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The Invisible Poets of WW1

The creative flowering spurred by the First World War was not restricted to men. But whilst too many poets have been forgotten in the last 100 years, all but a few of the women who wrote have disappeared and with it the suffering and experiences of women and the war viewed from the female perspective, has been almost obliterated from history. In a shallow attempt to redress this, we present the lives and work of some women poets of the Great War.

The website 'Female War Poets Blogspot' lists an astonishing 676 British female poets alive during WW1 and a similar number from the other nations involved in the war. [Note that not all of these wrote poetry about the great war.] It is a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to learn more about the women who wrote 'war poetry' . There is a link below.

There are three key strands to the war for women.

As men left to fight, women were called to take their place working in factories, docks, armaments, on the land, running public and industrial transport. It brought new freedoms and experiences for women which would spur the demand for the vote and equality. It also bought additional challenges as many men resented the intrusion of women into the world of work.

Some women sought a closer involvement, enlisting as nurses and in other occupations closer to the killing and dying. For these women, war was as real as it was for the men they supported.

On enlistment, the overwhelming majority of men gave a woman as their next of kin - wife, mother, sister or sweetheart. As a result, the terrible news that a loved one was dead or missing in action was almost always received by a woman.

These female perspectives provide a different viewpoint on and experience of the war which is critical to our proper understanding of its scale and devastation.

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As the majority of poets biographized here died within the 70 year post mortem copyright limit we have not included copies of their work. We have listed recommended poems for you to search online. We have given extracts from some poems under the "limited use exemption" which allows them to be used for educational and non-profit purposes. Similar freedom to use is assumed with all images on this page. In the unlikely event that you are a beneficiary or trustee of any estate connected to these poets and object to this use of extracts or images please notify us using the 'Contact' page and we will remove them.

Jessie Pope


Born in Leicester and educated in the North London Collegiate School for Girls, Jessie Pope was a prolific writer and her work was widely published. She wrote over 170 humorous verses for Punch magazine between 1902 and 1922 leading to her being known as the “foremost woman humourist” in England.

After his death from TB, she edited Robert Tressell's novel of class struggle "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" published in 1914. Two books of poetry were published before the war, "Paper Pellets" (1906) and "Airy Nothings" (1909). 

Her reputation rests on the patriotic verses she wrote during World War I, published in the Daily Mail and other papers and published as collections after the war ended. They typify the popular romanticized myth of the war glorifying combat and exhorting men to fight. Pope’s poems have been cricised as jingoistic doggerel. Wilfred Owen ironically dedicated "Dulce et Decorum Est" to her, though he subsequently removed the dedication.

After the war, Jessie Pope continued writing including novels, poetry and children's stories. She died in Devon in 1941

War Girls

There's the girl who clips your ticket for the train,

And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,

There's the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,

And the girl who calls for orders at your door.

Strong, sensible, and fit,

They're out to show their grit,

And tackle jobs with energy and knack.

No longer caged and penned up,

They're going to keep their end up

Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.

There's the motor girl who drives a heavy van,

There's the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,

There's the girl who cries 'All fares, please!' like a man,

And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.

Beneath each uniform

Beats a heart that's soft and warm,

Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;

But a solemn statement this is,

They've no time for love and kisses

Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back

Mary Borden

1886 - 1968

One of the most remarkable women to have served in the First World War, May Borden is the outstanding female poet of the war and author of The Forbidden Zone, a collection of stories about her time as a nurse running a field hospital at the Somme.

Mary Borden (known as May) was the daughter of a Chicago millionaire. After his death she embarked on a world tour to escape her evangelical mother and settled in India with her first husband, a missionary. Her first novel was published in 1912 and a year later she moved her family to London. She was arrested for throwing a stone at the Treasury during a Suffrage demonstration shortly after her arrival. She became part of the literary circle, mixing with Ford Madox Ford, E.M. Forster, George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound. She became the patron and lover of the painter Wyndham Lewis.

At the outbreak of WW1, she funded a front line mobile hospital for the French Army, earning medals for her bravery under fire. She ran the biggest military hospital during the battle of the Somme.  

Although famous as a novelist her greatest work was the poetry she wrote during the Somme although it went out of circulation until republished in 2008. Though many hundreds of poems sent from the trenches were of love, May Borden is the only known poet to write a 'love poem' from the Somme!

