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The Literary Legacy of the First World War

As the first total war in military history, the First World War’s impact was and still is, unprecedented. Continually memorialized in literature and film, the war is an ever-present feature of present-day discourse. Marzena Sokolowska and Martin Loschingg (2014) assert that it is impossible to study the conflict, which has evolved into a "cinematic, televised, and theatrical conflict," (pg. 1) without taking into account many of its cinematic representations, attesting to the war's inevitably literary nature. For multiple reasons - generational trauma, curiosity, or a refusal to neglect the conflict in accordance with the famous phrase “lest we forget” - the First World War still operates as a fundamental representation of modern-day film and literature.


Films about the Great War are still being made on a massive scale in the twenty-first century. Its cinematic representation began during the war, with films such as The Little American (1917) and Hearts of the World (1918) framing the war as a background for explorations of love. Yet still, over a hundred years later, the fascination continues. Recent examples include They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), All Quiet on the Western Front (2022), 1917 (2020), and The War Below (2021) – evidencing a perpetual representative cycle. Whilst their thematic focus may vary, it can invariably be concluded that cinematic representations of the war have one crucial thing in common: they are all engaged in a memorializing project that discourages forgetfulness. As Marzena Sokolowska and Martin Loschingg (2014) argue:

“it is undoubtedly true that every single novel, play, feature film or docudrama can be said to perform a commemorative function, inducing us to ‘remember’” (pg. 2).

Image 1: Great War 1918. Jakub Mares. 2020.


This article will explore another prominent feature of films of the First World War: their preoccupation with war poetry, particularly Wilfred Owen’s canonical poem: Dulce et Decorum est (1917). Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż (2021) speaks of Owen’s extraordinary legacy as a poet who, virtually unknown in his lifetime, “was to become the most representative soldier’s voice of 1914-1918” (pg. 381).


The fascination with Dulce et Decorum est (1917), published posthumously in 1920, is rooted in its ability to speak to the ordinary experience: to the disenchanted soldiers and population struggling to comprehend war-time atrocities. Before the First World War, war poetry was a predominately patriotic exercise – a medium designed to generate loyalty to, and support for, the war effort. Dissenting poetry had existed prior to 1917, but the nature of the First World War as a total war that mobilized the entire population – including women and featured a non-professional army – changed the way poetry of this nature was received. Indeed, Edmund Blunden (1965), editor of The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931), endowed the success of Owen’s poetry to his position as "one of the few spokesmen of the ordinary fighting man” (pg. 54).


Image 2: Wilfred Owen. Unknown Photographer (Source: British Library). n.d.


The excruciating and perpetual evocation of the horrors of the war in Dulce et Decorum est spoke to a nation still reeling in disbelief at the devastation and terror of the war. A war that caused 20 million deaths and 21 million casualties is not an easily processed event. Owen’s poem spoke to a disenchanted generation of war, unseen by a government that still maintained a patriotic and optimistic vision of the war. War, for Owen, is not a triumphant celebration of heroism, but a “vile” (Owen, 1965, line 24) scene of despair. The final lines of the poem speak to a British generation who, eager for a conflict that would be over by Christmas, sent their sons to war with pride, unknowing of the horrors that would ensue.


For Owen, it speaks further to a generation whose government continued to use propaganda to convince more young and unexpecting men that the conflict was an honorable endeavor. Owen’s imagery of sickness, death, and harrowing ordeals reflects a reality of war hidden from government propaganda. The in-media res of the second stanza, calling “Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling / Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time” (Owen, 1965, lines 10-11), invites the reader into an intimate scene of the reality of war. For Owen, it was a nightmare that continually reoccurs and resurfaces – an inescapable torment. The lingering infatuation with the poem as the “best-known poem of the First World War” (Hughes, 2010, pg. 164) is rooted in Owen’s adamant desire to depict the bare truth of the soldier experience. His final lines, being the most quoted of the whole poem, deny war the grand and noble title propaganda worked so hard to construct:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
...
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Owen, 1965, lines 21-28). 

