Poetry and War Songs from the Trenches

Woodbine Willy
Each country that sent troops to fight in the Great War had their poets. Many, as we have seen, were gifted writers before they enlisted; some became great writers because of their experiences. However, these individuals were not the only ones who committed to recording their thoughts, feelings and experiences. There was a great tradition of writing “trench poetry” and songs throughout the war. There existed many trench newsletters, especially among the British, for soldiers to publish their writings. One of the most prolific writers of verse was a British pastor, the Reverend Geoffrey Kenedy. Kenedy wrote under the name of Woodbine Willey. Several of his works are included in this section. 
Life in the trenches was overwhelming, dangerous, and almost impossible to describe. Many men lost their lives the very first day they entered the trench.  
It seems amazing that men who were forced to endure extensive inhumane conditions could muster strength to take pencil to paper and record their words. However, we have seen that writing is a remedy that reaches into parts of our being we don’t even recognize as being our own. Several of the selections appearing here are written in dialect. Like all poetry ,they deserve to be read aloud.

"The Spirit" ... 'Woodbine Willy'

When there ain't no gal to kiss you,
And the postman seems to miss you,
And the fags have skipped an issue,
Carry on.

When ye've got an empty belly,
And the bulley's rotten smelly,
And you're shivering like a jelly,
Carry on.
When the Boche has done your chum in,
And the sergeant's done the rum in,
And there ain't no rations comin',
Carry on.
When the world is red and reeking,
And the shrapnel shells are shrieking,
And your blood is slowly leaking,
Carry on.
When the broken battered trenches,
Are like the bloody butchers' benches,
And the air is thick with stenches,
Carry on.
Carry on,
Though your pals are pale and wan,
And the hope of life is gone,
Carry on.
For to do more than you can,
Is to be a British man,
Not a rotten 'also ran,'
Carry on.

*fag is English slang for cigarette and “Boche” is a French derogatory word for Germans.

Reflective Questions: “The Spirit”
  1. How does this verse reflect life in the trenches?
  2. In what spirit is this verse written?
  3. What does this verse say about patriotism?
  4. What does this piece say about the life of this soldier?

“The Secret”' ... Woodbine Willy'

You were askin' 'ow we sticks it,
Sticks this blarsted rain and mud,
'Ow it is we keeps on smilin'
When the place runs red wi' blood.
Since you're askin' I can tell ye,
And I thinks I tells ye true,
But it ain't official, mind ye,
It's a tip twixt me and you.
For the General thinks it's tactics,
And the bloomin' plans 'e makes.
And the C.O. thinks it's trainin',
And the trouble as he takes.
Sergeant-Major says it's drillin',
And 'is straffin' on parade,
Doctor swears it's sanitation,
And some patent stinks 'e's made.
Padre tells us its religion,
And the Spirit of the Lord;
But I ain't got much religion,
And I sticks it still, by Gawd.

Quarters kids us it's the rations,
And the dinners as we gets.
But I knows what keeps us smilin'
It's the Woodbine Cigarettes.
For the daytime seems more dreary,
And the night-time seems to drag
To eternity of darkness,

When ye ave'nt got a fag.*
Then the rain seems some'ow wetter,
And the cold cuts twice as keen,
And ye keeps on seein' Boches,
What the Sargint 'asn't seen.
If ole Fritz 'as been and got ye,
And ye 'ave to stick the pain,
If ye 'aven't got a fag on,
Why it 'urts as bad again.
When there ain't no fags to pull at,
Then there's terror in the ranks.
That's the secret – (yes, I'll 'ave one)
Just a fag – and many Tanks.
*fag is English slang for cigarette and “Boche” is a French derogatory word for Germans.

Reflective Questions: “The Secret”
  1. How does this verse reflect human nature, especially how each person feels about their contributions to a given situation?
  2. How does the individual in this verse regard the powers of a cigarette?
  3. What do you think are today’s soldiers “cigarettes?”

“Birds in the Trenches” … Willoughby Weaving

Ye fearless birds that live and fly where men
Can venture not and live, that even build
Your nests where oft the searching shrapnel shrilled
And conflict rattled like a serpent, when
The hot guns thundered further, and from his den
The little machine-gun spat, and men fell piled
In long-swept lines, as when a scythe has thrilled,
And tall corn tumbled ne'er to rise again.

Ye slight ambassadors twixt foe and foe,
Small parleyers of peace where no peace is,
Sweet disregarders of man's miseries
And his most murderous methods, winging slow
About your perilous nests - we thank you, so
Unconscious of sweet domesticities.

“War” … 'Woodbine Willy'
There's a soul in the Eternal,
Standing stiff before the King.
There's a little English maiden
There's a proud and tearless woman,
Seeing pictures in the fire.
There's a broken battered body
On the wire.
“Optimism” … A.V. Ratcliffe
At last there'll dawn the last of the long year,
Of the long year that seemed to dream no end;
Whose every dawn but turned the world more drear
And slew some hope, or led away some friend.
Or be you dark, or buffeting, or blind,
We care not, Day, but leave not death behind.
The hours that feed on war go heavy-hearted:
Death is no fare wherewith to make hearts fain;
Oh! We are sick to find that they who started
With glamour in their eyes come not again.
O Day, be long and heavy if you will,
But on our hopes set not a bitter heel.
For tiny hopes, like tiny flowers of spring,
Will come, though death and ruin hold the land;
Though storms may roar they may not break the wing
Of the earthed lark whose song is ever bland.
Fell year unpitiful, slow days of scorn,
Your kind shall die, and sweeter days be born. 

Reflective Questions: “Birds in the Trenches,” “War,” and “Optimism”
  1. What special feelings about birds is Weaving conveying in his poem, “Birds in the Trenches?” How might the purpose that the birds serve be in vain?
  2. How does Woodbine Willy’s poem “War,” present a holistic picture of war?
  3. Who is the “proud and tearless woman” in Willy’s poem?
  4. How does Ratcliffe feel about the world in “Optimism?”
  5. What is it that allows Ratcliffe to have belief?