From enlistment to conscription, to laments for the lost to our duty to England, war poetry spans all the hardship and reasoning of battle.
Early World War 1 poetry encouraged people to enlist. ‘The period 1915-1921 had begun in Australia, as in England, with a spate of imperialistic verse, expressing fervent support for England and Empire in their hour of peril.’ (Other banners…p. 2) The early attitude was reflected in the numbers; in 1914 Australia committed 20,000 people to fight and by years end, 50,000 had enlisted.
The collection of poems Are we downhearted? No, No; published by the Government printer, encouraged ‘brothers’ to ‘play the game’ and enlist for our Empire:
Writer L.E. Homfray also called on Australians to ‘obey’ and heed the call of the Mother Country:
After two years of fighting and many causalities, the number of volunteers fell. Needing troops, the Australian Government asked the people to decide on conscription via two referendums; one in 1916 and one in 1917. Both were defeated.
Contrasting with the initial call to arms, the poetry of soldiers, following first hand war experience, dealt directly with the facts of war. Leon Gellert‘s 1917 collection Songs of a campaign included the titles Murder, Armageddon, The Death, The Burial, and The Cripple. The following is from These men:
Men moving in a trench, in the clear noon
Whetting their steel within the crumbling earth;
Men, moving in a trench ‘neath a new moon
That smiles with a slit mouth and has no mirth
Similarly, soldier-poet Harley Matthews wrote, in 1938, about the trenches, bullets, and his injured hope; Earth:
‘…”Earth take and hide
Me,” all my being cried.
That will fall here. Run! Which way? Too late. “Earth- “
No. There is no escape from the machine;
Unseeing, it picks us out and strikes us unseen.
Your are the one hope, Earth. Only a hope…‘
‘Australian literature of the first World War possesses an honesty and truthfulness, a directness and realism, an immediacy and vividness, that strike a sympathetic response in the minds of most general readers today.’ (Other banners…p. 5)
Written by Paul Dee, Librarian Australian History and Literature