The Impact of the First World War: Britain & Literature

"There was no really good true war book during the entire four years of the war. The only true writing that came through during the war was in poetry. One reason for this is that poets are not arrested as quickly as prose writers"

- Ernest Hemingway, in "Men at War"

British Troops in Trench


The Great War, which took place between 1914-1918, changed many aspects of British literature. Literature during the Great War reflects the changes society was undergoing and provides a drastic transition between pre and post war work. Many social, political and economic shifts occurred during the war. Many of the writers of the time felt the need to speak out against the flaws they saw in their society. Their poetry became an act of dissidence in a terrible time in our world's history.
Women became key economic supporters in the absence of men and men suffered the physical and psychological stress of war. Women and men alike turned to writing as a means of emotional outlet. Women had to take on a role that was considered to be a more masculine job, most women got jobs working in factories in order to provide for their children. Additionally, women were forced to care for their family while the men were off at war. As a result many women began to speak out, discussing their view on the war and the impact it was placing on their families. The new style of war allowed soldiers an exorbitant amount of time to ponder the battles which they fought; writers and poets of the Great War attempted to distinguish how this war was different than anything the world had seen before.

The Great War (1914-1918)

"Masses of dead bodies strewn upon the ground, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats—these are but some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914-18). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale." - The Norton Anthology of English Literature; Online Topics: Intro to 20th Century

Intro film on WWI, authentic footage & images

The Great War started on June 28, 1914, after a chain of events that followed the assassination of Francis Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, and his wife. The war was fought by two separate sides, the Central Powers and the Allies.

  • Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria
  • Allies: United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire
Britain was an ally of France and it fell on the Britain to defend France against Germany. Also, due to the 1839 Treaty of London, Britain had a treaty with Belgium that required the defense of the neutral country after Germany's invasion on August 4th, 1914. On that day the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith declared war on Germany. By default they went to war with the rest of the Central Powers.

The Great War brought about a new type of warfare that the world had never seen before. This is known as trench warfare.

  • Trench warfare
    • Fighting from a network of fortifications dug or constructed at or below ground level.
    • Machine gun range and firing power made it impossible for troops to move to new positions
    • Trenches dug along battlefield fronts to fight without mobility
    • Resulted in stalemate, especially on Western Front, that lasted most of the war
    • Provided place and time for soldiers to get to know one another
    • Connected through networks; resting & off duty trenches
    • Soldier would eat, sleep, fight, rest in trenches
    • Area between trenches of opposing forces know as "No Man's Land"
    • Significant to literature because Trench Poetry was produced; soldiers needed to pass time during long periods in trenches

  • Battle of the Somme (July 1 - Nov. 18, 1916):
    • Main allied attack on the Western Front
    • First British attack in war
    • 58,000 British troops lost in 1 day, remains record
    • 420,000 British troops lost total
    • Significant to British literature:
      • Loss of men during first attack brought morale of soldiers down immensely
      • Provided inspiration to utilize poetry as outlet for their emotions

  • Germany Crumbles
Gemany lost the war due to its people becoming tired of war. The sailors of the German Navy did not want to go back to see and began to mutiny. As a result, on November 9th, 1918, the Kaiser escaped across German lines into the Netherlands. On November 11th an armistice was signed and there was finally peace.
  • Treaty of Versailles
    • June 28, 1919
    • Peace treaty at the end of the war between Germany and the Allied Powers
    • Negotiations took 6 months at the Paris Peace Conference

Timeline of WWI Events & British Literature

  • Outbreak of first World War
  • Panama Canal opened
James Joyce, Dubliners
  • First air attacks on London
  • Germans use poison gas in war
D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow;
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier
Ezra Pound, Cathay
Rupert Brooke, 1914 and Other Poems
  • Britain enters the Great War at the First Battle of the Somme
  • Battle of Verdun
  • Australians slaughtered in Gallipoli campaign
  • Easter Rising in Dublin
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Robert Graves, Over the Brazier
  • USA enters the war
  • October Revolution in Russia
  • Battle of Passchendaele
T.S. Eliot, Prufrock and Other Observations
Robert Graves, Goliath and David
  • Second Battle of the Somme
  • German offensive collapses; end of war [Nov 11]
  • Votes for women over 30
  • Influenza pandemic kills millions
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians
Robert Graves,Fairies and Fusiliers
  • Peace Treaty ratified at Versailles
  • Einstein's Relativity Theory confirmed during solar eclipse
  • Breakup of former Habsburg Empire
  • Alcock and Brown make first flight across Atlantic
  • Prohibition enacted in US

Robert Graves, Treasure Box ; Country Sentiment
Robert Graves, The Pier-Glass
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
  • T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, a poem famous for satire and its exclusion of change in time, place, speaker, and location in part make it so significant


I started to put this in a table with two columns. You can cut and paste the literary works and put them in the left column, as I've begun to do. Be sure to italicize the titles of books throughout--and cite the source of this timeline.

