And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who'd lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .”—Wilfred Owen, “The Sentry”
This poem, and a number of others of the same era, were brought to my attention in the cover story of the July issue of Military History Magazine, “The Poets of Hell,” about the extraordinary literary outpouring produced by World War I. All of the poets discussed here—not just Owen, but also Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon—were British, but U.S. servicemen would experience their own horrors once they were shipped overseas. (U.S. soldiers would also contribute significantly to the annals of literature created by the war, notably E.E. Cummings' The Enormous Room and Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.)
Every war breeds its own kind of hell. Those of us who benefit from the sacrifice of the service personnel in these conflicts stand across a great gulf from them, separated by this simple fact: we simply have no clue of the horrors they endured.