Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Visions of the Dead in World War I Poetry
By Laura Moore
23 June, 2012
One facet of the poetry emerging from English soldiers at the Western Front is the
presence of ghost soldiers: the dead surround soldiers, speak to them, and inhabit a hellish
afterlife that resembles the conditions of the front. Some poets even project th
emselves as dead
and imagine their own future words and encounters.
In this presentation
explain the conditions unique to the Western Front that account for these ghostly imaginings
Then I will
show the ways soldiers expressed
experience with death and the dead through
new to World War I that defined soldiers’ experience and, I believe, accounts
for their new ways of portraying the dead in poetry
term mechanized t
Because advancements in weaponry meant either side could suffer as many as 20,000 casualties
in one day, the number of dead bodies reached stunning proportions. On the first day of the
Somme offensive, over 19,400 British soldiers were kille
d. Over the next five months, the British
lost an additional 400,000 men; for every one mile gained during the offensive, nearly 88,000
Allied soldiers were killed.
At the Battle of Passchendaele, the bodies of almost 35,000 British
soldiers were never
even found and identified. With such vast numbers of dead, there was not
enough manpower to remove and bury the corpses, and in many cases enemy fire and muddy
conditions made such efforts impossible. So the dead stayed where they fell, and the living
ht and lived among them.
Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War
(New York, NY: Oxford
University Press, Inc., 2007) 213.
Scientific advancements in weaponry changed not only the scale of destruction but also
. The lightweight guns
from the Napoleonic war
were joined and then
replaced by larger, more powerful howitzers and
rtars that could fire 25 high
a minute. Once assembled, though, these guns were difficult to move. Similarly, the Maxim
(early machine guns)
that were capable of firing 600 rounds a minute in 1914, and almost
double that by 1918, r
equired three or four men to operate. Even the more portable machine guns
developed toward the end of the war weighed twenty to thirty pounds and were more effective as
Essentially, both the
siege weapons and individual attack
were effectively de
fensive, rather than offensive. F
ighting with defensive weapons resulted in a
on either side
ittle to address this problem, s
weaponry of World War I and the tactics seemed designed to prolong the agony of the trenches
indefinitely. This profoundly affected soldiers, who came to feel they would be stuck in the
The poet and critic
confessed that “One of the
first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the
endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end of it.”
The static nature of
trench warfare meant the soldiers eng
aged in very little forward movement; going over the top
was deadly, chaotic, and frequently unsuccessful at advancing their position. A war of attrition
meant the men were trapped, literally, in a condition of seemingly pointless misery.
helped to strength the connection formed among soldiers.
The Great War
and Modern Memory
, Paul Fussel points out that “even if those at home had wanted to know the
realities of the war, they couldn’t have without experiencing the
m: its conditions were too novel,
its industrialized ghastliness too unprecedented. The war would have been simply
So distanced did the soldiers become
from the home front
, it was as if “civilians
talked a foreign language.”
The sense of
alienation from the home front served to strengthen the
Interestingly, this profound sense of connection
seems to have
extended to the
Living among so many corpses affected soldiers’ relationship with the dead,
presence was a constant reminder both of the fallen comrades themselves and of the likelihood of
the soldiers’ own deaths.
In letters ho
me, the poet Wilfred
talked of the
terrible proximity of
“The dead, whose unburied bodies
sit outside the dug
outs all day, all
night, the most execrable sights on earth.”
The physical proximity created an emotional
association: because it was impossible for soldiers to place the dead in a grave and out of sight,
the spirits of the dead invad
ed the conscious and subconscious minds of the living.
t was not uncommon for soldiers to have hallucination
s of dead comrades or enemies.
This was especially true of shell shock victims, but also not unheard of in soldiers who di
suffer from shell shock.
After the war, t
he poet Siegfried Sassoon
confessed to his
friend Robert Graves
that often “when he went for a walk he saw corpses lying
about on the pavements.”
that appeared in uninvited hal
lucinations also manifested
themselves in poetic imagination. In other words, soldiers conjured them up intentionally in their
felt haunted by his “old friends” slain in the war. In his poem “Haunted,”
published in 1919, he writes of
his friends who “stamp and sing/And lay ghost hands on
The Great War and Modern Memory
(New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000) 87.
