Soldier-poets, sex, and the denial of death

What Owen, Sassoon, and co. can tell us about sex at the Front

How widespread were homoerotic, or even homosexual relationships, between servicemen? How many soldiers succumbed to venereal disease? Did officers really not indulge in prostitution as much as their men? These are questions raised time and again so that we can continue to enjoy, like stolen fruit, their familiar answers; gifted to a new generation in all their juicy, scandalizing glory.

But perhaps they’re not the only questions we’d benefit from asking. Perhaps those historians telling of brothels in BBC voices should be asking this instead: why was there sex at the Front in the first place? What, in those unprecedented conditions, were the young men of Europe fucking for? And what did they achieve?

The mind floods with facts of human biology, sure. Remembers itself toppled by the irrepressible march of libido. The answers seem self-explanatory. But things not always being what they seem, it’s worth looking elsewhere before accepting their explanation. It’s worth paying attention to the poetry that blossomed at the Front and its suggestions that sex played a part in the War far more interesting— and far more important— than all that.

These aren’t suggestions to sate a fact-hungry historian – you’ll be hard pushed to find a post-coital confession or even the echo of flesh and blood sexual encounter in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. But then any ‘why?’ is a question of hopes and intentions and when you go in search of the hopes and intentions that survived in a place where intention was mocked and hope betrayed, can you really expect them not to be in hiding?

As it is, these tentative answers to ‘why?’ are hiding in plain sight. For where desire and intimacy, kisses and orgasms, appear in the work of the soldier-poets, it is at the surface-level of the metaphor. The language of the lust-struck is present but it clothes reports of the greatest atrocities.

The Kiss by Siegfried Sassoon sustains the image of weaponised steel as desirable, desiring lover; glittering ‘naked cold and fair’ (l.8); rousing the gunman to ‘good fury’ (l.10) 1. Death ‘stalks… with strumpet confidence’ through David Jones’ In Parenthesisand ‘makes no coy veiling of her appetite’ (Part 7, ll.2-3) 2. Guillaume Apollinaire sees ‘two breasts’ (Gala, l.7) in the burst of star shells: a literal bombshell registering as a voluptuous woman 3. Wilfred Owen lets an unnamed soldier die with ‘My Love’ on his lips and his whole face kissing the mud (The Last Laugh, ll.11-12) 4. He writes of bullet-leads that ‘long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads’ (Arms and the Boy, l.6) 5.

 Of course, the war poets are not the first for whom the semantic fields of sex and death, love and violence, beauty and horror, coincide. (Ovid long ago declared ‘militat omnes amans’: every lover is a soldier.) But they are the first for whom the metaphors run so unfailingly in this single direction: Thanatos as the object of representation and Eros his representative. The poets of old had violence brought into amorous verses: this battle-worn generation overwrite scenes of atrocity with images of affection and desire.

Sassoon lays into the irresponsible ideology of the old guard when his speaker practically spits at army sweethearts ‘you believe/ That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace./ You make us shells” (Glory of Women, ll.3-5) 6. Owen more objectively acknowledges it when he reveals that the veteran in Disabled signs up ‘[T]o please his Meg, /Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,’ (ll.26-7) 7. Both present the record of an almighty paradigm shift. Young men had gone off to war seduced by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Rider Haggard into thinking that it was, much like sex, a feather in the cap of masculinity. They were even persuaded that battle as a tool of seduction: a test upon which romance insisted. Young men returned from the Front with this myth of the sexualised male; this “myth of strong, invincible masculinity … exploded in the mud and blood of the Western Front”, as Santanu Das puts it in his study of homosocial intimacy in the Great War 8. They understand sex and war as the most uncomfortable of bedfellows.

That idea may be difficult at first to reconcile with the way that war is dressed up in erotic language. But the sexual language used by the war poets must enhance, must lavish its grace, in order to disarm. For how can a fighter comfort himself with the idea that the loving passion of lust conquers all if that conquest is achieved by anything other than an embrace?

Thus in poems like Gala and The Kiss, and even Owen’s Dulce et Decorum, where battle preparations are ‘an ecstasy of fumbling’ (l.9), literary-minded soldiers do not trudge into line glorifying war with sex but rather demonstrate how sex can be used to displace it 9. How Eros can bring down Thanatos by grabbing on to him and holding fast. How sex is the means by which we can deny death.

And where a man cannot, try as he might, deny death completely, these same poets suggest, sex can help him cast it as something altogether more innocuous: an impermanent or else incomplete annihilation. It is no coincidence that when Harold Monro attempts to present a body as the ‘living dead’ (Youth in Arms, IV: Carrion, l.22), he presents him as a sexual being who would ‘clutch and claim with passionate grasp’ the earth in which he lies (l.6); has lips that girls might kiss (ll.15-16); and a stolen heart (l.10) 10. For the sexualised man is the symbol of the impermanent death par excellence. The male orgasm – so aptly termed le petit mort – is the ultimate reminder that the loss of energy and matter in one place can be, and indeed is necessary for, its flourishing elsewhere.

To take your turn with a prostitute as impatient clients queue up behind you, or to show a fellow soldier the physical affection that in another place, with different faces, would have led to sex; is to remind yourself and your brothers in arms that even if death comes, it is only the prelude to future life. Be that the life of a nation; the vegetative life of ‘a coming Spring’ (Youth in Arms, IV: Carrion, l.11-12); or the resurrection and the life everlasting, amen.

And so I’ll agree, if it’s put to me, that the men at the Western Front visited brothels or shared moments of physical intimacy because they were human. Yes, absolutely. But what Sassoon, Owen and co. make apparent in their lyrics is that the humanity we’re talking about was no more a matter of sexual urges than a matter of social duty and psychological needs. So as Europe looks back and remembers her war-dead this year, we should be proud of their indulgence in this essential human pleasure, not proud in spite of it. Because for men rotating in and out of muddy, bloody battle, sex was more than a morally-neutral pleasurable release. It was a way of keeping the heart to battle on; a way of avenging the dead in the only way you could; and a way of fighting with the body for the survival of the soul.


  1. The Kiss

    To these I turn, in these I trust –
    Brother Lead and Sister Steel.
    To this blind power I make appeal,
    I guard her beauty clean from rust.
    He spins and burns and loves the air,
    And splits a skull to win my praise;
    But up the nobly marching days
    She glitters naked, cold and fair.
    Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
    That in good fury he may feel
    The body where he sets his heel
    Quail from your downward darting kiss.

  2. From In Parenthesis
    Part 7

    But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and
    Stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence,
    Makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you
    To me with all her parts discovered.
    By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will –
    Howsoever they may howl for their virginity
    She holds them – who impinge less on space
    Sink limply to a heap
    Nourish a lesser category of being
    Like those other who fructify the land…

  3. Gala

    Skyrocket burst of hardened steel
    A charming light on this fair place
    These technicians’ tricks appeal
    Mixing with courage a little grace

    Two star shells first
    In rose pink burst
    Two breasts you lay bare with a laugh
    Offer their insolent tips
    ………..HERE LIES
    ………… some epitaph

    A poet in the forest sees
    Indifferent able to cope
    His revolver catch at safe
    Roses dying of their hope

    Thinks of Saadi’s roses then
    Bows his head draws down his lip
    As a rose reminds him of
    The softer curving of a hip

    The air is full of a terrible
    Liquor from half shut stars distilled
    Projectiles stroke the soft nocturnal
    Perfume with your image filled
    Where the roses all are killed.

  4. The Last Laugh

    ‘Oh! Jesus Christ! I’m hit,’ he said; and died.
    Whether he vainly cursed or prayed indeed,
    The Bullets chirped-In vain, vain, vain!
    Machine-guns chuckled,-Tut-tut! Tut-tut!
    And the Big Gun guffawed.

    Another sighed,-‘O Mother, -Mother, – Dad!’
    Then smiled at nothing, childlike, being dead.
    And the lofty Shrapnel-cloud
    Leisurely gestured,-Fool!
    And the splinters spat, and tittered.

    ‘My Love!’ one moaned. Love-languid seemed his mood,
    Till slowly lowered, his whole faced kissed the mud.
    And the Bayonets’ long teeth grinned;
    Rabbles of Shells hooted and groaned;
    And the Gas hissed.

  5. Arms and the Boy

    Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
    How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
    Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
    And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

    Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads,
    Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
    Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth
    Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

    For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
    There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
    And God will grow no talons at his heels,
    Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

  6. Glory of Women

    You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,

    Or wounded in a mentionable place.

    You worship decorations; you believe

    That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

    You make us shells. You listen with delight,

    By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

    You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

    And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.

    You can’t believe that British troops “retire”

    When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

    Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
    O German mother dreaming by the fire,

    While you are knitting socks to send your son

    His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

  7. Disabled

    He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
    And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
    Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
    Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
    Voices of play and pleasure after day,
    Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
    About this time Town used to swing so gay
    When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
    And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
    — In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
    Now he will never feel again how slim
    Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
    All of them touch him like some queer disease.
    There was an artist silly for his face,
    For it was younger than his youth, last year.
    Now he is old; his back will never brace;
    He’s lost his colour very far from here,
    Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
    And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,
    And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
    One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
    After the matches carried shoulder-high.
    It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
    He thought he’d better join. He wonders why . . .
    Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
    That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
    Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
    He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
    Smiling they wrote his lie; aged nineteen years.
    Germans he scarcely thought of; and no fears
    Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
    For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
    And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
    Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
    And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
    Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
    Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
    Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
    Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
    And do what things the rules consider wise,
    And take whatever pity they may dole.
    To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
    Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
    How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
    And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

  8. Santanu Das has written a wonderful book entitled Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. A modified excerpt from the book (whence this quote was taken) can be found here

  9. Dulce et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

    Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
    Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

  10. From Youth In Arms
    IV Carrion

    It is plain now what you are. Your head has dropped
    Into a furrow. And the lovely curve
    Of your strong leg has wasted and is propped
    Against a ridge of the ploughed land’s watery swerve.

    You are swayed on waves of the silent ground;
    You clutch and claim with passionate grasp of your fingers
    The dip of earth in which your body lingers;
    If you are not found,
    In a little while your limbs will fall apart;
    The birds will take some, but the earth will take most of your heart.

    You are fuel for a coming spring if they leave you here;
    The crop that will rise from your bones is healthy bread.
    You died – we know you – without a word of fear,
    And as they loved you living I love you dead.

    No girl would kiss you. But then
    No girls would ever kiss the earth
    In the manner they hug the lips of men:
    You are not known to them in this, your second birth.

    No coffin-cover now will cram
    Your body in a shell of lead;
    Earth will not fall on you from the spade with a slam,
    But will fold and enclose you slowly, you living dead.

    Hush, I hear the guns. Are you still asleep?
    Surely I saw you a little heave to reply.
    I can hardly think you would turn over and creep
    Along the furrows trenchward as if to die.

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