Writing a Shattered Landscape

Writers and poets open a painful window into the human experience of no-man's land. Take a closer look at the intimate portrait these authors paint through their words.

By Durham University

Soldier Writing (1914-1918) by UnknownDurham University

Few have seen No Man's Land firsthand. Much of what we know today about this space is from the account of firsthand witnesses.

WWI left a deep mark on the writing of poets, novelists and the personal writing of ordinary soldiers. What then is the image of No Man's Land that emerges from these pages?

We take a closer look.

Preface by Wilfred Owen (May 1918) by Owen, Wilfred (1893-1918)Durham University

In the preface to a poetry collection Wilfred Owen sketched out before his death, he wrote the following words:

"This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them."

For Owen, like so many others, war redefined poetic writing:

"Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity. "

Britons. Join Your Country's Army! (1914) by Leete, Alfred (Undefined)Durham University

When the war broke out, patriotic sentiments swelled. Poems such as 'The Call' by Jessie Pope captured the propaganda that sought to stir hearts and minds. In it she writes:

"Who’s for the trench—
Are you, my laddie?
Who’ll follow French—
Will you, my laddie?
Who’s fretting to begin,
Who’s going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
Do you, my laddie?"

Portrait of Wilfred Owen (1916) by UnknownDurham University

Like many others heading to war, Owen had no idea about the horrors expecting him. In an early letter to his mother, his writing is beaming with excitement:

"To Susan Owen

1 January 1917 [France]

My own dearest Mother,

There is a fine heroic feeling about being in France, and I am in perfect spirits. A tinge of excitement is about me … I shall actually be at the Front.
Can’t believe it.
Nor must you.
Now I must pack.
Your own Wilfred"

Letter From Wilfred Owens to Mother, Susan Owen (16 January 1917) by Wilfred OwenDurham University

In a letter written only two weeks later, after his arrival at the front, Owen's mood is radically changed.

In this letter, the disillusionment is explicit. It is also the moment in which No Man's Land makes its appearance: The shattered landscape is the symbol of the shattered illusions of heroism and patriotism.

In it, he writes:

"6 January 1917 [France]
My own sweet Mother,
I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.
I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No-Man’s Land."

Dulce et Decorum est (8 October 1917) by Wilfred OwenDurham University

In May 1917 Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock and sent to a hospital near Edinburgh to recover. It was there that he wrote "Dulce et Decorum est". One of Owen's most renowned works, the poem is known for its horrific imagery and condemnation of war.

The dedication of the poem to Jessie Pope, the patriotic poet who trumpeted the war and its heroism, is ironic. Owen's dedication is part of his awakening from the promises of battle glory, as well as the false promises of poetry.

After the Battle (1918) by Paul NashDurham University

No Man's Land left a deep mark on all those who encountered it. Like the difficulty of poets to find words to capture its horrors, painters like Paul Nash struggled to give it form on the page.

In one of his journals from the front, Nash wrote:

‘no pen or drawing can convey this country … only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black night is fit atmosphere in such a land’. (Nash, Outline, 210-11).

MCMXIV by Philip LarkinDurham University

The horrors of the war did not fade quickly. Poets throughout the 20th century returned to this event and its shattering effects.

In one memorable poem, "1914", the poet Philip Larkin returned to the hope of the new recruits and the shattering awakening they experienced once confronted with the realities of life on the front line. Larkin's poem closely resembles the experience Wilfred Owen describes in his letters.

The No Man's Land became a symbol of a changed world, and writing this world likewise changed forever.

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