Goodbye to All That
(New York, NY: Random House, Inc. 1998) 188.
He can accept being haunted in the darkness, but wishes
in this poem that
comrades would “leave the noon day’s warm sunshine/To living lads,” for “Strangers assume
your phantom f
aces” and Graves is “ashamed to greet/Dead men” in his daytime wanderings. In
this poem he indicates both the pervasiveness of his ghostly remembrances as well as his shame
of being unable to exorcise them. Though hallucinations of dead comrades or slain
what’s interesting here is the
different manifestation of the same emotional
haunting. In addition to his dead friends’
appearing as independent
visions, they also
commandeer the faces of strangers; Grave
association with the dead is
them onto the living.
ther poets imagined the ghosts of fallen soldiers and addressed their presence in
various ways. Charles Hamilton Sorley
, killed at the
Battle of Loos
, anticipates the
continued company of the dead and
attributed to them
a sort of blind indifference
to the living.
He counsels the reader
“When you see millions of the mouthle
ss dead/Across your dreams in
pale battalions go,”
the haunted living
should not offer recognition or praise to the
dead soldiers, only acceptance of their fate. For him, the dead are not of the heroic Homeric
strain; rather, they are an “o’ercrowded mass” of ghosts impossible to tell apart.
the vast casualties and his rather prescient anticipation of “millions”
more to come.
More often, however, poetic treatments of the dead included imagined dialogue. In part,
this poetry granted to the slain a dignity and a voice
that the war denied them. Robert Nichols
Robert Graves, “Haunted,”
The Winter of the World
, ed. Dominic Hibberd and John Onions
(London: Constable &
Robinson Ltd., 2007) 259.
Charles Hamilton Sorley, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead,” Roberts 356.
, who also fought in the Battle of Loos, suffered shell
shock after a few weeks in the
trenches in 1916. In his poem “Battle,” he imagines an encounter with a dead soldier who asks
him to relay a message
. Nichols describes feeling “the oozed breath of the slain”
blowing on his
face and hearing the dead man’s final words:
Go home, go home, go to my house,
Knock at the door, knock hard, arouse
My wife and the children…
Say: the dead won’t come bac
k to this house.
The “mourning voices” of the dead complains of the shrapnel that killed him, of the cold and the
rain and laments, “I shan’t go home again.” Through this
Nichols gives the soldier an
identity and a personal context
, portraying the dead soldier’s concern for
was a small way to counter the impersonality of mass carnage.
poet, Harley Matthews
, echoes the same theme
in “The Sleep of Death,”
in which he imagines a dead comrade,
unchanged, looking at
him in the gloom. While the poet watches the ghost, “he sat and told/Me of his love just as of
old” and asks the poet to give her a locket. In these types of poems the writers respond to t
continued presence of the dead around them not through expressions of disgust, but through
expressions of shared humanity
in these cases, concern for loved ones left behind. The shared
experience of warfare and the close association it created among b
rothers in arms enabled these
poets to transform horror into connection.
Imagining Themselves as Dead
Continued proximity to the dead and t
he arbitrary nature of death
philosophical distance. The dead were not necessarily de
ad because of their action or
Robert Nichols, “Battle,”
First World War.com
, 2009, 1 Nov. 2010 <http://FirstWorldWar.com>.
Harley Matthews, “The S
leep of Death,”
First World War.com
, 2009, 1 Nov. 2010 <http:FirstWroldWar.com>.
oldiers recognized that they, themselves, could have been the
that they might be next. Wilfred Owen blurs the distinction between the dead and the
living in “Exposure,” based on a
n experience he and his comrades had in the snow in early 1917.
In the freezing cold, tortured by “the merciless iced east winds that knive”
them, the poet
begins to imagine he looks “deep into grassier ditches” that are “littered with blossoms,” but with
a shock asks himself if he is dying. He and his comrades might already be dead; possibly the
pastoral homes he is dreaming of or the Romantic visions of imaginary trenches are actually
dangerous hallucinations that presage freezing to death. At the end of
the poem, though, “nothing
the men are trapped permanently in a no man’s land between life and death, where
the transition between those two states is indistinct.
