How war changed them

Submitted by AWL on 4 November, 2014 - 6:28 Author: Wilfrid Wilson Gibson

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham, Northumberland in 1878.

He made his living as a poet after leaving school, at first writing poetry in the standard, Victorian-Romantic style. But during his twenties he grew more socially aware, and became well-known for writing about workers and poor people in accessible, everyday language. 

Once war started in 1914, Gibson — now living in London, and friends with other poets including Edward Marsh and Rupert Brooke — applied his writing style to soldiers' experiences of the trenches. He did not fight in the trenches himself: he volunteered, but was rejected several times and when eventually accepted, put to work as a clerk in London. But he set his imagination to work out the conditions of war and became a pioneer in using poetry to draw attention to the plight of rank-and-file soldiers. He was writing about soldiers' injuries — psychological as well as physical — before the end of 1914.

The two poems below — “The Return” and “Back” — portray the mental trauma of war, even to the extent of changing personality. The first describes a mother's fear on saying goodbye to her soldier son — not just that he may not return, but that he may return completely changed. The second is in the voice of a returned soldier, so traumatised by his war experience that he has dissociated himself from his soldier self. Like many of Gibson's war poems, they are short, direct and hard-hitting. He said he wanted them to "get at" the people who read them.

In 1915, Gibson's war poems were published in a book, 'Battle', which influenced other war poets who are now better known — Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon. A further volume, “Livelihood”, was published in 1917.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson died in 1962.

Janine Booth

The Return
He went, and he was gay to go:
And I smiled on him as he went.
My boy! 'Twas well he couldn't know
My darkest dread, or what it meant --
Just what it meant to smile and smile
And let my son go cheerily --
My son . . . and wondering all the while
What stranger would come back to me.

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame
Because he bore my name?

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