Great War Poems

From antiquity through the nuclear age, poets respond to human conflict

A fallen soldier writes on a wall in blood.
"The Last of the Battalion," postcard illustration by Jules Monge, c. 1915. A fallen zouave serving the French army writes a tribute in blood. Apic/Getty Images

War poems capture the darkest moments in human history, and also the most luminous. From ancient texts to modern free verse, war poetry explores a range of experiences, celebrating victories, honoring the fallen, mourning losses, reporting atrocities, and rebelling against those who turn a blind eye.  

The most famous war poems are memorized by school children, recited at military events, and set to music. However, great war poetry reaches far beyond the ceremonial. Some of the most remarkable war poems defy expectations of what a poem "ought" to be. The war poems listed here include the familiar, the surprising, and the disturbing. These poems are remembered for their lyricism, their insights, their power to inspire, and their role chronicling historic events.

War Poems from Ancient Times

Mosaic of Sumerian soldiers and four-wheeled chariots
Image of a Sumerian army on the Standard of Ur, a small hollow box from a royal tomb at Ur, southern Iraq, about 2600-2400 BC. Inlay of shell, red limestone, and lapis lazuli in Bitumen. (Cropped detail.).  British Museum Collection. CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images

The earliest recorded war poetry is thought to be by Enheduanna, a priestess from Sumer, the ancient land that is now Iraq. In about 2300 BCE, she riled against war, writing:

You are blood rushing down a mountain, 
Spirit of hate, greed and anger,
dominator of heaven and earth! 

At least a millennium later, the Greek poet (or group of poets) known as Homer composed The Illiad, an epic poem about a war that destroyed "great fighters' souls" and "made their bodies carrion, / feasts for the dogs and birds."

The celebrated Chinese poet Li Po (also known as Rihaku, Li Bai, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po, and Li T’ai-pai) raged against battles he viewed as brutal and absurd. "Nefarious War," written in 750 AD, reads like a modern-day protest poem: 

men are scattered and smeared over the desert grass,
And the generals have accomplished nothing.

Writing in Old English, an unknown Anglo Saxon poet described warriors brandishing swords and clashing shields in the "Battle of Maldon," which chronicled a war fought 991 AD. The poem articulated a code of heroism and nationalist spirit that dominated war literature in the Western world for a thousand years.

Even during the enormous global wars of 20th century, many poets echoed medieval ideals, celebrating military triumphs and glorifying fallen soldiers.

Patriotic War Poems

Ragged yellowed paper with printed song lyrics
1814 broadside printing of "Defense of Fort McHenry," a poem that later became the lyrics of "The Star-Spangled Banner". Public Domain

When soldiers head to war or return home victorious, they march to a rousing beat. With decisive meter and stirring refrains, patriotic war poems are designed to celebrate and inspire.

The Charge of the Light Brigade” by English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) bounces with the unforgettable chant, “Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward.” 

American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) wrote "Concord Hymn" for an Independence Day celebration. A choir sang his rousing  lines about "the shot heard round the world” to the popular tune "Old Hundredth." 

Melodic and rhythmic war poems are often the basis for songs and anthems. "Rule, Britannia!” began as a poem by James Thomson (1700–1748). Thomson ended each stanza with the spirited cry, "Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; / Britons never will be slaves." Sung to music by Thomas Arne, the poem became standard fare at British military celebrations.  

American poet Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) filled her Civil War poem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with heart-thumping cadences and Biblical references. The Union army sang the words to the tune of the song, “John Brown’s Body.” Howe wrote many other poems, but the Battle-Hymn made her famous.

Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) was an attorney and amateur poet who penned the words that became the United States national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” does not have the hand clapping rhythm of Howe’s “Battle-Hymn,” but Key expressed soaring emotions as he observed a brutal battle during the War of 1812. With lines that end with rising inflection (making the lyrics notoriously difficult to sing), the poem describes “bombs bursting in air” and celebrates America’s victory over British forces.

Originally titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” the words (shown above) were set to a variety of tunes. Congress adopted an official version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as America's anthem in 1931.

Soldier Poets

Three World War I soldiers rise in flames over a graveyard, next to words of poem by John McCrae
Illustrated sheet music for "We Shall Not Sleep!" by E.E. Tammer with words by poet John McCrae. 1911. Library of Congress, Item 2013560949

Historically, poets were not soldiers. Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Butler Yeats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling suffered losses, but never participated in armed conflict themselves. With very few exceptions, the most memorable war poems in the English language were composed by classically-trained writers who observed war from a position of safety.

However, World War I brought a flood of new poetry by soldiers who wrote from the trenches. Enormous in scope, the global conflict stirred a tidal wave of patriotism and an unprecedented call to arms.Talented and well-read young people from all walks of life went to the front lines. 

Some World War I soldier poets romanticized their lives on the battlefield, writing poems so touching they were set to music. Before he sickened and died on a navy ship, English poet Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) wrote tender sonnets like "The Soldier." The words became the song, "If I Should Die":

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

American poet Alan Seeger (1888–1916), who was killed in action serving the French Foreign Legion, imagined a metaphorical “Rendezvous with Death”: 

I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—

Canadian John McCrae (1872–1918) commemorated the war dead and called for survivors to continue the fight. His poem, In Flanders Fields, concludes:   

 If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
        In Flanders fields.

Other soldier poets rejected romanticism. The early 20th century brought the Modernism movement when many writers broke from traditional forms. Poets experimented with plain-spoken language, gritty realism, and imagism.  

British poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who died in battle at age twenty-five, did not spare the shocking details. In his poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” soldiers trudge through sludge after a gas attack. A body is flung onto a cart, “white eyes writhing in his face.” 

“My subject is War, and the pity of War,” Owen wrote in the preface to his collection.“The Poetry is in the pity.”

Another British soldier, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), wrote angrily and often satirically about War War I and those who supported it. His poem “Attack” opens with a rhyming couplet:

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,

and concludes with the outburst:

O Jesus, make it stop!

Whether glorifying war or reviling it, soldier poets often discovered their voices in the trenches. Struggling with mental illness, British composer Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) believed that World War I and camaraderie with fellow soldiers made him a poet. In "Photographs," as in many of his poems, the tone is both grim and exultant:

Lying in dug-outs, hearing the great shells slow
   Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings.

The soldier poets of World War I changed the literary landscape and established war poetry as a new genre for the modern era. Combining personal narrative with free verse and vernacular language, veterans of World War II, the Korean War, and other 20th century battles and wars continued to report on trauma and unbearable losses. 

To explore the enormous body of work by soldier poets, visit the War Poets Association and the The First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Poetry of Witness

Drawing of a thin man pointing to a map with a Nazi swastika and a handwritten poem.
Map of World War II Nazi concentration camps with a poem written by an Italian prisoner. Austria, 1945. Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Gilardi/Getty Images

American poet Carolyn Forché (1950- ) coined the term poetry of witness to describe painful writings by men and women who endured war, imprisonment, exile, repression, and human rights violations. Poetry of witness focuses on human anguish rather than national pride. These poems are apolitical, yet deeply concerned with social causes. 

While traveling with Amnesty International, Forché witnessed the outbreak of civil war in El Salvador. Her prose poem, "The Colonel," draws a surreal picture of a real encounter:

He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. 

Although the term “poetry of witness” has recently stirred keen interest, the concept is not new. Plato wrote that it is the poet's obligation to bear witness, and there have always been poets who recorded their personal perspectives on war.

Walt Whitman (1819–1892) documented horrifying details from the American Civil War, where he served as a nurse to more than 80,000 sick and wounded. In "The Wound-Dresser" from his collection, Drum-Taps, Whitman wrote:

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood…

Traveling as a diplomat and an exile, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) became known for his gruesome yet lyrical poetry about the "pus and pestilence" of the Civil War in Spain.

Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps documented their experiences on scraps that were later found and published in journals and anthologies.The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum maintains an exhaustive index of resources for reading poems by holocaust victims.

Poetry of witness knows no boundaries. Born in Hiroshima, Japan, Shoda Shinoe (1910-1965) wrote poems about the devastation of the atomic bomb. Croatian poet Mario Susko (1941- ) draws images from the war in his native Bosnia. In "The Iraqi Nights," poet Dunya Mikhail (1965- ) personifies war as an individual who moves through life stages. 

Websites like Voices in Wartime and the War Poetry Website have an outpouring of first-hand accounts from many other writers, including poets impacted by war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, and Palestine.

Anti-War Poetry

A woman shouts, a bearded man plays a drum, and another man holds a protest sign.
"Words (not weapons not war) Solve Conflicts": Annual protest march at Kent State University, Ohio, where four students were shot and killed by National Guardsmen during an anti-war rally in 1970. John Bashian/Getty Images

When soldiers, veterans, and war victims expose disturbing realities, their poetry becomes a social movement and an outcry against military conflicts. War poetry and poetry of witness move into the realm of anti-war poetry.

The Vietnam War and military action in Iraq were widely protested in the United States. A group of American veterans wrote candid reports of unimaginable horrors. In his poem, "Camouflaging the Chimera," Yusef Komunyakaa (1947- ) depicted a nightmarish scene of jungle warfare: ​

In our way station of shadows
rock apes tried to blow our cover,
throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons

crawled our spines, changing from day
to night: green to gold,
gold to black. But we waited
till the moon touched metal...

Brian Turner's (1967- ) poem "The Hurt Locker" chronicled chilling lessons from Iraq:  

Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain...

Believe it when you see it.
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
rolls a grenade into the room.

Vietnam veteran Ilya Kaminsky (1977- ) wrote a scathing indictment of American apathy in "We Lived Happily During the War": 

And when they bombed other people’s houses, we

protested
but not enough, we opposed them but not

enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America

was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.

During the 1960s, the prominent feminist poets Denise Levertov (1923-1997) and Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) mobilized top-name artists and writers for exhibitions and proclamations against the Vietnam War. Poets Robert Bly (1926- ) and David Ray (1932- ) organized anti-war rallies and events that drew Allen GinsbergAdrienne RichGrace Paley, and many other famous writers. 

Protesting American actions in Iraq, Poets Against the War launched in 2003 with a poetry reading at the White House gates. The event inspired a global movement that included poetry recitations, a documentary film, and a website with writing by more than 13,000 poets.

Unlike historical poetry of protest and revolution, contemporary anti-war poetry embraces writers from a broad spectrum of cultural, religious, educational, and ethnic backgrounds. Poems and video recordings posted in social media provide multiple perspectives on the experience and impact of war. By responding to war with unflinching detail and raw emotion, poets around the world find strength in their collective voices. 

Sources and Further Reading

FAST FACTS: 45 Great Poems About War

  1. All the Dead Soldiers by Thomas McGrath (1916–1990)
  2. Armistice by Sophie Jewett (1861–1909) 
  3. Attack by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) 
  4. Battle Hymn of the Republic (original published version) by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)
  5. Battle of Maldon by anonymous, written in Old English and translated by Jonathan A. Glenn 
  6. Beat! Beat! Drums! by Walt Whitman (1819–1892)
  7. Camouflaging the Chimera by Yusef Komunyakaa (1947- ) 
  8. The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
  9. City That Does Not Sleep by Federico García Lorca (1898–1936), translated by Robert Bly 

  10. The Colonel by Carolyn Forché (1950- )

  11. Concord Hymn by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) 

  12. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) 

  13. The Dictators by Pablo Neruda (1904-1973), translated by Ben Belitt  
  14. Driving through Minnesota during the Hanoi Bombings by Robert Bly (1926- )
  15. Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)
  16. Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) 
  17. Elegy for a Cave Full of Bones by John Ciardi (1916–1986)
  18. Facing It by Yusef Komunyakaa (1947- )
  19. First They Came For The Jews by Martin Niemöller
  20. The Hurt Locker by Brian Turner (1967- ) 
  21. I Have a Rendezvous with Death by Alan Seeger (1888–1916) 
  22. The Iliad by Homer (circa 9th or 8th century BCE), translated by Samuel Butler 
  23. In Flanders Fields by John McCrae (1872-1918)
  24. The Iraqi Nights by Dunya Mikhail (1965- ), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid 
  25. An Irish Airman foresees his Death by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
  26. I Sit and Sew by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (1875–1935) 
  27. It Feels A Shame To Be Alive by Emily Dickinson  (1830-1886)
  28. July 4th by May Swenson (1913–1989)
  29. The Kill School by Frances Richey (1950- ) 
  30. Lament to the Spirit of War by Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE)
  31. LAMENTA: 423 by Myung Mi Kim (1957- )
  32. The Last Evening by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), translated by Walter Kaschner
  33. Life at War by Denise Levertov (1923–1997)
  34. MCMXIV by Philip Larkin (1922-1985)
  35. Mother and Poet by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)  
  36. Nefarious War by Li Po (701–762), translated by Shigeyoshi Obata
  37. A Piece of Sky Without Bombs by Lam Thi My Da (1949- ), translated by Ngo Vinh Hai and Kevin Bowen
  38. Rule, Britannia! by James Thomson (1700–1748) 
  39. The Soldier by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)
  40. The Star-Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843)
  41. Tankas by Shoda Shinoe (1910-1965) 
  42. We Lived Happily During the War by Ilya Kaminsky (1977- )
  43. Weep by George Moses Horton (1798–1883)  
  44. The Wound-Dresser from Drum-Taps by Walt Whitman (1819-1892) 
  45. What the End Is For by Jorie Graham (1950- )