The Depiction Of War In The Literature Of Wilfred Owen And Robert Sherriff
Silhouetted against the backdrop of their own experiences as soldiers, Sherriff and Owen often describe the horrors of war through the shocking brutality within their literature. Both Sherriff and Owen tackle the difficult subject of describing the physical injuries and conditions experienced in the First World War, where the men and women serving suffered some of the most brutal forms of warfare ever known.
The men on the front line bore a series of horrendous physical experiences which in some cases like the soldier in Owen’s Disabled changed their lives forever. The soldier is described as “legless, sewn short at elbow”, a modern reader may interpret the use of the adjective “legless” as almost shocking, as it is not a commonly used adjective to describe a human, however it is a scene that many World War One soldiers would be all too familiar with. It is clear that Owen does not intend to describe the soldier’s injury in any manner of dignity, but instead prompts the reader to envisage the raw physical pain these soldiers must have endured. This would be a scene with which Owen himself would be familiar, writing Disabled in 1917, the same year he was checked into Craiglockhart War Hospital where we would have been around many young men, physically damaged by the injuries sustained at war. He would have heard other men’s stories, taking not only inspiration from his own experience but theirs as well.
Another poem in which this callousness of Owen’s writing furthers this idea is in one of his more famous poems Dulce et Decorum Est, where during a gas attack a man is described choking; “the blood came gargling from the froth corrupted lungs” the use of the verb ‘gargling’ has very brutish connotations and the imagery is powerful in the sense that it makes the reader feel uncomfortable as they can visualize this solider choking to death on their own blood.
Similarly, to the work of Owen, Sherriff’s Journey’s End also explores this idea of showing their audiences the sheer magnitude of destruction caused by this warfare, which millions of men suffered through. When Raleigh a young boy gets hit, the injury which is fatal, is expressed in a very matter of fact and mundane way; “S-M: Mr Raleigh’s been ‘it, sir. Bit of shell’s got ‘im in the back” the lack of urgency in the Sargent Majors dialogue shows how commonplace physical injury would have been during the First World War, the use of the noun ‘bit’ in his speech almost downplays the injury making it to the audience seem as if Raleigh could perhaps survive this injury, however instead we know he doesn’t. Even this small piece of shell which has hit him has the power to kill, showing how unforgiving the warfare used was.
Not all of the horrors experienced by the soldiers however were physical; Sherriff and Owen explore this in the not so obvious mental and internal trauma, which often caused more pain than the physical injuries. At the time of their writing many mental illnesses we now associate with war such as ‘post-traumatic stress syndrome’ did not exist, instead named ‘shellshock’ not much was known about these illnesses. Sherriff and Owen both reveal within their writing how many men coped with these internal battles, which although to a modern reader seem so clearly to be mental illnesses, to an early 20th century audience would’ve been harder to legitimize. This meant the help and medicines were scarce and more often than not inefficient. Many men struggled to articulate their pain as it was often hard to describe and deal with internally. Owen himself spent time in hospital in 1917, diagnosed with shellshock, he was encouraged by his doctor to write. It is clear some of these experiences come through in his poetry. In his poem Exposure this is illustrated through the constant questioning of the soldier’s worth “What are we doing here?” and “Is it that we are dying?”, are recurring rhetorical questions that appear near the end of many of the stanzas, the use of these reinforces the constant questioning of sanity and self-worth, a common symptom of how we today understand PTSD.
Within Journeys End, Sherriff also uses his writing to highlight the mental traumas and horrors inflicted on many of the serving men and women. Many of the characters created by Sherriff have their own means of coping with the reality of war, and these individual vices help numb or suppress their mental capacity to process the war. Stanhope deals with an inner conflict around the person he was before the war and the person the war has made him become, this is often dulled by his prevalent alcoholism, on which he is dependent to help him through the terrors and struggles he faces daily. He often questions how the people back home remember him saying to Osbourne, "She doesn't know that if I went up those steps into the front line - without being doped up with whiskey - I'd go mad with fright.", Sherriff explores the incapacity to cope with the horrors war can cause, with the use of the verb ‘doped’ supporting this idea of that the war numbed these men, in Stanhope’s case his hamartia helped him through surviving the strain the war had on his mental health. This idea is also recurrent in Trotters character, instead of relying on alcohol to numb his trauma, he instead relies on food and comfort eating. This reinforces the idea that everyone within the war had to manage their own mental distress and try to find ways of helping themselves survive.
