21. Creative Responses to the War

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The following poems were all written by soldiers who fought in the First World War. In the Lessons and Activities section you will find some ideas of how to introduce them to students and incorporate them into literacy or English lessons.



IV. The Dead from The War Sonnets
Rupert Brooke
These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvelously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.
There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.



Dulce Et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.


In Flanders Fields
John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.



Wilfred Gibson
 They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.



How to Die
Sigfried Sassoon
Dark clouds are smouldering into red
While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
And on his lips a whispered name.
You’d think, to hear some people talk,
That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they’ve been taught the way to do it
Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
With due regard for decent taste.




Artists were given an official role in war and were commissioned to record the First World War for information and propaganda.


The Ministry of Information’s Official War Artists Scheme was set up in 1916. In 1917 the Imperial War Museum was set up to commemorate the conflict. Part of its remit was to collect and commission art.


Some of the following paintings were ‘official’, others were created by the artists to express their response to events.


Harvest of Battle

Harvest of Battle
© IWM ART 1921


The Harvest of Battle 1919
Christopher Nevinson

The aftermath of a battle showing a muddy and flooded battlefield. A long line of wounded men, some with limbs bandaged and men carrying their comrades, straggling from right to left. Corpses lie in and around water-filled shell holes. Artillery pieces can be seen firing to the right of the composition, with a heavy pall of smoke and flames over the target area. This work was commissioned by the Ministry of Information for the Hall of Remembrance.

Nevinson provides his own description of this work in a letter to Alfred Yockney from the Ministry of Information on 11 June 1919: ‘A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water- logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire, but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions.’

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory
© IWM ART 518

Paths of Glory 1917
Christopher Nevinson

The corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire. Their helmets and rifles lie in the mud next to them.

In one of Nevinson’s most famous paintings, we see the bodies of two dead British soldiers behind the Western Front. The title is a quote from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard’:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


Whereas the poet reflects on bodies dead and buried in a church-yard, the so-called ‘Paths of Glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland.

‘Paths of Glory’ was famously censored by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant – Colonel A N Lee. His concern presumably was the representation of the rotting and bloated British corpses at this stage in the war. The decision was confirmed three months before the opening of his exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in 1918 but Nevinson still included the painting with a brown paper strip across the canvas, blatantly inscribed with the word ‘censored’. As a result, Nevinson was reprimanded for exhibiting a censored image and for the unauthorised use of the word ‘censored’ in a public space. Predictably, the stunt created the publicity Nevinson desired. The painting was purchased by the Museum during the course of the exhibition.



© IWM ART 1460


Gassed, 1918
John Singer Sargent

A side on view of a line of soldiers being led along a duckboard by a medical orderly. Their eyes are bandaged as a result of exposure to gas, and each man holds on to the shoulder of the man in front. One of the line has his leg raised in an exaggerated posture as though walking up a step, and another veers out of the line with his back to the viewer. There is another line of temporarily blinded soldiers in the background, one soldier leaning over vomiting onto the ground. More gas-affected men lie in the foreground, one of them drinking from a water-bottle. The crowd of wounded soldiers continues on the far side of the duckboard, and the tent ropes of a dressing station are visible in the right of the composition. A football match is being played in the background, lit by the evening sun.


The scene is the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 as witnessed by the artist. Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. The painting gives clues about the management of the victims, their relative lack of protective clothing, the impact and extent of the gas attack as well as its routine nature – the football match goes on regardless.


Sargent was commissioned by the British Government to contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for World War One. He was given the theme of ‘Anglo-American co-operation’ but was unable to find suitable subject matter and chose this scene instead. ‘ The further forward one goes’, he wrote ‘the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation the more it becomes and empty landscape. The Ministry of Information expects an epic – and how can one do an epic without masses of men?’

Ministry of Information commission


Improvised Dressing Station

Improvised Dressing Station
© IWM ART 2764


Improvised Dressing Station
Austin Osman Spare

A Royal Army Medical Corps officer tends to three wounded men lying on stretchers in an improvised dressing station. Numerous boxes are lined up behind the casualties, as well as a partially collapsed hut.

 Royal Army Medical Corps Commission


Travoys with wounded

Travoys arriving with wounded
© IWM ART 2268


Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station
Stanley Spencer

A dressing station seen from an elevated position. Four travoys pulled by mules wait in line outside the dressing station. Each holds a wounded soldier covered in a blanket and they are attended by medical orderlies. In the background is the bright glow of an operating theatre, where surgery is taking place. In the lower right corner a man with his arm in a sling walks away from the scene, looking back over his shoulder.

In April 1918, while serving in Macedonia, Spencer was approached by the British War Memorials Committee to complete a commission. Alfred Yockney, Secretary to the Committee, suggested the subject of a religious service at the front but Spencer wanted to show ‘God in the bare real things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines’. This work is based on his experiences with the 68th Field Ambulance.


An old Greek church was used as the dressing station and operating theatre. The wounded were brought down by means of the mule-drawn stretchers shown in the painting. In 1923, Spencer wrote to his wife Hilda about the scene for this painting, ‘I was standing a little way from the old Greek church and coming there were rows of travoys and limbers crammed full of wounded men. One would have thought that the scene was a sordid one… but I felt there was grandeur… all those wounded men were calm and at peace with everything, so the pain seemed a small thing with them.’


Spencer saw the wounded in religious terms: the dead and injured figures on the stretchers like Christs on the Cross and the Resurrection through the lifesaving efforts of the surgeons operating in the makeshift theatre. In 1938, Spencer wrote of the work, ‘I meant it not a scene of horror but a scene of redemption’.


This is one of a series of paintings commissioned by the by the Ministry of Information early in 1918. It was intended that both the art and the setting would celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. The Hall of Remembrance was never completed and the collection was given to the Imperial War Museum.


Dressing Station

Dressing Station
© IWM ART 1452


Dressing Station, 1917
James McBey

Two medical personnel tend to a wounded British soldier, who lies on a stretcher with his head bandaged and his left arm in a splint. One man kneels on the right, tending to the soldier’s dressings. The other stands and leans over from the left, holding a bowl containing an implement in his left hand. The dressing station is illuminated by two oil lamps on the floor to the left.


Wellington House commission, transferred to Dept and Ministry of Information and then to the Imperial War Museum
Nurse, soldier, child

Nurse, wounded soldier and child
© IWM ART 5194


Nurse, wounded soldier and child, 1915
William Hatherell

Three figures dominate the image. A Red Cross nurse stands in the centre. A wounded soldier with a crutch and bandaged head leans on her right arm. On her left a small child in a red dress clings to her skirts; the nurse has her hand resting reassuringly on the child’s shoulder. There is the ruin of a building in the background.


The painting is a design for a poster.


Advanced Dressing Station in France

Advanced Dressing Station in France
© IWM ART 1922


An Advanced dressing station in France, 1918
Henry Tonks

A dressing station sited by a ruined church. The scene is crowded with casualties, many being brought in by stretcher-bearers. The men have bandaged limbs and some have head wounds. In the sky above there are dark grey clouds, possibly of smoke, in the left half of the composition, and patches of blue on the right.

This is another one of the series of paintings commissioned by the British War Memorial Committee set up by the Ministry of Information early in 1918.


Henry Tonks is perhaps better-known for being the drawing master at the Slade School of Art and teacher to the likes of Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and CRW Nevinson. He also was a surgeon and during the First World War served with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Therefore, Tonks was an apt choice for a commission from the British War Memorials Committee to depict an advanced medical dressing station. The painting captures a scene amid a German offensive in 1918, within which Tonks makes full use of his medical expertise to showcase a wide range of injuries, treatments and field dressings. The finished painting was intended to be hung in a purpose built Hall of Remembrance, to celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. However, the Hall was never realised after the First World War and Tonks’s painting, along with other commissioned works, were transferred to the Imperial War Museum.


Mule Track

Mule Track
© IWM ART 1153

The Mule Track, 1918
Paul Nash

Paul Nash’s desolate landscapes are amongst the most iconic images of the Western Front. The view is across a battlefield undergoing heavy bombardment and the shattered landscape is dissected by an angular duckboard path. Amidst the chaos of a heavy bombardment the small figures of a mule train are trying to cross the battlefield. They are reduced to defenceless puppets at the mercy of forces seemingly no longer man made. The animals rear and panic at nearby explosions, as the water in the flooded trenches wells up like geysers and rubble is thrown high into a sky obscured by large clouds of yellow and grey smoke. This work was a commission from the Ministry of Information and was listed as complete on 15 July 1918.

Brighton Dome

Brighton Dome – This painting by Douglas Fox-Pitt depicts the Indian Army Wounded in the dome of Brighton Pavilion, which was converted into a hospital
© IWM Art 323

Indian Army Wounded in Hospital, Dome Brighton, 1919
Douglas Fox Pitt

An interior view of the Brighton Pavillion. The walls of the dome are decorated with exotic designs, and a large chandelier hangs down into the centre of the room. The floor is filled with rows of metal framed hospital beds covered with white sheets. Many of the beds are occupied with soldiers resting; other soldiers sit by their beds dressed in blue uniform.


This oil painting was purchased from the artist by The Imperial War Museum in March 1919.



Music has always been an integral part of war serving many different purposes: a call to arms, a method of distributing propaganda and a way of boosting morale, both at home and with the troops. The First World War was no different. Click on the names of the pieces of music  to listen to them on youtube. Those pieces mentioned in the lesson plans also have videos on this page.


On the Battlefield

At the start of the war, battles were still fought in a traditional way with Bugle calls concluding the day’s fighting. This is called the Last Post. Today The Last Post is better known as a method of remembrance, but it is important to understand its roots.


Much of the music of the First World War that we know is also from the battlefields, the marching songs. These songs not only helped to keep morale up but also to keep them going at a steady pace; songs such as Pack Up your Troubles in your Old Kit Bag, and It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.


It was also during the First World War that the idea of a Forces sweetheart (famous examples include Vera Lynn in World War 2 and Katherine Jenkins today) was created together with the introduction of morale boosting concerts for the troops on the field of battle. The well-known British composer Gustav Holst was highly involved in setting up these concerts.


At home

Music was used as a vital method of propaganda especially in the Music Hall tradition with performers such as Vesta Tilley helping to substantially increase military sign ups with songs such as “The army of today’s all right” and Jolly Good Luck to the Girl who Loves a Soldier”. It was said that she often pulled young men up on stage and asked them to sign up there and then!


In terms of classical music, composers responded to the calls in journals (such as the Musical Times) to write music that spoke to people during the war. The best-known composer of the time was Elgar, but composers such as Gurney, Bridge and Holst also write pieces reflective of the period.


After the war

Composers’ responses to the war didn’t stop in 1918; the after effects were felt for a very long time. After the war there were many different responses artistically: from those lamenting and commemorating the dead, to those expressing anger at the events that had become before. Similar to artists and writers, some composers such as Arthur Bliss found that composing gave them an outlet to express the horrors that they had seen. Whilst there were many different forms used in commemorating the dead, there was a trend towards writing pieces, which contained the human voice and were large scale such as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s Ode to Death and John Foulds’ A War Requiem (See the composers section below).


Composers and their works
Arthur Bliss

Bliss like many of his other colleagues fought in the war. Whilst he didn’t write a great deal connected to the First World War (he was much more involved musically in the Second World War), he did write a choral Symphony, Morning Heroes, which is inscribed with the following dedication: “To the memory of my brother Francis Kennard Bliss and all other Comrades killed in battle”. This work uses several different texts and employs a narrator as well as a large choir. Bliss has said that writing this work was cathartic and helped rid himself of recurring nightmares about the war.

George Butterworth

On the Banks of the Green Willow is based on two folk song melodies – The banks of Green Willow and Green Bushes which he had recorded in 1907 when travelling around West Sussex. He described it as an idyll, and whilst it was composed in 1913, it only received its premiere in 1914. George Butterworth signed up with the Durham Light Infantry and went to fight in France. He was mentioned in dispatches for outstanding courage and won the Military Cross before being killed on the Somme in 1914.

Edward Elgar

Elgar was too old to fight but as he was the most well known composer at the start of the war, he was approached to write music reflective of the current period. The following pieces best exemplify his writing at the time:


The Fringes of the Fleet – was incredibly popular during the First World War in the Music Halls but fell out of fashion when peace returned and is rarely performed.
The Spirit of England
The Cello Concerto

John Foulds

Like Holst, Foulds was active in morale boosting for the troops through the organization of concerts. Whilst he didn’t write anything during the war, his A World Requiem  (1919-21) was composed in memory of the war dead from all countries. This piece had yearly performances between 1923-6 in the first Festivals of Remembrance.

Ivor Gurney

Ivor Gurney joined the Army in 1915 and served in France with the 2/5th Gloucesters, until 1918 when he was discharged from Military Hospital having been shot, gassed and shell shocked at Passchendaele . Whilst on the front he wrote lots of poetry and music in response to what he was seeing such as In Flanders (to words by FW Harvey) about being in the trenches and longing to be back in the Cotswolds), and By a Bier Side (written to words by John Masefield).


Gustav Holst

Holst was too old to fight when war broke out and felt frustrated initially that he couldn’t do his bit to help. Therefore when the opportunity arose he volunteered to become the YMCA’s musical organizer in Salonika (this also involved him changing his name by deed poll from Von Holst which he felt was too Germanic to simply Holst).


The Planets was written between 1914 – 16 Ironically the one movement that would be on the surface be the most obvious link, Mars the Bringer of War, was actually written in anticipation of the war rather than as a result of it although it wasn’t premiered until 1918.


Ode to Death  (1919) is widely recognised as reflecting Holst’s own private mourning and attitude to death after the First World War. It is a setting of Walt Whitman’s elegy to mourn the death of American president Abraham Lincoln and is often thought of as Holst’s most beautiful choral work.


Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams was 41 when the First World War began and so was initially considered too old to fight. He instead volunteered to enlist as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Initially he was a stretcher-bearer in France and Salonika and went on to drive ambulances. The exposure to gunfire was to lead to severe deafness in his old age. Vaughan Williams didn’t compose anything during the war, but in the aftermath developed a new more wistful style, captured in his Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No3) which was to become one of his most loved works. This piece drew on his experience as an ambulance driver and the sounds of a bugler practicing. It is a simple, yet beautiful piece written to commemorate the fallen.

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