WORDS: Rosemary Goring 

As the country gathered to remember those who fought and fell for their country this November, it was not just the playing of the Last Post that sent a shiver down the spine. So, too, did the words of poets who, in recording their experiences, brought to life the sacrifices made by soldiers and civilians. Whether it was from the trenches of the Somme or over the skies, in prisoner-of-war camps or field hospitals, poets have left us with an indelible record of man’s inhumanity to man. 

On Armistice Day, verses are recited which many people will know by heart. There’s the Canadian Army doctor John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields (1915): 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,

It was this poem that led to the poppy becoming an emblem of Remembrance. 

Another favourite is Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier (1915): 

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England.




The atrocities of the First World War ignited poets, and few are more famous than Wilfred Owen. 

Scotland’s connection to the Shropshire-born Owen is legendary. Sent to Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh to recover from shellshock in 1917, 24-year-old Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, who was also a poet. The upper-crust Sassoon had been sent to Edinburgh to save him from a court martial. As brave off the battlefield as he was on it, Sassoon had written a stinging denouncement of the war, called A Soldier’s Declaration (1917). It caused a furore, and it was hoped a spell in Scotland would bring him to his senses. 

With Sassoon’s invaluable advice, Owen’s poetry matured. Dulce et Decorum Est [published posthumously in 1920] and Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917) are among his best-known works, but there are many others, their blistering rage molten to this day. That Owen was killed in action a week before the armistice makes his words even more memorable.



Despite the prominence of Owen, Sassoon and Brooke, Scotland has many war poets of its own, some of whom rank alongside the finest. They hailed from all corners: the Outer Hebrides and Shetland, Glasgow, Edinburgh and the Lothians, Fife, the Borders, Galloway and all other parts of the country. 

Addressing both world wars, these poets often saw active service. Some, though, were on the home front. Among them was Jean Guthrie-Smith, who was employed in a munitions factory canteen, which her In the Canteen (1917) describes:


The dishes’ chorus – clatter, clitter, clatter

The high-pitched talk, the sirens shrilling louder

Deaden the brain


Another was May Wedderburn Cannan, who worked in the Rouen railhead canteen, and later joined the Bureau of Central Intelligence in Paris. Her poem, To a Clerk, Now at the Wars (1917) reveals – astonishingly – her envy of those at the front. 

Among the most remarkable of soldier poets is Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although Sorley spent only a few years in Aberdeen as a child, he was proud of his Scottish heritage. When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead [published posthumously in 1916] is a devastatingly direct and unsentimental reflection on the death he and his fellow soldiers expected at any moment:


When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Give them not praise.

For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?


Sorley died at the Battle of Loos, aged 20, and his parents found the poem in his kit bag when it was returned to them. 

Other notable names include Ewart Alan Mackintosh, who was brought up in England but had a Highland background. As with Sorley, and far too many others, he died in battle. 

Then there are the couthy poets, whose verses were designed to cheer; those who were fired up by patriotic spirit, heedless of what lay ahead; and the bereft at home who grieved for their lost loved ones. 

No matter where or when they are written, these poems provide an insight into all facets of war and conflict. More than just something to read once a year in November, war poetry can help all generations better understand our common history.


This is an abridged, edited version of a feature published in the Autumn 2022 edition of Legion Scotland Today