We all know about war poetry, in particular the writing of British soldier-poets of World War I, most famously Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.But what about the poetry that soldiers might read rather than write? One of the most popular and lasting anthologies of English poetry is Other Men’s Flowers, compiled by Field Marshall Wavell in 1941, who called it “a war baby”, conceived as “a relaxation to the mind” between battles.An old idea of poetry as a suitable preparation for battle is represented by a famous story about the 18th-century war hero General Wolfe, who was said to have read Gray’s Elegy aloud to his officers the night before he led the attack on Quebec. The citadel was captured from the French, but Wolfe was killed.
Gray’s meditative, sonorous poem, with its English setting — the village churchyard — came to seem suitable preparation for a philosophical modern warrior.Gray’s Elegy was one of the pieces selected by the organisers of a scheme, launched in 1915, to provide pocket literature for British troops fighting in the World War I.
The project was launched by Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times, who had been told of young soldiers, home on leave, reminiscing about their favourite passages in English literature. Hundreds of thousands were distributed to service personnel. Sets of six were sold with an envelope for a penny, just covering production costs. Welfare Agencies from the YMCA to the Church of England Temperance Association bought up bundles for distribution. A week after first publication, a million broadsheets had been sold. In the 1920s, two anthologies were published by Methuen.Soon after the publication of the first selections, suggestions for future choices poured into the newspaper. Some came from the trenches. Then, as now, British regiments were stationed on the Tigris; a member of one of them spoke of the appropriateness of his comrades being able to read a passage from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler: “The beggars are so keen on fishing that they make rods of the centre rib of the date palm.” The choice for the very first broadsheet catches much of what they were about. It is an extract from Thomas Hardy’s novel Two on a Tower. Most of it is talk between the villagers and the vicar, who is attempting to have them pronounce properly the words of Onward Christian Soldiers. It is bucolic yet comical, idealised yet with the credible texture of ordinary speech.There are straightforwardly patriotic, even rousing choices. The “St Crispin’s Day” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V is there, as are Macaulay’s rolling verses on the defeat of the Armada and Michael Drayton’s Ballad of Agincourt (“Fair stood the wind for France ...”). So are unpitying poems by Rudyard Kipling (“The Hun is at the gate!”), Julian Grenfell and Laurence Binyon.To the 21st-century reader, the most striking aspect of the selection is the amount of comic writing. Charles Dickens is prominent, and it seems that the compilers were imagining readers familiar with his novels. There are also generous amounts of 18th-century humorous prose.A complicated sense of national spirit is epitomised by the final two extracts, chosen for a special Christmas 1915 set. The first, the chapter on “The Mellstock Carols” from Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, turns the reader back to the English countryside and to the consolations of annual ritual. A clever choice, it is elegiac (the novel is from the 1870s but set in the early 19th century) as well as reassuring. As is the way with Hardy’s evocations of church music and singing, it provides religion for those with no particular religious belief. The second is the story of the British explorer Captain Scott’s last Christmas in the Antarctic. It is bravely optimistic (“Wilson and I couldn’t finish our share of plum pudding. We have all slept splendidly”) — but hardly triumphant.More recently, the idea of literature for the troops has been seized on by the Pentagon. Between 1943 and 1947, more than 100-million paperbacks of 1 300 different titles (from popular fiction to John Steinbeck and Herman Melville) were handed out to American troops overseas. Last year, these “armed services editions” were relaunched: Profiles of America’s Military Heroes from the Civil War to the Present by Allen Mikaelian; War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, edited by Andrew Carroll, The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Shakespeare’s Henry V. This time the idea seems to be that literature might spur on the men. It is not clear whether the publishers have excised the scene in which Henry V orders the slaughter of French prisoners. — Â