Choosing First World War Poetry Anthologies

Anthologies of War Poetry

How to choose an anthology of First World War Poetry

Many newer anthologies of First World War poetry offer far more than earlier and now outdated anthologies. These old anthologies are still popular but their very biased selection of poems without supporting background information offer relatively little to the reader.

What To Avoid  -  Outdated Anthologies
(A number of recommended suggestions appear after this negative introduction.)


Almost all anthologies of First World War poetry that were first published before about 1990 suffered from a number of shortcomings.


Misrepresentation. The most common criticism levelled at these earlier anthologies is that they presented a very false view of the First World War, distorting history and misrepresenting how the majority of people of that period experienced and responded to the war. It has been said, with justification, that these anthologies reflected the prejudices of the editors rather than a broad view of how soldiers and civilians in general experienced the war. Many modern historians, whilst accepting that there was enormous tragedy and loss of life, argue that the British part in the war was not an unmitigated and mismanaged failure. It was not all futile. With France, America and others, the British won the war. British losses were proportionately less compared with some combatant countries. Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig returned to England, not in disgrace, but as an extremely popular war hero.


Men only. Most of these earlier anthologies featured only male poets, in spite of the fact that women were prolific in writing poetry about their wartime experience. Brian Gardner's Up The Line To Death, which is still in print, is guilty in this respect.


No context. Early anthologies had little or no biographical information about the poets, and included no social or historical background information which is so vital to a full understanding of the poetry. Some recent anthologies are weak in this respect.


Nationalist view. Even today the voice of the war poets that we read is almost entirely the voice of war poets born in Britain. We do not hear from poets of other combatant countries.


Lack contemporary illustrations. Though not such a crucial shortcoming, the early anthologies were not illustrated.After my Minds at War anthology which was published in 1996 anthologists generally made much more effort with their books.No anthology is perfect in every respect and all have something of value to offer. My comments may help readers to be aware of some of the differences between collections.


Minds at War -  The Poetry and Experience of the First World War

Minds at War is a major and wide-ranging collection of poems of the war, one of the largest anthologies of First World War poetry. It has been reprinted many times over more than twenty years. It includes a large selection of the classic core of poems that everyone should read, other poems of quality, and a good deal of contrasting poems too. Women poets are well represented. With historical and biographical information, extracts from poets' letters and diaries, and pronouncements by newspapers, leading commentators and politicians of the day. Illustrated with contemporary photographs and cartoons. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are particularly well represented. 250 poems by 80 poets including 26 women poets. 400 pages.

Why Minds at War -  The Poetry and Experience of the First World War was needed -  Editor's personal introduction.

Having spent 10 years teaching the poetry of the First World War, studying the history and collecting poems I had become very aware of the inadequacy of the available war poetry anthologies and that is what stimulated me to set to work developing my anthology, Minds at War  -  The Poetry and Experience of the First World War


I was particularly interested in how people thought during the First World War. For example why were so many people, soldiers and civilians, so enthusiastic and ready to risk their lives at the start of the war. What led them to think this way? And how had their minds changed by the end of the war? (Some dramatic changes were evident.) I discovered how poets were used as propagandists.

The Brits entered the war to save "poor little Belgium".  How far did they succeed? What did British people think about the German enemy and what did the Germans think about the Brits? What did the politicians and generals have to say about the war? Why was Field Marshall Haig a hugely popular national hero at the end of the war? Why did so many poets have other ideas?


The poetry (and some terrible verse) of the war provides great insights into minds in those war years. When the poetry is supplemented with extracts from poets’ letters, diaries and autobiographies, and statements in newspapers (and other sources of opinion) alongside military developments their changing thoughts and feelings become easier to understand and appreciate.

Minds at War, unrivalled?

Minds at War, in addition to being one of the largest anthologies of poetry of the First World War is, I believe, even to this day, 20 years after it was first published, unrivalled in its range of content, richness of information, and readability. I believe this to be a stimulating and fascinating collection. I remain very proud of this book. Illustrated. 400 pages.


