Frank Hurley,
Soldiers of the 12th Battery of Australian Field Artillery choosing a site for new battery positions, near Clery, France, August 31, 1918; National Library of Australia

In “Strange Meeting” (1918), Wilfred Owen told of a soldier descending to the underworld and meeting the man he’d killed the day before: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” says the dead German. “I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/ Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./ I parried; but my hands were loath and cold./ Let us sleep now . . .”

Owen, who wrote some of the most haunting and savagely ironic poetry that the First World War inspired, died leading a raid across the Sambre-Oise Canal one week before the war ended. That poem is only one of the better-known writings of a war with an unparalleled literary legacy. The “war to end all wars” produced not only the grim elegance of classically educated officer-poets like Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves, but novels, propaganda, journalism, and the often expressive memoirs, letters, and incidental writings of enlisted men, nurses, journalists, chaplains, and bereaved family.

The New York Society Library is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the First World War with “From the Western Front and Beyond: The Writings of World War One,” curated by Harriet Shapiro. Featuring books, artwork, and photography drawn from the library’s collections, the artifacts exhibited in this small but intensely curated show express the literary experience of death, and the responses—heroic, cynical, resigned—that it provoked.

The astounding English-language corpus of the First World War comes to us from a time when the British junior officer corps was composed of young men, fresh from Eton or Harrow, who often deployed for battle with copies of the Oxford Book of English Verse or the Latin and Greek classics. While the officer-poets remain the most famous writers from the conflict, however, it wasn’t just the educated elite who wrote. The words of others affected by the war—which effectively devoured an entire generation—are equally telling. Vera Brittain left us Testament of Youth, a memoir of her time as a war nurse and a meditation on the loss of both her fiancé and brother. In Au Champ d’honneur, the French journalist Hugues Le Roux recounts journeying to the front just in time to exchange last words with his son as he died in a field hospital.

The tone of the writing changed dramatically as the war ground on. In the earlier part of the conflict, the “war poets,” many of whom had seen little real combat, wrote optimistic odes to patriotism, duty, and other abstract ideals. Rupert Brooke, the famously handsome Bloomsbury poet, exemplified the early war poetry: not ignorant of the possibility of death, but certain of the worthiness of its sacrifice. In “The Soldier,” he writes: “If I should die, think only this of me;/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England. There shall be/ In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;/ A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware . . . ” Brooke died of dysentery on the way to Gallipoli, denied even the heroism of a battlefield death.
On the home front, many famous writers, including H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, were secretly recruited by the British government to marshal public opinion and shore up morale. While the high commands of all armies originally believed the war would be over before Christmas, by 1916 the brutal realities of life in the field—poison gas, shell shock, rat-filled trenches, fatalistic charges across no-man’s-land, soldiers buried alive in mud—could no longer be contained.

This year represented a turning point in writers’ attitudes, and the perspective of poets like Isaac Rosenberg, who had been pessimistic from the outset, was no longer the exception. Existential despair or nihilism increasingly characterized writing from the front lines. In “Break of Day in the Trenches” (1916), Rosenberg observes a rat and notes that the animal is better “chanced” for life than the young men that it passes in the trenches. Rosenberg himself was killed on night patrol in April 1918—ultimately a victim of the ugliness which, perversely, had been his greatest muse.

The lasting impression of this elegant and emotionally moving exhibition is of arrested youth—and the cathartic power of language for those living with the everyday reality of death.

“From the Western Front and Beyond: The Writings of World War One” opened at The New York Society Library on January 30 and remains on view until November 15, 2014.

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