Afghan conflict inspires new army of poets

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FROM the blood red poppies of Flanders Fields to the muddied horrors of the Somme, the First World War sparked some of the most poignant poetry ever written.

Soldiers such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon penned verses that encapsulated the tragedy and futility of the Great War, which claimed millions of lives between 1914 and 1918.

Now a new generation of British soldiers are picking up their pens in order to make sense of the horrors of Helmand Province – where three Yorkshire servicemen have lost their lives in the past month.

Inspired by the war poets of nearly a century ago, a growing number of poems describing life in Afghanistan and honouring fallen comrades are beginning to appear.

While many are written anonymously, Yorkshire soldiers are helping lead the new wave.

Sergeant James Figel, from 2 Signal Regiment, based in York, is a veteran of numerous conflicts including Northern Ireland and Bosnia.

Yet it was during a tour of Afghanistan that came to an end in January that the 38-year-old began writing down his thoughts.

He released his first poem, entitled Heroes, last month, in time for Remembrance Day.

“It was a way of coping,” said Sgt Figel, who grew up reading the poetry of the First World War at school.

“Some days I would have good days, and other days not so good. It was a way of keeping going.

“I wanted the reader to experience these feelings and emotions.

“I wanted to write it from a soldiers point of view and to put the reader there and experiencing this, as did the Great War poets.

“No matter what conflict, or what theatre of operations, not everybody comes back.”

Captain Warren Allison, 29, of 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, who served in Afghanistan last year, has also contributed a poem, entitled The Platoon Commander, to a newly published anthology called Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets, recently brought out by Ebury Publishing, in aid of ABF – The Soldiers’ Charity.

The poem describes an ambush during which a soldier is killed.

Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis, a former paratrooper, has also cited a poem by Sergeant Andy McFarlane from the Adjutant General’s Corps, written while serving in Afghanistan in 2008, during a recent speech in Parliament.

It begins: “The news is spread far and wide/ Another comrade has sadly died/ A sunset vigil upon the sand/ As a soldier leaves this foreign land.”

David Roberts, originally of Lincolnshire, editor of the War Poetry Website who has published numerous anthologies of First World War poetry, said he has seen a rise in the number of submissions from soldiers from Afghanistan and now from veterans from the Falklands who are writing to deal with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that has only recently started to emerge.

“Some are definitely being sent from when they are out there and some are from when they come back off operations,” he said.

“I never encourage anyone to send me their poems, soldiers are doing it on their own accord.

“The great majority of the poems are about loss of colleagues and friends, people being blown up, loss of limbs, the site of aeroplanes being loaded up with coffins to be flown back to Britain.

“There is a great deal of very moving poetry about the lost lives.

“What I am reading now does remind me of the First World War poets.

“There was one about winter in Afghanistan, a soldier is watching the snow falling and feeling as though it is almost himself dead or dying. It is almost exactly like one of Wilfred Owen’s.

“Another theme that comes up is the ever present danger of death. These soldiers are so aware that at any moment they can be destroyed.

“With the Iraq war, the poems started coming in and they were often very critical of why we were there. With Afghanistan, that is not present at all.

“There is an awful lot of heartbreak expressed about the situation and a lot of remembrance for colleagues that have been lost in the conflict.

“But the ones that have struck me the most seem to be coming from the people who have served in the Falklands in the sense that PTSD doesn’t necessarily present itself in the first instance.

“I am hearing more about Falklands poetry - some are still writing about their experiences and some are really suffering.”