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:

The cover for a collection of war poems


Writer L.E. Homfray also called on Australians to ‘obey’ and heed the call of the Mother Country:

A stanza from the poem Australians awake!

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.

A poster from 1915 encouraging men to join the army
Go! It’s your duty Lad. Join to-day

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)

The State Library holds a large collection of World War 1 resources including poetry, conscription material, war posters and postcards.

Written by Paul Dee, Librarian Australian History and Literature

This article has 4 comments

  1. Oh, I love poetry from this era! It was a resolution of mine this year that I would read more of it – thanks Paul, you’ve reminded me that I must do that.

    • Dominic Sheridan

      Hi JessB. I was just reading this page and saw your comment. I know it was a few years ago, but check the facebook page Australian Great War Poetry. You might like it.

  2. Annette Mckeand

    I would like to make contact with someone, regarding my fathers ww1 diary which I have. Many Thanks .

    • Hi Annette
      Thanks for your comment. I have put your enquiry through to the manuscripts team and they will be in contact with you shortly.

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