Image 3: Britons: Lord Kitchener Wants You. Alfred Leete. 1914.


Owen’s poem played into the construction of the myth of the First World War. As Marzena Sokołowska-Paryż (2021) understands, myth is not “a synonym of falsehood”, but rather a symbol of the “history of the callously and senselessly prolonged slaughter and suffering of young men” (pg. 382) that was promulgated by the mass outpouring of war literature. As Marzena Sokolowska and Martin Loschingg (2014) explain, "literature has played a significant role in determining how the conflict was subsequently understood, remembered, and mythologized" (pg. 2). The myth of the war laid the foundations of public recollection and understanding of the event, offering an explanation for the continued preoccupation with cinematic war representations and war poetry.


Many modern films depicting the First World War revolve around the futility of the war, its endless slaughter, and the harrowing conditions soldiers face, alongside the undoubted heroism of soldiers. As the above critics explore, this representation is rooted in a mythological, though not false, understanding of the war. Helen McCartney (2014) agrees, arguing that soldiers of the First World War are frequently depicted as "victims of the flawed purpose, mechanic nature, and suspect methods of war" (pg. 299). McCartney furthers her argument by accounting for the culmination of war imagery that served to strengthen this myth over time. As she states, “these negative perceptions of the war in general, and the soldier in particular, ... had become indelibly etched on the British popular imagination as a set of strikingly stable beliefs” (McCartney, 2014, pg. 299).


Image 4: Still from The King's Man. Matthew Vaughn. 2021.


The King's Man (2021) features a funeral reading of Dulce et Decorum est, read by a father who mourns a son he begged not to go to the front lines. The decision of the film to include a poem famous for its anti-war sentiments is a striking example of the proliferation and continuation of the myth of the First World War, first constructed by poets such as Wilfred Owen and carried on in literary imagination over a century later. Owen's poem epitomizes the mythological imagery of the war that has become "entrenched in the public imagination" (Marzena Sokolowska and Martin Losching, 2014, pg. 8) with images of "mud-swamped trenched, of the shell-cratered no man's land between the lines" (pg. 8).


Conrad Oxford's death in The King's Man (2021) echoes the "murderous absurdity" (xx, 2014, pg. 8) associated with the Great War when he is shot in the trench by a fellow soldier due to a misidentification. Owen's poem reflected the ordinary perception of the war in its direct aftermath – still remaining a significant medium today through which the war experience is understood. Just as Owen depicts the war as a senseless killing machine, where all men "went lame; all blind; / Drunk with fatigue" (Owen, 1965, lines 6-7), The King's Man reflects the futility and horror of the war. Director Matthew Vaughn's decision to use Wilfred Owen's poem as a tribute to lost soldiers and as a reflection of our understanding of the war serves to represent the continual impact of war literature on the dominant symbols and images of the First World War. Further, it serves to reflect the continuing legacy of war poetry and the myths of the war it worked to create, evidenced in the reflection of poetic instances of war in modern cinematic representation.



Bibliographical References

Blunden, Edmund. (1965). “Memoir”. The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. A New Directions Book, pp. 147–180


Hughes, J. (2006). "Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est". The Explicator, 64(3), pp. 164-166.


Loschnigg, M. and Sokolowask, P. (2014). The Great War in Post-Memory and Film. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.


McCartney, H. B. (2014). "The First World War soldier and his contemporary image in Britain". International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), 90(2), 299–315. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24538556


Owen, Wilfred. (1965). "Dulce et Decorum est". The Collected Poems of Wildred Owen, New Directions Pub. Co., First Published 1920.


Sokołowska-Paryż, M. (2021). 23 Wilfred Owen, War Poetry. In R. Schneider & J. Potter (Ed.), Handbook of British Literature and Culture of the First World War, pp. 381-396.


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