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All the greatest First World War poets were queer and it’s time to remember them

All the greatest First World War poets were queer and it’s time to remember them

  • They were torn between love and war. They were brave, often recklessly so, and they had the medals to prove it.
Ivor Gurney.

Armistice Day – 11 November – allows us to reflect on the heavy price we all pay for war.

Of course, this year is especially poignant as it marks the 100th anniversary of the day when both Britain and France buried their ‘unknown soldiers’ with state honors.

In our collective consciousness, the First World War encapsulates the agony and ecstasy of war. Our understanding of that war comes from poets.

No other war, before or since, has been captured by poetry in the same way.

Robert Graves.
Robert Graves. WC

All the great poets of the First World War would have been described as queer. They loved men. But at the time, intimacy between men was a crime.

These queer poets were immersed in the male world of war, torn between love and war. They were brave, often recklessly so, and they had the medals to prove it. 

In Love and War, my new podcast from The Independent, I piece together these gay poets’ lives through their own words. It is overwhelming and devastating. Love and War immerses the listener in some of the best  and most intense poetry in the English language.

Grief, passion and sacrifice

Charles Sorley.
Charles Sorley. WC
Rupert Brooke.
Rupert Brooke. WC

Siegfried Sassoon, on the eve of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, contemplates the futility of a brutal  meaningless war, and what it is that keeps him going.

Charles Sorley dreams of ‘that person into whom one fits at once: to whom one can stand naked, all disclosed’. 

Robert Graves remembers the young man he loves and frets about what it means to be a homosexual in  the trenches.  

Our instinct of the Great War is the poetry of the trenches not the history books. Why can we not think of war now without a line or two of Owen or Sassoon or Sorley dropping into our heads?

Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Charles Sorley, even Rupert Brooke, are our guides; Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Gurney, Sorley, even Brooke, all poets and lovers, lovers of men, lovers of male  bodies, male sweat, male breath, seeking the one in front of whom they might stand naked, ‘all disclosed’ one hundred years ago.

Love and War explores how these poets have touched generations of readers by expressing their love for other men, their grief, their passions and their own sacrifices.

Sorley, Owen and Brooke would  become casualties of the war. Gurney would spend the rest of his short life in an asylum. And Sassoon and Graves would struggle to come to terms with it all decades later. 

‘Naked, superb men bathing in a September sun’

Siegfried Sassoon.
Siegfried Sassoon. WC

It’s so revealing to take a fresh look at a long view of poets we learned in school but were never really told about.

Sassoon’s passionate love for a fellow officer in the line, Owen’s haunting by male prostitutes he’d known, Graves’s grief over the infidelity of his beloved school-friend Peter, Gurney’s passionate sadness at the  loss of his beloved Will Harvey, and Brooke’s broader confession, ‘occasionally I’m faintly shaken by a  suspicion that I might find incredible beauty in the washing place, with rows of naked, superb men bathing in a September sun’.

To strip them of their sexuality, their longing, is to neuter their poetry and the impact it has had on the last hundred years of remembrance. It’s at the very heart of such works as ‘Arms and the Boy’, ‘The Last  Meeting’ or ‘To his Love’.

And all the while with the threat of persecution and criminality hanging over each longed-for kiss.

So yes, it does matter that these great poets were gay or bisexual. Their sexuality was a core part of their identity and their response to the war that engulfed them. To erase, or deny, that sexuality is to lose the essence  of their poetry.

These poets captured something so essential. Would their poetry have had the same  intensity if they weren’t LGBT? That’s a redundant question. You cannot divorce the poets from their  sexual orientation and when you listen to the poetry in this light, the poems are transformed.

Wilfred Owen.
Wilfred Owen. WC

A century later, let us remember them

In the podcast, actors in their 20s play the poets who died during the war. Those that survived are played by older actors who look back on the events that defined their characters’ lives. The podcast is driven by the poems, as well as letters and memoirs.

The podcast launches today, exactly 102 years after the guns fell  silent on the Western Front. I’ve also written an e-book written looking at the same themes and issues, published by The Independent.

You can listen to Love and War here.

Kevin Childs is a writer and lecturer on art history and the history of visual culture.