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War Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. To commemorate the lyrical words of the soldier-poets of past conflicts, the Library Staff would like to share with our readers of this blog a post on war poetry, particularly that of World War I (1914-1918).

Much of history has been recorded in rhyme and measure, from the iambic pentameter of William Shakespeare’s history plays to the free verse of the more recent conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries like Brian Turner’s depictions of the War in Iraq in Here, Bullet (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2005) – available for reading from the Museum & Library.

World War I, like other conflicts, deeply affected the soldier-writers who recorded their experiences on the front lines. But as Paul Fussell observes in his The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), British soldiers were much more educated and literate than in previous conflicts (as were those in the armies of other belligerents). Moreover, that education included study and practice with English literary forms that emphasized romantic heroism and pastoral themes. These were the forms that British soldiers tried to use to describe their experiences with trench warfare, and Fussell argues that the resulting poetry, memoirs, and other types of writing they produced helped create our modern sense of irony.

One of the most notable war poems is In Flanders Fields, written by Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae (November 30, 1872 – January 28, 1918) who died of pneumonia while in command of the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne-su-Mer in northern France. His poem is in the public domain and has become heavily associated with World War I as has the red poppy flower that he mentions therein.

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
    In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

After McCrae’s death, his poems were published with an essay by Sir Andrew Macphail, who also served during the war in Canada’s medical services as a member of the 6th Field Ambulance, In Flanders Fields: And Other Poems (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1920).

John Phillips Sousa, an American composer and conductor known for his military marches who served in World War I as the Lieutenant Commander of the Naval Reserve Band in Illinois, set In Flanders Field to music and it was issued as a score in 1918 by the music publishing company G. Schirmer Inc. of New York. A copy of the sheet music is available for researchers to view in our Rare Book Room.


Circulating volumes on war poetry available from the Museum & Library include:

Featherstone, Simon. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader. Critical Readers in Theory and Practice. London: Routledge, 1995.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Lehmann, John. The English Poets of the First World War. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Pearson, Luke, Hunt Emerson, Simon Gane, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Eddie Campbell, Peter Kuper, et al. Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics. Edited by Chris Duffy. First ed. New York: First Second, 2014.

Powell, Anne. A Deep Cry: First World War Soldier-Poets Killed in France and Flanders. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub, 1998.

Stallworthy, Jon. Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War. London: Constable, 2014.

Stallworthy, Jon. The Oxford Book of War Poetry. Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1984.


To learn more about John McCrae, see these volumes available from the Museum & Library:

Granfield, Linda, Janet Wilson, and John McCrae. In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae. Markham, ON: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2014.

Graves, Dianne. A Crown of Life: The World of John McCrae. Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1997.


To learn more about John Philip Sousa, see:

Bierley, Paul E. John Philip Sousa: American Phenomenon. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Sousa, John Philip. Marching along: Recollections of Men, Women and Music. Popular ed. Boston: Hale, Cushman & Flint, 1941.

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