She met her second husband, Captain Edward Louis Spears, during the war setting up home in Paris, where she was host to writers, poets, artists and politicians. Their affair and marriage provoked an unpleasant custody battle over May’s three daughters who were kidnapped by their father. Her marriage to Spears endured for 50 years, despite his affair with his secretary that lasted almost as long.

In the interwar years May became an international, best-selling author, with literary friends such as Noel Coward, Freya Stark and Cyril Connolly. Her novels were often boundary breaking and controversial. Although their first film was shelved because of censorship, she made films with Alexander Korda and was sued by the Catholic Herald for her down to earth portrayal of Mary of Nazareth. A book advocating divorce and pre-marital sex caused a storm of protest. Although she helped her husband when he stood for parliament, she was an outspoken critic of government policy, campaigned for women’s rights and a vehement opponent of appeasement.

In WW2 she once again ran mobile hospitals at the front and had a terrifying escape during the fall of France. Back in England she became involved with the Free French and took a new unit to the M iddle East whilst helping her husband as first minister in the Levant.

She continued writing after the war publishing her last novel at the age of 70. She helped her nephew-in-law, Adlai Stevenson, run for presidency, writing some of his speeches. She was a guest of Albert Einstein’s at his home in Princeton where they debated, among other things, the existence of God. Until the end of her life in 1968, Mary was a high-profile public figure who supported young writers and artists and campaigned tirelessly for various causes.

The complete collection of her poetry was not published until 2015. Paul O'Prey who edited "Poems of Love and War" describes her as “the great forgotten voice of the war – the outstanding female voice of the first world war”.

In 2018 one of Borden’s ‘Sonnets to a Soldier’, was set to music by composer Mira Calix, who was commissioned by the Tower of London to create a soundscape as part of their Armistice Centenary project, "Beyond the Deepening Shadow" an art installation which saw the moat filled with thousands of tiny flames as Borden’s poem was played.

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce May Borden's poems

For more information, visit :

We recommend - At The Somme: The Song Of Mud

Vera Brittain

1893 - 1970

Daughter of wealthy paper manufacturer Vera Mary Brittain educated in her aunts private school. Despite her father's initial objections, she read English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford delaying her degree after one year in the summer of 1915 to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse England, Malta and France during WW1. Her fiancé Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow were all killed in the war. The pain of their loss and her experiences as a nurse led her to become a pacifist and to write her great work "Testament of Youth".

Returning to Oxford after the war to read history, where close friends and contemporaries included Winifred Holtby and Dorothy L Sayers.

She married George Catlin a political scientist in 1925. Their children were John Brittain-Catlin an artist, businessman and author and the politician Shirley Williams.

Brittain's first published novel, "The Dark Tide" (1923), caused a scandal for its caricature of Oxford. Ten years later, 15 years after the end of WW1 she poured her sorrow into the work for which she is famous, "Testament of Youth".                  followed by "Testament of Friendship" in 1940 which chronicles her friendship with Holtby and "Testament of Experience" in 1957). She also published novels, polemics and poetry.

As a prominent pacifist she faced often vitriolic opposition notably over her criticism of carpet bombing in WW2. It was later discovered that she was among nearly 3,000 people listed in the Nazi's 'Black Book' to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion.

Vera Brittain died in Wimbledon in 1970, aged 76. At her request, her ashes were scattered on the grave of her brother Edward on the Asiago Plateau in Italy – "...for nearly 50 years much of my heart has been in that Italian village cemetery"

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Vera Brittain's poems

We recommend - Perhaps and Hospital Sanctuary

May Wedderburn Cannan


Daughter of a publisher and Dean of Trinity College, Oxford, May Wedderburn Cannan and her sisters created a family magazine, even publishing their own anthology The Tripled Crown when she was 14 with an introductory poem by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch a family friend.

During World War I, Cannan volunteered with the Oxford Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and helped publish government propaganda with Clarendon Press. She volunteered running a railway canteen in France in 1915. 

The experience inspired her most famous poem, “Rouen.” Unaware that she could enlist in the Red Cross, she returned to work at the Oxford University Press. When the Armistice was declared, Cannan was working for MI5 in the 'British Mission' in Paris.

