The War Poetry Website
Warlike Poetry Before 1914
For decades before the First World War schoolboys were presented with poems (and stories) glamourising war and clearly created to encourage young men to fight. Here are some notes adapted from Minds at War, followed by some examples of these pro-war poems.
“The Spirit of War is native to the British"
An introduction to pre-1914 war verse.
(Edited from Minds at War by David Roberts )
“The British Empire is built up on good fighting by its army and its navy: the spirit of war is native to the British.” - The Morning Post. - Quoted in a letter from I J C Brown in New Age, 10 December, 1914.
“Count the life of battle good, and dear the land that gave you birth.” - Henry Newbolt.
Persuading young men to risk their lives
What could bring millions of men to rush to abandon their homes and families, risk their lives, and kill others simply in response to advertisements and stories in newspapers? How had the minds of the British been prepared so that without hesitation young men would make a gigantic sacrificial leap in response to a mere request, and others would cheer them on their way?
Education for militarism
For governments to take whole nations to war it is necessary for them to have the support of a large part of their populations. The British at home had grown accustomed to British conquests overseas. They were no more than dimly conscious of the bloodshed and violence these conquests required, having never come face to face with the reality of war. In the late nineteenth century the great increase in public awareness of British exploits overseas was made possible by the increase in elementary education which, for the first time, enabled most sections of the population to read newspapers. A popular press soon grew up which fanned the nation into enthusiasm for the colonial conquests which they interpreted for their readers. Millions believed that rather than spreading exploitation or destroying social organisation, the conquests represented the bringing of civilisation to an uncivilised world. It created both national self-confidence and a sense of righteousness about military power.
By 1914 Britain ruled four hundred million people outside its own border. France ruled fifty million and Germany and Italy about fourteen million each.
In the double-think of the times military aggression was equated with Christian self-sacrifice and the heroism of ancient warriors. These ideas were fostered through teaching in schools — especially public schools where, in the words of Vera Brittain, their "tradition stood for militaristic heroism unimpaired by the damping exercise of reason." (Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, p100.)
The red area is The British Empire around 1900 - About one quarter of the earth's surface and one quarter of the population of the earth was under British control.
Poetry for Militarism
Henry Newbolt, who went on to promote ideas of warrior heroism through his poetry, and as a propagandist at the Ministry of Information, certainly loved these ideas which he absorbed in his days at school.
"The young of my generation," he later wrote, "had neither cruel experience nor dark apprehension to weaken them. We expected fighting and we prepared for it: but we felt as mighty as the heroes and heroines in the great sagas and trusted ourselves to Destiny with incredible confidence."
At the start of the twentieth century the spirit of hero worship flourished and was evident in the popular poetry of the period. Admirals All was the title poem from Newbolt's best-selling collection of poetry and celebrated the heroes of Britain's naval successes. It was published seventeen years before the First World War, and sold twenty-one thousand copies in its first year. In it, Vitai Lampada (The Torch of Life) famously linked the ideas of war and duty with sportsmanship.
In Clifton Chapel Newbolt linked ideas of heroic death with God, school, brotherhood and loving the game (of war) "beyond the prize". Clifton Chapel, and Clifton College, at which Newbolt was a student along with Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, certainly succeeded in transmitting this ethos, for three thousand of Clifton College's former students fought in the war, of whom five hundred were killed.
Rudyard Kipling, one of the most popular writers of his day, also celebrated England's soldiers, and linked God with England's conquests (A Song of the English and Hymn Before Action). In A Song of the White Men he associated "the white men" with war, conquest and purification.
By David Roberts. Edited from Minds at War. Note: the British Empire map does not appear in Minds at War.
Prelude to Hostilities
Poems Presenting Images
of England, Empire and Warfare
The following poems appear in Minds at War.
Vitai Lampada *
There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his Captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
The sand of the desert is sodden red,
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling's* jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
"Play up! play up! and play the game!"
Henry Newbolt, June 1892
* VITAI LAMPADA - the torch of life
* Gatling – a hand-cranked early machine gun
From Admirals All
Admirals all, they said their say
(The echoes are ringing still),
Admirals all, they went their way
To the haven under the hill.
But they left us a kingdom none can take,
The realm of the circling sea,
To be ruled by the rightful sons of Blake
And the Rodneys yet to be.
Admirals all, for England's sake,
Honour be yours and fame!
And honour, as long as waves shall break,
To Nelson's peerless name!
