Here is a poem by Wilfred Owen, one of quite a few posted on this site chronicling the suffering and absurdity of life in the trenches on the Western front during World War One (you can also find poems on this theme on the blog by Siegfried Sassoon, Guillaume Apollinaire and WB Yeats).
The three smiles of the title could be the men smiling to keep their spirits up; smiles at the huge gap between the soldiers’ experience of suffering and daily exposure to death, compared to the gung-ho jingoism of the reports in the press (here the Daily Mail); and the smiles assumed by people back in England who believed what they read in the press reports about the cheerful heroism of “our boys in France”.
Read and weep – there is still too much of this sort of thing going on, one hundred years later.
Smile, Smile, Smile
BY WILFRED OWEN
Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
Yesterday’s Mail; the casualties (typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;
“For,” said the paper, “when this war is done
The men’s first instinct will be making homes.
Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,
It being certain war has just begun.
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—
The sons we offered might regret they died
If we got nothing lasting in their stead.
We must be solidly indemnified.
Though all be worthy Victory which all bought.
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
Would wrong our very selves if we forgot
The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,
Who kept this nation in integrity.”
Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe.
(This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
Not many elsewhere now save under France).
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.
The poem absolutely nails the suffering of the soldiers, “Head to limp head”, “the sunk-eyed wounded”, “The half-limbed readers”; the pompous triumphalism of the reportage from England, heralding vast booty but minimising numbers of casualties, and proclaiming the glory of those who would die; and the accepting delusion of the public in England, convinced that the soldiers could genuinely smile as they did their duty for England.
Thank goodness there were voices like Owen, Sassoon and others to tell the truth in poetry. Where are the war poets of today?
The Poetry Dude