First World War
The First World War (1914-1918) was a watershed moment in military warfare. Modern technology meant that the damage opposing soldiers could inflict on each other was greater than ever before. The relatively new invention of the camera also meant that the horrors of war could be accurately recorded and exposed to the public for the first time.
The War Poets
The common soldier did not possess a camera. What they did possess, however, were pens and paper. It is from letters home that we can best understand the fears and concerns of those fighting on the frontline. The celebrated war poets – including Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon – were ordinary soldiers who could turn their thoughts and feelings, and those of their comrades, into emotive and explosive poetry that was published in newspapers and collected in popular anthologies during and in the years following the war.
When the war began, it was expected to be over within months. Many young men enlisted thanks to patriotic propaganda such as Jessie Pope’s poem ‘Who’s for the Game?’ which depicted combat as a sport.
Owen, then working as a private tutor, signed up in October 1915. In May 1917, he was hospitalised, suffering from shell shock. It was whilst recuperating at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh that Owen met fellow poet and invalid Sassoon. A few years Owen’s senior and already established as a poet, Sassoon was instrumental in giving Owen the confidence to share his work. The winter of 1917, when Owen returned to the trenches, was also one of the coldest in living memory on mainland Europe.
Owen was killed in action on 4th November 1918, whilst leading a party raid crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal in northern France. The successful seizure of the canal lockhouse was one of the war’s final battles. Exactly one week later, the Armistice declaring the war’s end was signed.
It is alleged that Owen’s mother received the telegram informing her of her son’s death on Armistice Day itself, at the exact time that church bells were ringing out in celebration. He was 25 years old.
Most of Owen’s work was published posthumously, but he is widely credited as the poet who best captured the bleak and despairing tone of the war – in stark contrast to the idealistic sonnets of fellow war poet Rupert Brooke.
Exposure is a poem told from the first-person perspective of the poet. He relates his own experiences of the war including the horrific conditions in which the soldiers regularly found themselves.
The poem is written with a collective voice (‘our’, ‘we’, ‘us’) showing that this feeling of helplessness is shared by all the soldiers. The poem is in present tense, making the suffering seem simultaneous with our reading. We can read about it but do nothing and feel helpless in turn. The stanzas have regular rhyme schemes and the length of the poem and standard form of the stanzas leaves us with a sense of monotony. The rhymes are often half-rhymes however, perhaps to reflect the confusion and lack of good command and control in the trenches. The line ‘But nothing happens’ occurs again and again, highlighting the monotony of the men’s night in the trenches.
Ideas and Language
Although the men are in battle, it is the weather that is the enemy here and there is nothing the men can do about it. The actual battle is ‘like a dull rumour of some other war’ although the sentries ‘whisper, curious, nervous’ just in case an attack comes. Nature is personified and threatens the men at all turns: the winds ‘knive us’ while the ‘mad gusts’ are like ‘twitching agonies of men’. ‘Dawn massing in the east’ seems to be drawing together an army of her own, personified to harass the soldiers still further. It is described as ‘ranks on shivering ranks’ reflecting the discomfort of the soldiers in the trenches. The men are losing hope and fear that their homes are ‘all closed: on us the doors are closed’. The conditions are so harsh that ‘love of God seems dying’ suggesting the soldier’s loss of faith in God and the end of battle. The relentlessness of everything is expressed in the line ‘We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.’ The sagging of the clouds echoes the sagging morale of the troops in the trench. The men continue though because they believe ‘not otherwise can kind fires burn’ at home. Sibilance and assonance are used to show the whistling sound of bullets and the extended painful journey.
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