Ahead of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I have chosen fourteen of the most powerful works of art from the time. Collectively, they are a testament to those who fought and died in the war and all have extraordinary stories to tell. I have then responded to each with a sonnet, of fourteen lines.
1919, John Singer Sargent, Imperial War Museum
A blinded procession, a party game of sorts,
bandaged eyes, still clutching helmets, rifles,
an ordered chaos, they hold shoulders after
the barrage, the bullets, the gas; most stooped
but one still defiant: upright, hands in pockets,
fair hair, dapper, jacket hung on one shoulder,
as if having lost a football match. Another
turns away, vomits, as the mustard sun yellows
their shirt sleeves. At each side is a sea of men,
nursing their heads, making sense, others are
drugged with sleep; one swigs from a canteen.
As if in a dance, a soldier lifts up his foot a little
too high to step onto a duckboard and sanctuary.
In the distance, another party, oblivious to the first,
makes its own stumbling way out of Hades.
￼1922, John Singer Sargent, National Portrait Gallery
GENERAL OFFICERS OF WORLD WAR I
Like men at the club caught between drinks;
a rubber of whist delayed while this duty performed,
they are immaculate.
Shirts pressed, ribbons bursting like flowers
at their breast; their riding boots never see mud.
They are without blemish.
Their coats need only fend off the wind
that blows down Whitehall and along Pall Mall;
their swords have never drawn blood.
Buttons polished, brass cleaned, they are
the great men of the England, reputations pristine
from the fields of Afghanistan, India.
They stand between columns that hold up the Empire.
Only one cannot look us in the eye.
1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Birmingham Museums Collection
COLUMN ON THE MARCH
A barbed serpent, the column moves as one,
a beast of war, obliterating everything.
Its length is obscene, it has no beginning
and no end. It has wrapped itself
around the world: a snake’s embrace.
In its jaw is the forked tongue of victory
and defeat. It slides like an iron chain.
For miles there is the metronome of boots
moving east to west beneath
this Godless sky. Identically kitted,
there is no one man, only a repeated print
of trench coats, kit bags and rifles
like matchsticks scratching the air,
as the snake slithers further from Eden.
1915, Christopher Richard W Nevinson
An unholy trinity, three gunners plot
their kill; the triangulation of death.
Hard hats, cold hearts, they feed the gun
its magazine; it sucks and spits, hisses
and fouls like a genius in a fury, a dervish
drunk on its own laughter, berserk
with the perfection of itself.
They are welded together, a synchronicity,
like the parts of the gun, working in unison.
They cower beneath the scaffold of the trench,
eyeless, no longer men. In the chaos of fire,
only their aim is true. From here they cannot see
the smoke streaked sky or that their way
to heaven is barred with wire.
1917, Alfred Bastien, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art
CANADIAN GUNNERS IN THE MUD
The mud is not brown, but green and yellow,
the muck of creation: a swamp of purgatory.
A field gun is lying on its side, gigantic, metallic:
a god of thunder crippled in the mire. We have
reversed creation, invented a new death,
a new way to pound earth into a hell.
The sky is sea of fire; men are shadows.
They struggle with their machine, prising it
with planks and boards trying to make it live.
An officer directs; the men obey; this is
the way things are. They work because
they must, and will fight until they die.
On the horizon is a strange blue, a trick
of the light, or the sea, the sea, the blameless sea.
1918, Paul Nash Imperial War Museum
WE ARE MAKING A NEW WORLD
This is no longer Earth; these are not trees.
This is not the brilliant glare of a new sun.
These black stalks are creatures of a new race
grown from the blood of men; they hang their heads
for the shame of it. This world is not yet made.
The mud bubbles up, as if by the heads of infants
struggling for air, they meet the thin atmosphere.
The sky is a wall of dirt; the red dust of a thousand
fires still burning as the planet forms. Today
is the first day after the darkness, and now there
is no memory of hope, of love, of solace, only
this pockmarked world, grown on the skin of the old.
And what of the light? It comes from a poison star
that gives life to these beasts of the new Eden.
1918, Paul Nash, Imperial War Museum
THE MULE TRACK
The hour of the shelling comes;
the shells fall.
We lead the mules along the track;
the guns call.
