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Classic War Literature

By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce, Yagmur Dur and Michael Calder

Many historical events have shaped some remarkable pieces of literature becoming some of the greatest texts of our time. One key theme that has provided a profound impact is war, the significance of which not only represents social and historical relevance but also imperative education. Through the emotional narratives found within pieces of prose and poetry, war literature has become impactful by the presentation of conflict providing a commentary on many more themes. Here we present multiple examples of war literature found in poetry, as well as a close look into one of the greatest books of the genre.

‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Written in direct response to a military blunder during the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ honours the sacrifice of six hundred soldiers committed to dislodging the enemy. While the poem was published in 1854, many of its themes apply to contemporary military action, giving a harrowing account of tragic courage against insurmountable odds. Noting the futility of a cavalry charge which saw three-quarters of these men die, Tennyson perpetuates the chaos of battle and threads the philosophies of duty, patriotism and self-sacrifice into the fabric of his poem, glorifying the unwavering loyalty of the British Light Cavalry. In the end, an underlying sense of disaster rampages through the poem as few soldiers return from an inevitable defeat, but a reader cannot shake the notions of pride and dignity that invigorate this lauded piece of war poetry.

‘Drummer Hodge’ by Thomas Hardy

Following the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Thomas Hardy’s haunting ‘Drummer Hodge’ highlights the dispersibility of life during conflict. Although Hardy is not known for his war poetry, he focuses on the ordinary man and their relationship with the natural world. By rooting his poetry on the brutal nature of war, Hardy reinforces the lost innocence of these young men. The poem focuses on an individual soldier, establishing humanity in a time where the deaths were reduced to figures; the first name of Hodge is not revealed, and he is defined by his role within the war. References to the African environment highlights the sense of displacement and unfamiliarity where even the stars appear convoluted. Ultimately, Hardy highlights the difficulty of establishing identity during the war and the complex facets of conflict appear insignificant to the wider interconnectivity of the human experience and the natural world. Hodge is eternally marked by his position as a soldier and and is subsequently eternally separated from his home, but the natural world provides comfort amongst the desensitised aspects of Hodge’s death.

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen

‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ is a war poem written by the British poet Wilfred Owen in 1917 whilst recovering from shell shock and other injuries he sustained in the Battle of the Somme. The poem is written in a sonnet form, which includes fourteen lines taking the form of octave (eight lines) and sestet (six lines). On the surface, Owen’s poem is an elegy consumed with grief and sorrow for the young victims of The Great War. However, Owen’s muted tone of sarcasm, use of irony and cynicism throughout the poem is a strong criticism of religion and faith. Owen relies strongly on religious imagery to show the dehumanisation of men. For example, Owen writes, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” and “No mockeries now for them; nor prayers nor bells…” These quotations suggest that war turns men into animals, animals waiting to be slaughtered on both sides – each soldier inevitably ‘doomed’ with death. Therefore, in Owen’s eyes, no national or religious rituals will serve justice to the soul and blood of the Lost Generation.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Published in 1961, Heller’s Catch-22 is one of the most significant novels of our time and is a strong classic recommendation. You may be familiar with the phrase referring to a dilemma as being a catch-22 situation. This comes from the novel, whose namesake features such an idea with a paradoxical dilemma. The novel is set during World War II in America, following Captain John Yossarian. The satirical narrative places an important spotlight on life during the war and in the military base, with the ultimate aim to return home. The account is brutally honest and uncensored, revealing the truth through the horrible conflict and moments of comic relief. Catch-22 features a considerable amount of obscene and indecent language, reproducing oppressive attitudes, which caused the novel to be banned in Ohio, 1972. The ban was lifted a few years later and Catch-22 remains as one of the greatest books of our time.



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