Harry Ricketts: The power of war poetry, from the Western Front to Helmand province

As David Cameron chooses 'Dulce et Decorum Est' for National Poetry Day on Thursday, our writer salutes the men who changed our view of conflict
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The Independent Online

David Cameron's recent choice of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" as his favourite poem may seem surprising – for a moment. He is, after all, Prime Minister of a country involved in a protracted, much-debated war, and Owen's mind- and stomach-churning account of a gas attack hardly underplays the horrors of combat:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

But then, a cynic might say, Cameron is only trying to recoup kudos lost when he and Gordon Brown both appeared to turn last year's Remembrance Day service at Westminster Abbey into a photo-shoot opportunity and were subsequently obliged to apologise.

Whatever faint whiff of PR may hang about Cameron's choice, his admiration for Owen's poetry is probably genuine. He is reflecting a preference shared by many, including soldiers, both in the UK and the US. American troops training for Afghanistan studied not only maps and military procedures, but also poems by Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. "Dulce et Decorum Est" in particular got through to one young sergeant from Portland, Oregon: "Just by what he said you actually can feel it, or you can get a mental picture of the death or the awful sights." In 2006, Sir Richard Dannatt, then Chief of the General Staff, paid tribute to Owen as a soldier speaking to soldiers, saying, "He went through very earthy and very gritty experiences."

Brooke's war sonnets were acclaimed in 1915 for other reasons, however: they perfectly captured the mood of the moment – or what people felt the mood should be. They depicted war as God-given release, as sacrifice, as psychic cleansing. That Brooke himself was glamorously handsome and had died on his way to Gallipoli naturally contributed to the poems' appeal, as the young Vera Brittain, for one, acknowledged.

Then, the story goes, when soldier-poets such as Sassoon, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney and Owen came to experience the reality of trench warfare at first hand, perceptions changed. And so they did – though probably not immediately on the part of most of those stoically enduring active service, and not for most of those grieving at home.

The poets and poems that have come to haunt our imaginations and shape our response to the First World War had a very different standing at the time or no standing at all. Owen, who died on 4 November 1918, a week before the armistice, published only a handful of poems during his lifetime. These did not include "Dulce et Decorum Est", "Anthem for Doomed Youth" or "Strange Meeting". Rosenberg, also killed in 1918, had work privately printed. One of his greatest poems, "Break of Day in the Trenches", appeared in a Chicago poetry magazine; his chilling "Dead Man's Dump"remained unpublished until after his death.

Sassoon, like Owen an officer, did have an audience for bitter, class-renegade pieces like 'Base Details' in which "scarlet Majors at the Base/... speed glum heroes up the line to death". But this audience was relatively small. He was more widely known for his letter protesting against the continuation of the war and read out in the House of Commons in July 1917.

While Sassoon and Owen were forging their famous friendship that same autumn at Craiglockhart, the shell-shock hospital outside Edinburgh, it was the now mostly forgotten Robert Nichols who was being hailed as the new war poet. Sassoon quite liked Nichols personally, but after a shared poetry reading in a South Kensington drawing room, dubbed him "the poet for people emotionally wallowing in the blues". Meanwhile, the troops themselves were not reading Sassoon, Owen or Nichols. Their war experience was embodied for them in songs of dark laughter like "Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire" or in the rhymes of "Woodbine Willie". And those at home were more likely to be reading Jessie Pope's Simple Rhymes for Stirring Times or Swords for Life by Irene Rutherford McLeod, the future mother-in-law of Christopher Robin.

It is true that the 1920s and 30s saw an outpouring of brilliant war memoirs – notably Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Graves's Goodbye to All That and Brittain's Testament of Youth. But whether these changed broader perceptions of the war is questionable. Instead, that change came with the debunking 1960s. Alan Clark's The Donkeys and A J P Taylor's equally demythologising illustrated history chimed with the desired freedoms of the times. The Joan Littlewood musical Oh! What a Lovely War showed the war as savage farce, BBC2's 26-part The Great War as relentless epic. Philip Larkin lamented "Never such innocence again"; Roger McGough explained "why patriots are a bit nuts in the head".

In these conditions, Owen emerged as the pre-eminent war poet. Benjamin Britten built his War Requiem around nine of Owen's poems. Cecil Day Lewis brought out an enlarged Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. Ian Parsons gave Owen pride of place in his landmark anthology Men Who March Away: Poems of the First World War. Interest in Sassoon, Graves, Edmund Blunden and David Jones (all then still alive) quickened; Edward Thomas, Rosenberg and Gurney began to be taken seriously.

All this would have looked very different had the Second World War produced poets of comparable power and sheer memorability. But it did not: partly because it was a much more mobile war than the First, perhaps also because the modernism of the interwar years had encouraged poets to be more cryptic. At any event, few disputed William Plomer's claim in the booklet with the 1963 recording of War Requiem that Owen was "the outstanding English poet" of both First and Second World Wars.

If the 1960s politicised the Great War, the 1980s and 90s helped to humanise it. Excellent biographies of Thomas, Gurney, Rosenberg, Graves and Owen, more anthologies, even the zany, poignant Blackadder Goes Forth: these all played their part. But above all, it was probably two works of fiction – Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong – that brought the Great War to a human level and made it stand for all war. Pat Barker, on winning the Booker Prize for the third volume of her trilogy, said: "The Somme is like the Holocaust. It revealed things about mankind that we cannot come to terms with and cannot forget. It can never become the past."

One consequence of this process is that the Great War has become a test of the authentic in an age uncertain about where its own authenticity lies. David Leavitt channels precisely this feeling in his recent novel The Indian Clerk when a wounded soldier explains his need to go back to France: "Out there in the trenches – you're wretched but you're alive. And then you come back, and everything's going along like it's a normal world. And you sort of – you feel dead. And everyone else seems dead. And you look forward to getting back because you don't like being around all those dead people."

Presumably a desire to connect with this feeling of authenticity lay behind the widespread attention paid last year to the death of Harry Patch, "the last Tommy" to serve in the trenches. The same feeling is enshrined in the unassailable importance of Remembrance Day in a British calendar that is becoming fragmented. In New Zealand, where I live, there has been a remarkable resurgence in attendance by young and old at the annual Anzac dawn parade. In Wellington, above the entrance to the cenotaph are inscribed Brooke's lines from "The Dead":

These laid the world away; poured the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be...

So, for David Cameron to find Owen's poems "an eye-opener" and for "Dulce et Decorum Est" to be his favourite poem is perhaps not so very strange after all. In fact, it may even be mainstream.

'Strange Meetings: the Poets of the Great War' by Harry Ricketts (Chatto & Windus) is published on 4 November