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Teaching the First World War
Teaching the First World War

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2 Primary source analysis – literary responses to the war in Britain

The First World War is often seen to be a ‘literary war’, not only because it inspired an outpouring of literature, but also because literary works, and especially its poetry, have gone on to shape how the First World War is remembered in Britain.

Students may well have encountered some of this literature – and especially the ‘war poets’ – in English lessons, but these poems can also be examined as primary sources in the History classroom. Combatant poetry by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, for example, provides evidence of how soldiers responded to the terror of trench warfare and how they protested against these conditions.

There are two potential pitfalls when studying trench poems as historical sources. First, there is a risk that ‘realistic’, vivid poetry of this nature will be accepted as presenting the ‘truth’ about the experience of war. It is important that students bear in mind that trench poems are imaginative responses that do not necessarily reflect the experiences or perspectives of all soldiers.

Conversely, there is a risk that literary sources may immediately be dismissed as fictional or fabricated and therefore not as valuable as other more apparently ‘truthful’ historical documents. It’s important to encourage students to appreciate that these sources, however problematic, can still tell us something about the experience of war – including its emotional and cultural impact.

We can apply the primary source analysis skills we’ve practiced in earlier sessions to poems. Students should be encouraged to ask some of the following questions when analysing poems (of course, they may not be able to answer them all):

  • Who wrote the poem? Soldier or civilian? Officer or private?
  • When was the poem written? What was the historical context when this poem was written (development of the war, major battles etc.)? Or was it written after the war?
  • Where was this poem written? Home front or fighting front? In the trenches or elsewhere?
  • Why and for what purpose might this poet have written this poem?
  • Where, when and why was the poem read and published? This is often overlooked (and it may be difficult to find this information), but it’s important to consider how wide the audience for the poetry was. To what extent was it likely to have influenced or reflected public opinion? For example, was the poem printed in a newspaper, and therefore likely to reach a large audience, or was it only published in an anthology of poems with a narrower readership?
  • What can this poetry tell us about the experience and/or memory of the war? How useful is it as a primary source?
  • What are the limitations of this poem as a primary source?

In the next section, you will analyse two poems of the First World War according to the criteria above. We chose two very well-known poems, and you should be able to find sufficient information online to answer all of these questions. As canonical poems, both have had a profound influence on how the First World War is remembered in Britain, albeit in different ways.