Cannan published three books of poetry: In War Time (1917), The Splendid Days (1919), dedicated to her fiancée Bevil Quiller-Couch who died in the influenza pandemic of 1919, and The House of Hope (1923). Working as assistant editor of 'Oxford Magazine' she met and married Percival James Slater in 1923. Slater had contacted her because of his admiration for her poetry. She published one more book in her lifetime, the fictionalized memoir The Lonely Generation (1934). Slater’s reaction led her to give up publishing. Her autobiography Grey Ghosts and Voices (1976) was published posthumously. Her poems were included in an anthology by (among others) Philip Larkin. Her poetry and correspondence with Quiller-Couch were edited by her great-niece Charlotte Fyfe and published as The Tears of War: the Love Story of a Young Poet and a War Hero (2000).

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce May Wedderburn-Cannan's poems

For more information, visit :

We recommend - August 1914 and After The War

Elizabeth Daryush

1887 - 1977

Daughter of the poet laureate Robert Bridges, Elizabeth Daryush followed her father's lead in choosing poetry as her life's work writing in a similar traditional style. The themes of her work are often critical of the upper classes and the social injustice they imposed on others.

Her first two books of rather conventional poems were published under the name Elizabeth Bridges while still in her twenties. These include her war poems and, along with another written in her thirties, were later disowned by her. They have been criticised as being old fashioned in style. She met Ali Akbar Daryush whilst at Oxford and married in her mid- thirties living in Persia for four years, and her poetry changed significantly becoming critically aware social injustice.

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Elizabeth Dayrush's poems

We recommend - Flanders Fields and Subalterns

Eva Dobell

Eveline Jessie Dobell (Eva) was the daughter of a Cheltenham wine merchant and the niece of the Victorian poet Sydney Dobell. She volunteered as a nurse in the Voluntary aid Detachment (VAD) as a nurse in WW1. Deeply distressed by the suffering and loss of life she experienced led her to write poetry about the wounded soldiers she nursed and take part in the morale-boosting work of writing to prisoners of war. Her poem "Night Duty," is often cited as one by a female war-poet that shares the experiences of male poets such as Owen and Sassoon.

Though she lived most of her life in the Cotswolds, she also travelled extensively to Europe and North Africa, helped and encouraged young poet and campaigned for the protection of both wildlife and the countryside.

Note - this poem is copyright but has been released for educational purposes


We recommend - Advent 1916

Crippled for life at seventeen,

His great eyes seems to question why:

with both legs smashed it might have been

Better in that grim trench to die

Than drag maimed years out helplessly.

A child - so wasted and so white,

He told a lie to get his way,

To march, a man with men, and fight

While other boys are still at play.

A gallant lie your heart will say.

So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread

To see the 'dresser' drawing near;

and winds the clothes about his head

That none may see his heart-sick fear.

His shaking, strangled sobs you hear.

But when the dreaded moment's there

He'll face us all, a soldier yet,

Watch his bared wounds with unmoved air,

(Though tell-tale lashes still are wet),

And smoke his Woodbine cigarette.

Eleanor Farjeon

1881 – 1965 

Eleanor Farjeon is most famous for the many children's stories she wrote and for her hymn "Morning Has Broken" written in 1931 to an old Scottish tune and a hit recording for Cat Stevens in 1971 but she wrote plays, poetry, biography, history and satire. Many of her works for children were ilustrated by Edward Ardizzone and she received several literary awards for them including the first Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1956. A children's literature award is presented annually in her honour.

She was the sister of a thriller writer Joseph Jefferson Farjeon and composer Harry Farjeon, daughter of a novelist and granddaughter of a US actor and began writing on her fathers typewriter at the age of seven! At 18 she wrote the libretto of an opera set by her brother Harry which was produced by the Royal Academy of Music.

Known as "Nellie", she was a timid child who was educated at home, spending much of her time in the attic, surrounded by books. Her father encouraged her writing from the age of five when also began to create characters from plays and books with her brother Harry. Her childhood became the inspiration for her children's books.

She became a close friend of the Welsh poet Edward Thomas (see "The Lost Poets") and his wife Helen whom she supported in the years after his death in 1916, encouraging her to write.

Her literary friends Walter De La Mare, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas and his wife who she helped through the grief of Thomas's death in WW1. Thomas wrote to her from the trenches and her poem "Easter Monday" [Thomas was killed on Easter Monday April 9 1917 the first day of the Battle of Arras] was her response to his death.