In “Strange Meeting,”
Owen more clearly imagines himself as dead, escaping bat
“down some profound dull tunnel” to a primordial realm “scooped” by ancient, “titanic” wars.
There he meets someone who looks at him with “piteous recognition,” and suddenly the speaker
“knew we stood in Hell.” This stranger mourns the lost years, the
“pity of war” and the
realization that “None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.” The power of the
poem’s imaginative vision comes at the end, as the stranger reveals he is “the enemy you killed,
my friend.” Both the dead self and his dopp
elganger, the stranger, emerge from Owens’s vision
of unity. He imbues the dead German with courage and humanity, showing a degree of empathy
and brotherhood that transcends nationalities as well as life and death. In Owens’s empathetic
imagining, the dist
inction between living and dead, friend and foe, English and German, is
Wilfred Owen, “Exposure,” Copp 90.
Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting,” Foss 84.
Imagining Themselves in Hell
Most poetic treatments of the dead, however, are neither as conciliatory nor as optimistic.
and philosophical identification with the dead
made poets imagine the
to be in circumstances as remarkably depressing as their own; after all, the
landscape of the front resembled descriptions of hell that educated soldiers had read from Da
The landscape of the front was so unrelentingly bleak and the soldiers’ time there so
apparently unending that their vision of the front and their idea of Hell became intertwined. If
live soldiers and dead soldiers were trapped alike in a h
ell on earth, it seems reasonable that souls
of the dead would be trapped in the same kind of afterlife. In “Ghost of the Somme,”
explores the merging of the trenches with Hell. He sees a “khaki
phantom” moving down his tr
ench and wonders if it is “a fiend from Hell/Come to join the Hell
already there.” This ghost is neither friend nor foe, but rather a representation of the common
fate of soldiers trapped in an afterlife that reflects “That Hell where trenches run like
ins/Under a hail of red
hot steel” he and the other soldiers are forced to inhabit.
Attack” Sassoon describes with ghastly detail the trenches as “rotten with
dead” and talks of the bursting shells “spouting dark earth and wire with gusts fro
itself is a malignant Devil, hurling five
nines and spitting bullets in order to push soldiers into his
hellish domain forever. In “Strange Hells,” Ivor Gurney
echoes the idea of artillery
as an instrument of hell when he describ
inch, and eighteen pounders
The tortured landscape and torturous environment of the front
make associations with hell inescapable; by extension, soldiers doomed to inhabit the front either
Albert E. Tomlinson, “Ghost of the Somme,” Copp 117.
Siegfried Sassoon, “Counter
Ivor Gurney, “Strange Hells,” Featherstone 122.
living or dead m
ust be in hell. The traditional ideas of death as a final rest, as peace, as heaven,
or as eternal life have been replaced by the seemingly unending reality of the front.
the Christian faith most English soldiers grew up with
systems of belief. In the “Ballad of the Three Spectres,” Ivor Gurney portrays three phantoms
speculating about his fate.
They are not the ghosts of dead comrades, but rather a thematic
representation of folklore
perhaps an amalgamation of S
witches or the three
es of Greek mythology.
Siegfried Sassoon similarly draws on alternate,
s in his “Prelude: The Troops.”
His conception of dead soldiers is from a
her than a classical tradi
Here the battalions of dead, “scarred from hell,”
pass “through some mooned Valhalla.” In Sassoon’s vision, hell is in the “smoking, flat
horizons, reeking woods,/And foundered trench lines.” The hell of the trenches has merged with
the hell of
the damned from several traditions, and the dead wander from one to another. It is as
though the powers of hell have commandeered the battlefield.
While all wars seem to be fraught with paradoxes and ironies, one interesting irony of
World War I is that
the greatest barrier between people
at times became blurred in
poetic imaginings. The magnitude and pervasiveness of death in the first mechanized war served
to undermine its power of distinction. The more the men were exposed to the horrors of
the less distinct the separation between life and death became, and, by extension, the separation
between the living and the dead
became less distinct as well
The various poetic
dead speaks both to the sense of unity soldiers felt
with one another, and to the difficulty of
processing the devastation of that war within a traditional construct.
Ivor Gurney, “Ballad of the Three Spectres,” Fussel 129.
Siegfried Sassoon, “Prelude: The Troops,” Copp 121.
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