Modern War Art and Poetry

The First World War was commonly referred to as the war to end all wars; unfortunately this was not the case. There have been numerous wars since, many of which are still being fought today. For centuries artwork and poetry have been used to depict and record the events and feelings evoked during periods of war. Below are modern reflections and responses to the First World War and modern warfare.

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was born 4 years after the First World War and his poem ‘MCMXIV’ (‘1914’) was inspired by old photographs of men queuing up to join the Army. Phillip became one of England’s most famous poets in the late twentieth century. He was not a ‘war poet’, but the fact he wrote this one poem so long after the war had ended shows how the First World War continued to obsess and fascinate people. It has been described as ‘a watershed in British history’, or a moment that set history and what people believed in on to a different track. Perhaps the fact that a famous ‘modern’ poet felt a drive to write about this war illustrates how deeply and lastingly it is set in our culture

MCMXIV - Philip Larkin, 1922-85

© national portrait gallery, london.

To lose long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleache
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide-open all day—
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
Te thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Shrouds Of The Somme

rob heard and the shrouds of the somme.

rob heard and the shrouds of the somme.

The idea for the artwork behind the shrouds came ot artist Rob Heard while he was recovering from a car crash in 2013. He got to thinking aboutmilitary fatalities in history and how impossible it was to visualise the huge numbers involved. He realised he needed to ‘physicalise the number’. Each of the 72, 396 figures in a hand stitched shroud will represent a British Empire serviceman killed at the Somme who has no known grave. “ Many of these men are laying on the battlefields to this day and in some small way I would like to bring them home. As I create the figures, I cross the names off a list sourced from the Commonwelath War Graves Commission; it’s vitally important that each is associated with a name, otherwise the individual gets lost in the numbers.” Rob plans to complete this enormous challenge in time to display the shrouds in November 2018 to mark the centenary of Armstice Day. “It will be like nothing else – quarter of a kilometre of bodies laid out in rows, seen by thousands of people, reminding them of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

All 72, 396 names are listed on the Thiepval Memorial at the Somme. As well as British, these include servicemen from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – all countries which were part of the British Empire. The British Empire was later dismantled and replaced by a voluntary organisation of former colonies called the Commonwealth.

Shroud of the Somme

Combat Stress

A number of Veterans leave the Armed Forces suffering from mental ill-health. It can cause depression, anxiety, and in some cases, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The charity Combat Stress was founded after the First World War to help traumatised veterans cope with their condition through a rehabilitation programme. Almost a century later, Combat Stress has helped more than 100, 000 veterans rebuild their lives through specialist treatment and practical support. Creative expression though art and poetry can be used as an outlet to express feelings of trauma, fear, confusion or loss. Here is a collection of poetry and artwork exploring the effects of modern warfare produced by British veterans that Combat Stress has helped.

To find out more about Combat Stress please visit

Comradeship, or the friendship between men and women who shared the risks of war, is one of the most common themes in war poetry. Men often said that they were fighting not for their country or for hatred of the enemy, but for their comrades.



Cases of PTSD were first documented during the First World War when soldiers developed shell shock as a result of the harrowing conditions in the trenches. However, the condition was not officially recognised as a mental health condition until 1980.

I Sit - Combat Stress Veteran

I sit and wonder why
Why I sit and cry
Emotions crawling from the deep
Unto the heart
Heart ache for the few left behind
Guilt unable to help brothers in arms
Despair and grief an unhonourable death
Taken for no reason or beneft to anyone
I miss you all and long to see you again in the time after.

On That Day - Ian Warner

I can remember that day, like it was yesterday
Although the rest of my life seem to be a bit of a haze
Te radio crackles and voices come from within
To tell of an accident, not knowing where to begin
Quick lad, a stern voice says to me
Grab all your kit and be as quick as can be
Where are we going, we all seem to ask
Brace yourself lads, this is a horrible task
A Lynx has gone down 16 clicks from here
All of a sudden I came over quite queer
We boarded a chopper as quick as could be
To fly us off to this devastating scene
All I can hear are the cries out loud
Does this explain why I can’t cope with crowds?
Te distinct smell in the air of aviation fuel
Why is it, that nature has to be so cruel?
Twenty one years on I can still hear the screams
Te whole situation comes alive in my dreams
So here I am in the arms of Combat Stress
To try and make sense of this horrible mess
I know deep down I will always remember
But I pray that it won’t be my soul I surrender!!!

Remembrance - Peter Biggs

Remembrance time to recall
Those who gave all
Soldiers Sailor Airmen
And all that answered the call
Mothers Fathers Lovers
Sons Daughters and Brothers
Sisters Wife’s Girlfriends
Boyfriends and all
Whose life we cannot recall
Let’s not forget those who
Came back without all
Those brave Boys and Girls
Tat now face it all in the
Hope to bring peace to us all
Our duty is to remember them all
Those that give freedom to us all.