The world implodes; collapses in,
the field is cracked
in a devil’s grin
and the sky is fired with a plosive din,
it compounds the sorrow
of our original sin.
The mules rear up, shake out
their bloodied manes
as the path buckles
and shells fall.
￼1916, Christopher Richard W Nevinson, Tate
A STAR SHELL
In a moment, the world is shattered
sub divided into fractions of itself.
We freeze in its mathematics.
The trench floods with mirrors of light;
mud quickens into life and barricades
become the linked arms of children.
All of the universe turns on this point:
the second before the sun implodes.
It is not the moment after I remember
but the fabrics on our tunics, the accent
of light on our helmets, the spots of rust
on our iron belt and the olive green of the
subaltern’s eyes; the star drifts peaceably
to the earth and in an instant – gunfire. ￼
1917, George Leroux, Imperial war Museum
Through an arch of smoke,
you enter the burning cathedral.
The altar is a water-filled pit
where a dead man presides
in an open jacket, his face to the sky.
The nave is sea of mud
and open graves; broken trees
hold up the blackened roof.
In the water is a reflection of the fire
like a golden cloth laid
across a tabernacle. But there
is no God, no feathered angel,
no blue Madonna, as these pilgrims
leave relics of themselves.
Eric Kennington, 1926, Tate
COLONEL T.E. LAWRENCE
This is his Turin shroud, this sketch,
this impression; see how his neck
and shoulders fall away like dunes
how his eyes are lit with the grief of ages.
One side of his face in unmarked,
brushed by the light like the white sand
of the Negev Desert; the other is dark,
shadowed by the blood of Aqaba
and Tafileh. He knows nothing
of the future, but can feel history
all around him, the furrows of destiny:
of races at war, trains burning,
and the scowl of a dying star
throwing light on his thin, pale face. ￼
1918, John Nash, Imperial War Museum
OVER THE TOP
They are drawn towards the horizon
bayonets fixed, eyes locked in a dead man’s stare.
A shot officer rests on his knees as if in prayer.
His sword is discarded in the snow; they fight on
as someone cries: ‘forward!’ Right or wrong,
they close ranks, to seal the wound left in the line
and advance to the abyss, the unseen divine.
They walk on as if hypnotised by song
and those that live become breathing ghosts
forever drifting in these fields of snow
clutching their rifles then watching as hosts
of countrymen die on this cold plateaux
The handful of witnesses think on this most:
They killed us like cattle, row after row.
￼1916, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum
THE KENSINGTONS AT LAVENTIE
Four days without sleep and then, Laventie,
a village of ruins, streets bedded with snow,
a place the shells for now, could not reach.
But still Wilson would not lie down, as tall
as he was the first day, his head domed
in a balaclava, watching the treacherous skies.
He carried the burden for us all, his rifle ready.
Sweeney lay in the ice as if on a summer
meadow, his cheek on a pillow of charred wood.
A purgatory of diamonds, a fiefdom of snow,
we were for a time the lords of all saw; kings
of the magpies that flitted through the rafters.
They eyed our treasures, our buckles, a crimson scarf
and the gold tipped helmet we stole from the Bosch.
1917, Sir William Orpen
Our sentries heard them first,
the clatter and groan, like threshing machines.
Then we saw them through the smoke:
a pair of Goliaths, monstrous, faceless
their tracks churning like mandibles.
They reared up like beasts, then flopped
into shell holes: cockroaches that had
survived the end of time, swelled to
nightmare size, unstoppable, unthinking.
We trained our howitzers, our pistoles,
then fled, as the rumble became a roar
and behind them, in shadows, we saw
the British come to claim our rotten soil,
Inside they burned in the grease and oil.
1917, Eric Kennington, Imperial War Museum
INTERIOR OF AN ADRIAN HUT
The beds are empty now, the soldiers gone
leaving only their impressions, the echoes
of their spirits and dreams; their mutterings.
The canvas smells of bleach and damp.
Somewhere a bird sings; voices are heard
outside, then drift away. In fields close by
men slump in their trenches, stuttering,
smoking, waiting for the whistle to blow.
But here, in this interior, we do not know
how many lived, how many died, only that
the beds are empty now and that morning
has come again and that a square of blue
French sky lights up the ward where men lie
in this church of whisperings, soft goodbyes.