Henry Newbolt, 1892
This is the Chapel: here, my son,
Your father thought the thoughts of youth,
And heard the words that one by one
The touch of Life has turned to truth.
Here in a day that is not far
You too may speak with noble ghosts
Of manhood and the vows of war
You made before the Lord of Hosts.
To set the cause above renown,
To love the game beyond the prize,
To honour, while you strike him down,
The foe that comes with fearless eyes;
To count the life of battle good,
And dear the land that gave you birth,
And dearer yet the brotherhood
That binds the brave of all the earth.
My son, the oath is yours: the end
Is His, Who built the world of strife,
Who gave His children Pain for friend,
And Death for surest hope of life.
To-day and here the fight's begun,
Of the great fellowship you're free;
Henceforth the School and you are one,
And what You are, the race shall be.
God send you fortune: yet be sure,
Among the lights that gleam and pass,
You'll live to follow none more pure
Than that which glows on yonder brass:
"Qui procul hinc", the legend's writ, —
The frontier-grave is far away
"Qui ante diem periit:
Sed miles, sed pro patria."
*Qui procul hinc, qui ante diem periit: sed miles, sed pro patria. — He who died so far from home, died before his time: but he was a soldier, and it was for his country he died.
"Yonder brass" was one of Newbolt's poetic inventions. No such brass or inscription exists in Clifton Chapel.
Mother, with unbowed head
Hear thou across the sea
The farewell of the dead,
The dead who died for thee.
Greet them again with tender words and grave,
For, saving thee, themselves they could not save.
To keep the house unharmed
Their fathers built so fair,
Deeming endurance armed
Better than brute despair,
They found the secret of the word that saith,
"Service is sweet, for all true life is death."
So greet thou well thy dead
Across the homeless sea,
And be thou comforted
Because they died for thee.
Far off they served, but now their deed is done F
or evermore their life and thine are one.
Henry Newbolt, January 1910.
Reprinted in The Times, 23 September 1914.
From A Song of the English
Fair is our lot
O goodly is our heritage!
(Humble ye, my people, and be fearful in your mirth!)
For the lord our God Most High
He hath made the deep as dry,
He hath smote for us a pathway to the ends of all the Earth!
Rudyard Kipling, 1893
Reprinted in The Morning Post, 10 August 1914.
Hymn Before Action
The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions —
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!
High lust and froward bearing,
Proud heart, rebellious brow —
Deaf ear and soul uncaring,
We seek Thy mercy now!
The sinner that forswore Thee,
The fool that passed Thee by,
Our times are known before Thee
Lord, grant us strength to die!
For those who kneel beside us
At altars not Thine own,
Who lack the lights that guide us,
Lord, let their faith atone!
By honour bound they came;
Let not Thy Wrath befall them,
But deal to us the blame.
From panic, pride and terror,
Revenge that knows no rein –
Light haste and lawless error,
Protect us yet again.
Cloak Thou our undeserving,
Make firm the shuddering breath,
In silence and unswerving
To taste Thy lesser death.
Ah, Mary pierced with sorrow,
Remember, reach and save
The soul that comes tomorrow
Before the God that gave!
Since each was born of woman,
For each at utter need
True comrade and true foeman –
E'en now their vanguard gathers,
E'en now we face the fray –
As Thou didst help our fathers,
Help Thou our host to-day.
Fulfilled of signs and wonders,
In life, in death made clear –
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, hear!
Rudyard Kipling, 1896
A Song of the White Man
Now, this is the cup the White Men drink
When they go to right a wrong,
And that is the cup of the old world's hate —
Cruel and strained and strong.
We have drunk that cup — and a bitter, bitter cup —
And tossed the dregs away.
But well for the world when the White Men drink
To the dawn of the White Man's day!
Now, this is the road that the White Men tread
When they go to clean a land
Iron underfoot and levin* overhead
And the deep on either hand.
We have trod that road — and a wet and windy road
Our chosen star for guide.
Oh, well for the world when the White Men tread
Their highway side by side!
Now, this is the faith that the White Men hold
When they build their homes afar
"Freedom for ourselves and freedom for our sons
And, failing freedom, War."
We have proved our faith — bear witness to our faith,
Dear souls of freemen slain!
Oh, well for the world when the White Men join
To prove their faith again!
Rudyard Kipling, 1899
* levin — lightning
These poems appear in Minds at War before the main collection of 250 poems by 80 poets of the First World War.