Now that you too must shortly go the way

Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men

Have gone in vanishing armies day by day, 

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,

It was such a lovely morning. In our garden

We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard

The apple –bud was ripe. It was the eve.

There are three letters that you will not get.

Although Farjeon did not serve in the war, her poems from that time are poignant and express a distinctive understanding of the sacrifices and cruelty of WW1.

After the war, Farjeon earned a living as a poet, journalist and broadcaster. Her work for The Herald, Reynolds News and New Leader is some of the most accomplished of any socialist poet of the 1920s and 30s. She died in 1965.

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Eleanor Farjeon's poems

We recommend - Easter Monday and Now That You Must Shortly Go

Anna Gordon Keown

1899 - 1957

Anna Gordon Keown was an author and poet. She was married to a physician Philip Gosse son of the poet Edmund Gosse. Her best known work was a comic drama "The Cat Who Saw God" about a cat who settles down with an elderly spinster after becoming possessed by the spirit of the Emperor Nero!

Another is a sonnet she wrote during WW1 entitled "Reported Missing" It received the notable distinction of being a poem from the Great War written by a woman studied at GCSE (OCR Syllabus

Scornful I hear the flat things they have said

And all their piteous platitudes of pain.

[Extract from "Reported Missing"]

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Anna Gordon Keown's poems

We recommend - Reported Missing

Winifred Mary Letts

1882 - 1972

Winifred Letts was born in Salford but returned to her mother's home in Dublin Ireland after the death of her father a vicar. She trained as a masseuse and during WW1 worked at army camps in Manchester.

She began her career writing two one-act plays for the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin before starting to write novels and children's books. Her first poetry collection, "Songs from Leinster", was published in 1913 though six of her poems had been set to music by the composer C.V. Stanford. She contined to publish poetry whilst working as a nurse during WW1. Her poem "The Deserter" " written in 1916 described the feelings and fate of a man terrified by the war and often appears in collections of WW1 poetry. 

They might not heed his frightened eyes,

They shot him when the dawn was grey,

Blindfolded when the dawn was grey,

[Extract from "The Deserter"]

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Winifred Letts's poems

We recommend - The Deserter and The Spires of Oxford

Katharine Tynan/Katherine Tynan Hickson

1859 - 1931

Katharine Tynan was an Irish novelist and poet. She wrote under her own name and as Katherine Tynan Hickson or Katherine Hickson after her marriage an English writer and barrister Henry Albert Hinkson.

She was born in Dublin and educated at a convent school in Drogheda. Her first poetry was published when she was 19.. A major figure in Dublin literary circles until she married and moved to England, she was a close friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Butler Years (who may have proposed marriage and been rejected by her), and corresponded with Francis Ledwidge*.

She was a prodigious author writing over 100 novels, several collections of poetry and five autobiographical volumes.

Her war poetry expresses a distinctly female perspective

A Song For The New Year (1915)

THE Year of the Sorrows went out with great wind:

Lift up, lift up, O broken hearts, your Lord is kind,

And He shall call His flock home where no storms be

Into a sheltered haven out of sound of the sea.

There shall be bright sands there and a milken hill,

They shall lie in the sun there and drink their fill,

They shall have dew and shade there and grass to the knee,

Safe in a sheltered haven out of sound of the sea.

He shall bind their wounds up and their tears shall cease:

They shall have sweetest pillows and a bed of ease.

Come up, come up and hither, O little flock, saith He,

Ye shall have sheltered havens out of sound of the sea.

The first day of New Year strewed the sea with dead.

Lift up, lift up, O broken heart and hanging head!

The Lord walks on the waters and a Shepherd is He

They shall have sheltered havens out of sound of the sea.

Joining the Colours

There they go marching all in step so gay!

Smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns.

Blithely they go as to a wedding day,

The mothers' sons.

The drab street stares to see them row on row

On the high tram-tops, singing like the lark.

Too careless-gay for courage, singing they go

Into the dark.

With tin whistles, mouth-organs, any noise,

They pipe the way to glory and the grave;

Foolish and young, the gay and golden boys

Love cannot save.

High heart! High courage! The poor girls they kissed

Run with them : they shall kiss no more, alas!

Out of the mist they stepped-into the mist

Singing they pass.

Dame Margaret Isabel Cole, DBE

1893 - 1980

Margaret Isabel Postgate was a Socialist politician, writer and poet. She was married to the Fabian political theorist and historian G.D.H. Cole with whom she wrote several detective stories. She held several important posts in London government in the period after the Second World War.

