The First World War: trauma and memory
The First World War: trauma and memory

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

The First World War: trauma and memory

3.1.6 Great War poets and shell shock

Described image
Figure 14 Siegfried Sassoon (Left) and Wilfred Owen (Right)

Below are two iconic poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen on the subject of shell shock.

Sassoon: Survivors (1917)

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
   Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’—
   These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
   Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
   Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
   Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Wilfred Owen: Mental Cases (1917)

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand's palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

—These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
— Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
— Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Think about the following questions:

  • In what ways do these two poems differ? Is there a difference in tone?
  • Cast your mind back to some of the themes touched on in the discussion of shell shock in Week 1. What do these poems tell us about the impact of shell shock on ideas about masculinity?
  • To whom do you think Sassoon and Owen might be directing these poems?
OUFL_14

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus