Wilfred Owens' poem Dulce et Decorum est is the most recognized poem of the experience and it describes too well the abject nature of war:
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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.
Sadly, Owens, a British soldier serving in France, was killed just prior to the armistice.
The American experience in the war laid the foundations for the what Gertrude Stein described as a "lost generation" and the age of modernism. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway (right) and John Dos Passos served as ambulance drivers and their works are marked by the loss of faith which punctuated their return from the war. Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms chronicles the journey of Frederic Henry, an ambulance driver, whose loss is comprehensive. To affirm Henry's total personal catastrophe, Hemingway removes hope by having Frederic's lover, Catherine, give birth to a stillborn child; Catherine dies quickly thereafter and Hemingway closes the work with Frederic viewing Catherine's lifeless body.
But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn't any good. It was like saying good-by to a statue. After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
The protagonist is alone in the world—and in the rain, no less—and is left with the crisis of his existence.
That the First World War had such an impact is no surprise. Millions were dead and wounded and Europe had never known such colossal loss. One positive result of the war was the attempt at building a League of Nations, an idea of American President Thomas Woodrow Wilson. However, the United States Congress was not in favor of the League of Nations and Wilson suffered a stroke in October of 1919 while campaigning for his ideas. He never recovered his health and when he died in 1924, the war to end all wars claimed yet another victim.
- Warren Perry, National Portrait Gallery
Ernest Miller Hemingway / Renate Bolz / Oil on canvas, 1962 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
"You Are Wanted by U.S. Army" / John J. Pershing / K. M. Bara, c. 1917 / Color lithographic poster / National Portrait Gallery