Margaret was educated at Roedean School and Girton College Cambridge where reading H.G.Wells and George Bernard Shaw led her to reject her background and become a Socialist. Athough Cambridge did not actual reward female students with a degree until 1947, she went on to be a classics teacher.

Her poem "The Falling Leaves" is another of the handful of poems b is another of the handful of WW1 poems by a woman to be on a GCSE syllabus.

For thinking of a gallant multitude

Which now all withering lay,

Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,

But in their beauty strewed

Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.

[Extract from The Falling Leaves]

During the war she campaigned against conscription in support of her brother Raymond Postgate a pacifist. She married in a registry office in August 1918 and went on to work for the Fabian Society with her husband. Margaret abandoned her pacifism in reaction to the suppression of socialist movements in Germany and the Spanish Civil War. Her poetry became influenced by Latin poetry using long and short syllables to create mimetic effects. She became a politician on the Lndon County Council during WW2 becoming an education champion. She was awarded an OBE in 1965 and became a Dame (DBE) in 1970.

She wrote several books including a biography of her husband and many mystery novels with him. Margaret's brother Raymond was a labour historian, journalist and novelist and founded the "Good Food Guide" . Her nephew Oliver Postgate created children's television programmes including Noggin The Nog, Ivor The Engine, Clangers and Bagpuss.

Note - for copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Margaret Cole's poems

We recommend - The Falling Leaves and The Veteran

Agnes Grozier Herbertson

1875 - 1958 

Agnes Grozier Herbertson was born in Oslo and grew up in Norway, France, and Scotland. She never married and lived with her younger sister Jessie Leckie Herbertson, also a writer, from the late 1930s, in Cornwall and Edinburgh.

Her most well known poem is "The Seed Merchant's Son" which cleverly uses the irony of the death of a son of a man whose trade involves the germs of new life and points to the reality that the death of a child in the war was mirrored in the emotional death of the parent. It has also been included in the OCR GCSE syllabus.

Died in the war….And it seems his eyes

Must have looked at death with a child’s surprise.

The Seed-Merchant goes on his way:

I saw him out on his land today;

Old to have fathered so young a son,

And now the last glint of his youth is gone.

[Extract from The Seed-Merchant's Son]

Agnes Herbertson was a prolific author of children's books which included classic stories re-written for children such as Gulliver's travels. She wrote plays, poems, and six novels for adults beginning with "A Book Without A Man!" published in 1897.

For copyright reasons we are unable to reproduce Agnes Herbertson's poems

We recommend - The Seed Merchant's Son and and The Airman, R.F.C.

Edith Nesbit

1858 - 1924

Edith Nesbit was an English author and poet who published her books for children under the name of E. Nesbit. She wrote or collaborated on nearly 80 children's books and was also a political activist and co-founder of the Fabian Society. She is most famous for her children's novel "The Railway Children".

She was born in Surrey but after her father's death when she was four her family moved a great deal seeking a resolution to her sisters ill-health living in Brighton, Buckinghamshire, various locations in France including Paris, Spain and Germany and Kent before settling in South East London.

She married at 17 heavily pregnant soon discovering that her husband, Hubert Bland a bank clerk, had fathered other children even forcing her to accept one woman, Alice Hoatson, as their housekeeper and fathering a further child with her. She bore three children by Bland (she dedicated "The Railway Children to the eldest Paul Cyril) and adopted Hoatson's children dedicating later books to them. 

Edith was a follower of the socialist William Morris and she and her husband Hubert Bland were among the founders of the Fabian Society naming their second son after it. They edited the Society's journal "Today". She was an active lecturer and prolific writer on socialism during the 1880s. She was a guest speaker at the London School of Economics founded by the Fabian Society. Three years after Bland died, Nesbit married Thomas "the Skipper" Tucker, captain of the Woolwich Ferry.

Towards the end of her life she moved Kent. She died in 1924.

'E.' Nesbit wrote 40 children's books and collaborated on nearly 40 more. She reversed the Victorian tradition of children's literature turning away from stories that emphasised the secondary position of children to a more realistic portrayal of life including hard realities. She also pioneered the 'children's adventure story'. Noel Coward and Gore Vidal were among her admirers and she was she was a direct or indirect influence on many subsequent writers, including P.L. Travers, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis.