Poetry is not all sweetness and light. The expresssion of the dark side, of pain, anger, loss, futility, despair, sadness, was central to the first world war poets, and becomes even more poignant when we consider what we know of their horrific experiences fighting in the trenches on the western front. Men like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and many others found solace in translating their daily contact with death and destruction into fine poetry. This one is by Siegfried Sassoon, a British officer, and fully supports the notion that the troops were “lions led by donkeys”, the generals being heartless incompetents who cared nothing for the men under their command and the loss of life incurred.
BY SIEGFRIED SASSOON
“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did them both by his plan of attack.
It is a very short poem, but it succeeds in capturing the hearty bonhomie of the general, and the attitude of the ordinary soldiers – good natured and joking before the attack, dead or disillusioned after the attack, with the blame lying squarely with the general. This is conveyed with remarkable economy, only seven lines, yet it tells the story both of the futility and pointless destruction of war and of the leadership’s willingness to perpetuate this at the expense of the ordinary soldier. I wonder where is this type of poem from the soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq today. War is still futile and pointless and we should lose no opportunity or medium to show up its horror.