                                                         David Roberts,

editor of Minds at War, The poetry and Experience of the First World War


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How Belgium and Germany were portrayed in a Punch cartoon of August 1914   -  The big bully versus the little boy  -  from page 36 of Minds at War

Out in the Dark

Edited by David Roberts.
My second anthology of poetry of the First World War, Out in the Dark, is a shorter version of Minds at War. I developed this particularly for students. It therefore has, in addition to important historical background information, many notes on unfamiliar expressions used in the poems. There are 19 women poets in this collection. Illustrated. 190 pages. 

More about this book.

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We Are The Dead

Edited by David Roberts. In 2012 I was commissioned by the Red Horse Press to prepare my third anthology of poetry of the First World War. They chose the title, We Are The Dead, and prescribed the kind of content they wanted. I considered their ideas very interesting and worth pursuing. The anthology was to be international in outlook. They prescribed that the book should contain British war poetry with a special section on Irish war poetry, Canadian war poetry, Australian war poetry, French war poetry, and German war poetry. They wanted the book to be illustrated in colour with paintings by contemporary war painters from the various nations.


I wrote an introduction to the book and provided biographical notes on the poets. A colleague produced notes on the war artists.


The result is a beautifully produced, full-colour, large format volume of international poetry of the First World War. 215 large format pages.


Hardback. Published by Red Horse Press at £25-00 (UK).

Other anthologies

Scars upon my heart

Edited by Catherine Reilley

An important exception to my not-before-1990 rule, the 1981 collection of women's poetry of the First World War, Scars upon my heart, selected by Catherine Reilly, even today is an exceptional anthology, being solely devoted to poetry by women of the First World War. A short book and with very brief biographical notes it remains the best choice for someone interested in women's poetry of the First World War. 140 pages.

The Winter of the World - Poems of the Great War

The Winter of the World - Poems of the Great War, edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions. This is a substantial collection of poetry with a sound introduction and basic historical summaries of events of the years of the war. Women poets are well represented. The editors have been at great pains, as far as was possible, to put the poems in chronological order, and each poem is accompanied by a note detailing the date of writing or the date of first publication. There are biographical notes on each of the poets. 330 pages.

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

This is the edition edited by George Walter. An earlier edition edited by Jon Silkin was vastly inferior. The book includes a wide range of poetry reflecting a wide range of experiences and attitudes to the war. There is a very interesting introduction exploring the nature of war poetry, how the poetry of the war has waxed and waned in popularity, with a particularly interesting examination of how the appreciation of Wilfred Owen as a war poet has developed.  There are excellent notes on the poems and the poets. 380 pages.

First World War Poems

First World War Poems selected by Andrew Motion. This is a small volume of approximately 160 pages with a good deal of "white space". There is a selection of the well-known poets of the war and an introduction. There are no notes on poems or the poets. There are just seven women poets represented. There are only 13 of Wilfred Owen's poems and only 11 of Siegfried Sassoon's. The introduction incorrectly states that Isaac Rosenberg greeted the outbreak of war with enthusiasm. It doesn't stand out from dozens of other collections of First World War poetry. The chief interest of it is that it includes 13 poems written by well-known poets born after the First World War writing about the First World War. These include Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, and Michael Longley. 160 pages.

David Roberts

18 March 2016


French Poems of the the Great War translated by Ian HigginsFrench poetry of the First World war has been an area unknown to almost all English-speaking readers until now. French Poems of the Great War, translated by Ian Higgins, with 102 poems by 27 writers, published in 2016, shows us an impressive body of intensely realised poetry, quite different from, but comparable with, the English-speaking poets of the First World War that are so well known to us. Poems by soldiers and civilians, men and women.


Published by Saxon Books. 190 pages, paperback. £11-95.


David Roberts

16 June 2016

Many cheaper anthologies have smaller page sizes

The War Poetry website


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David Roberts, Editor, The War Poetry website.


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