Often Owen and Sherriff display the effect nature has on the soldiers, by showing how its sheer power can repeatedly cause devastation far beyond the reach of human destruction. Many soldiers died from merely being exposed to the cold, temperatures were often below zero in winter months and it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to lose fingers or toes due to the extreme exposure as the temperature. Owen’s writing often emphasizes this extremity by showing the soldiers vulnerability to the weather, for example in Exposure the soldier describes the “merciless iced east winds that knive us”, the personification of the wind to describe it like the enemy, shows how dangerous it is. Not only do the soldiers have to deal with the threat of the human enemy but the enemy which is not only is invisible and unpredictable but also inescapable and omnipresent.
Additionally, in Exposure the power the weather holds is explored further through its capacity to effect countless people, “pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces” the juxtaposition of Owen’s use of “flakes” which has connotations to quite a delicate weak fragment contradicts the noun “stealth” which connotates power and strength, perhaps suggesting how many of the solider underestimated the magnitude of power nature has and the exposure they would have to it, therefore making it in some cases the greatest enemy. Sherriff too exposes his audiences to life and conditions in the trenches showing just how bad they were. Within Journeys End the conditions which the soldiers experience also relate to the theme and role of nature within World War One, the conditions within the trench are worsened by the fact that they are so exposed to nature. For example, in the opening of the play we are introduced to Hardy, an officer who is drying his sock over a candle, this illustrates just how desperate some men were, that the smallest relief from their conditions could alleviate them. It is possibly Hardy was trying to protect himself from ‘Trench Foot’, a common medical condition which many of the soldiers would have experienced during trench warfare. It wasn’t common for soldiers to have feet amputated due to the development of gangrene. It however is important to note however the horrors of the conditions we see our focal characters experience within Journeys End is mild compared to those which the working-class men had to survive in, with little shelter or protection to help them endure the harsh weather many of them lived in cramped flooded ditches where due to the close proximity diseases such as ‘Trench Fever’ spread at incredible rates.
It is clear in both Owen’s poetry as well as Sherriff’s play that the conditions and weather is arguably one of the most treacherous horrors of the First World War. Both Owen and Sherriff criticize the use of propaganda and coercion of the government into forcing and conscribing young boys into the army, sending them into a world of death and unknown horrors. Many tactics were enforced by the government to get young men to sign up to join the army, portraying it as exciting and in some cases even fun. Many slogans included ‘Join the game’ and ‘Play a man’s part in the game overseas’, these led to a large number, over 250,000 ,young, underage boys to join up, sending them quite literally to their physical and/or mental demise.
Throughout Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est there is mentions of “boys” and “children” emphasizing the mere adolescence of the soldiers. For example, “Gas! GAS! Quick, Boys!” this line echoes that of the dialogue of a school master with reference to the noun ‘boys’; however, in this poem it is an officer trying to save these young lives from their inexperience and naivety of war. Some critics such as Sandra M. Gilbert a published poet and writer, believe that “Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum Est addresses Jessie Pope, whose popular, patriotic war verse was originally published in the Daily Mail” (2016), I agree with Gilbert, with Owen even going as far as to dedicate the poem to Pope, who many agree is partly responsible for the glamorization of warfare, particularly in her poem Who’s for the Game? Likewise, in Owen’s poem Disabled the soldier who is now crippled from his war injuries is also a young boy, “Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years”, the use of the verb ‘smiling’ shows the enthusiasm and excitement this soldier and many other young boys experienced as they anticipated joining up however this is now tarnished by his experience at war, where he not only loses his leg but loses those who he cared about at home too.
Sherriff also uses the character of Raleigh to emphasis this too. Raleigh represents the naive believer in the kind of celebrated war put forward by the government in their efforts back home to recruit young, strong men. The death of Raleigh, a sweet innocent boy, is used again to deepen their hatred of this tactic of recruitment and what it did to able young men. Within Raleigh’s death scene in the play, as he is being comforted by Stanhope, he describes death as something, "frightfully dark and cold", Sherriff often uses lighting as a major indicator of mood within Journey’s End, and his verbal description of the lighting once again reiterates his death, killed not only by the enemy but the system which set up too many unjust death’s. Sherriff also indicates how war can cause a loss of innocence among the young troops. Stanhope like Raleigh joined the army at a young age and we can see how it has changed him from what he is perceived to be like back home (his old self) and the drunkard he has become.
Both Sherriff and Owen use their literature to try to expose this horror of warfare, succeeding to make the audience and readers question the rightfulness of turning blind eyes to young boys joining up.