied in schools.

A great many poets of the war years have Life Stories on Lives of the First World War. In the first of two blog posts on the men and women who wrote poetry during the war, here are three soldier poets.

  • Ivor Gurney

Hailing from Gloucester, Private Ivor Bertie Gurney enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment in February 1915, aged 25.

Sudden, that sense of peace and prayer
Like vapour faded. Round the bend
Swung lines of khaki without end…

– ‘Toussaints’, 1918

In 1917 he suffered both a shoulder wound and the effects of a poison gas attack, returning to the front in each case.

In March of 1918 he experienced a breakdown, and was honourably discharged in October.

Ivor wrote poetry continuously throughout his army career, and was also a talented composer.

The Ivor Gurney Society has made a selection of Gurney’s poems available to view.

A scanned copy of Severn and Somme, published in 1917, is available to view at the Oxford First World War Digital Archive.

  • Patrick MacGill

Private Patrick MacGill is popularly known as ‘the navvy poet’ after his occupation before the war.

The night is still and the air is keen,
Tense with menace the time crawls by.

– Before the Charge

Much of his writing focussed on the lives of the Irish working class to which he belonged.

When war broke out, he enlisted with the London Irish Rifles.

He was wounded at the Battle of Loos in October 1915, but survived the war.

‘Before the Charge’ is perhaps one of his most evocative poems, with its focus on anxiety before battle.

As well as poetry, he wrote several memoirs during and about the war, including The Great Push and The Red Horizon.

Today, there is a statue in his honour in his hometown of Glenties in the Irish county of Donegal.

  • John McCrae

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae is most famous as the author of one of the most widely-published poems of the First World War, ‘In Flanders Fields’.

However, his life story is just as interesting as his literary career, which was sadly cut short when he died of pneumonia at the age of 46.

Born in Canada in 1872, John was 42 when the war broke out. He had an established career as a respected doctor, and had written an important book on pathology. Two students he tutored were among the first female doctors in Ontario.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place…

– In Flanders Fields (1915)

He originally went to the front in 1914 as a gunner. Before long, he had transferred to the Medical Service.

He worked as a field surgeon during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, running a dressing station he described as a hole “into which men literally rolled when shot”.

Inspired by the death of his friend Alexis Helmer, ‘In Flanders Fields’ was anonymously published in Punch magazine in December of 1915, and became one of the most famous poems of the war.

John later took charge of a hospital at Boulogne, and in 1918 was due to become consultant to all British Armies in France. Sadly he became ill and died before he could take up the post.

A poetry collection, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems, was published posthumously the same year.

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