British Poetry of the Great War


Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." - Wilfred Owen, 1916
  • British Soldier
  • Known for realistic style
  • Wrote on horrors of trench & gas warfare
  • Endured many war injuries, resulting in "shell-shock"
  • Intended to publish book of poetry, but killed in action on November 4, 1918
  • Most of his poetry published after his death
  • "His poetry often graphically illustrated both the horrors of warfare, the physical landscapes which surrounded him, and the human body in relation to those landscapes. His verses stand in stark contrast to the patriotic poems of war written by earlier poets of Great Britain, such as Rupert Brooke." -


Isaac Rosenberg 1890-1918

"I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation,
shall not master my poeting; that is if I am lucky enough to come through it alright" - Isaac Rosenberg, 1916
  • British Soldier
  • Heavily influenced by Keats and other Romantics
  • Enlisted in war because he was out of work poet
  • Killed in action, 1918
  • All works published after death
  • "Rosenberg's poems, such as 'Dead Man's Dump' or the often-anthologized 'Break of Day in the Trenches,' are characterized by a profound combination of compassion, clarity, stoicism, and irony" -

Literature through other Media

  1. Trench Songs and Poetry
  • Trench songs were poems written by both every-day soldiers and those who had previous literary backgrounds. They created short songs or poems which had a sing-song rhyme and often became known throughout the writers barrack. Some songs were notorious throughout certain regions. The language in many of the works is vulgar, after-all, soldiers put their feelings towards the war, fellow soldiers, and their superiors in writing. They used writing as an outlet for emotions which could not be honorably be spoken. Often trench songs were only sung among lower ranked soldiers. Their songs and poems revolve along such topics as their desire to go home, their personal lack of support for the war, problems with superiors, and other general annoyances in the camp.
    • "I Want to go Home"
    • I want to go home, I want to go home.
      I don't want to go in the trenches no more,
      Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
      Take me over the see, where the
      Alleyman can't get at me.
      Oh my, I don't want to die, I want to go home.
    • "Good-bye-ee"
    • "Never Mind"
    • "Bombed Last Night"
    • " I don't want to join the Army"
    • "Oh its a Lovely War"
  1. Willy's Song
#Comradery of Soldiers

Women in the War

Gender Role Change and the Fatherless Family

Due to the absence of men on the home front, typically domestic British women occupied jobs that men usually did. Approximately two million women replaced men employment between 1914-1918. Many jobs were in factories that required heavy physical work, creating a new image of the woman worker. In addition to their masculine occupations, women had to care and provide for their families while their husbands were serving in the war. The change in gender role for women helped women suffrage in the future, however, the woman worker image was unfortunately only a temporary one. Immediately after the war, women resumed being the housewives they were prior to the Great War, even though it was not entirely voluntary on the woman's part.

Expression through Literature

Although the men were more physically affected by the Great War, women were also emotionally affected. Between their high level of stress from assuming the role of men in the workplace and home life and their sadness from being separated from their husbands, women found writing as a means of expressing their feelings and drastic situations. Women who became nurses used their exposure to and observations of wounded soldiers and hospital life as the main subjects of their writing.

Select Women Writers

Original manuscript of "Perhaps" by Vera Brittain
Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
During the war, Vera Brittain left Oxford to become a VAD nurse for four years. She married quartermaster-sergeant Roland Leighton, whose writing also played a major role in British literature during the war. They wrote letters and poems to each other while he was away before his untimely death in the war.

Her works include:
-Verses of a VAD (1918)
-The Dark Tide (1923) - first novel
-Not Without Honour (1924)
-Testament of Youth (1933)
-Testament of Friendship (1940)
-Testament of Experience (1957)

Eva Dobell (1867-1963)
Eva Dobell drew from her experiences as a volunteer nurse for inspiration when writing. She wrote to boost the morale of the wounded soldiers and was known to write about specific patients. A fan of sonnets, Eva was deeply affected by the war, which is easily visible in her poetry.

Eva Dobell's "Advent, 1916"

I dreamt last night Christ came to earth again
To bless His own. My soul from place to place
On her dream-quest sped, seeking for His face
Through temple and town and lovely land, in vain.
Then came I to a place where death and pain
Had made of God's sweet world a waste forlorn,
With shattered trees and meadows gashed and torn,
Where the grim trenches scarred the shell-sheared plain.

And through that Golgotha of blood and clay,
Where watchers cursed the sick dawn, heavy-eyed,
There (in my dream) Christ passed upon His way,
Where His cross marks their nameless graves who died
Slain for the world's salvation where all day
For others' sake strong men are crucified.

Thematic Outcomes & Trends

#Irony is Main Literary Device
#Soldier's Point of View
#Beginning of Modernism

"The excitement, however, came to a terrible climax in 1914 with the start of the First World War, which wiped out a generation of young men in Europe, catapulted Russia into a catastrophic revolution, and sowed the seeds for even worse conflagrations in the decades to follow. By the war's end in 1918, the centuries-old European domination of the world had ended and the "American Century" had begun. For artists and many others in Europe, it was a time of profound disillusion with the values on which a whole civilization had been founded. But it was also a time when the avante-garde experiments that had preceded the war would, like the technological wonders of the airplane and the atom, inexorably establish a new dispensation, which we call modernism." - A Brief Guide to Modernism,

#Changes in Religous Views
#Political Ideology


Bourke, Joanna. "Women on the Home Front in World War One." BBC, 2003.
Crawford, Fred D. British Poets of the Great War. Selinggrove, PA. Susquehanna University Press, 1988.
Miller, Alisa.The Vera Brittain Collection. The First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

Pyecroft, Susan. "British Working Women and the First World War." The Historian, Vol. 56, 1994. - Trench warfare songs (cite) (cite)

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