Kitchener's army found its graveyard on the Somme. Not
only men perished. There perished also the zest and idealism
with which nearly three million Englishmen had marched forth
to war. C.E. Montague, a writer on the Manchester Guardian
who dyed his grey hair in order to volunteer, has recorded this
process of Disenchantment. The change was shown also in the
war poets. The early poets, Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell,
wrote with a lyrical innocence which they had carried over from
peacetime. After the Somme came a new school, poets who saw
in war only horror and suffering, tempered by the comradeship
of the trenches. Edmund Blunden expressed this spirit sensitively, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves more savagely.
Most of them remained war poets, not - as later readers inclined to regard them - anti-war poets. Sassoon, indeed, turned
against the war altogether, after winning the Military Cross,
and claimed to be a conscientious objector. The others still
wanted to destroy 'Prussia', though they saw this 'Prussia' in
their own commanders as well as on the other side. In any
case, these poets spoke only for a minority. All except Isaac
Rosenberg were officers - and Rosenberg was by no means a
representative 'other rank'. Even Wilfred Owen, incomparably
the greatest poet of either war, saw his 'men' from outside.
With astonishing virtuosity, the British army grew from 200,000
to five million and kept its antiquated class-structure inviolate.
The colonels and adjutants, though incompetent for modern
war, knew how to preserve social standards and turned the
young officers into temporary gentlemen, who wore riding boots
and passed the port in mess.
The 'Tommies' have left few memorials. One or two, such as
Frank Richards and David Jones, became writers and published
reminiscences many years later. Otherwise the Tommies speak
in the songs which they composed on the march or to beguile
the tedium of the trenches - songs which survive mainly in
oral tradition. The tunes were usually adapted from contemporary music-hall 'hits'. The words were self-depreciatory and
often obscene. No other army has ever gone to war, proclaiming its own incompetence and reluctance to fight, and no army
has fought better. The humble Englishman found his voice,
and these songs preserve him for posterity.