First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Background to 'Strafe'

'Strafe' is a short poem by Gurney, written sometime during the spring/early summer of 1917, detailing a regular experience on the Western Front - the act of being strafed. Strictly speaking 'to strafe' meant to attack the infantry by low-flying aircraft dropping bombs or using machine guns, but it became a general term for a large fierce attack by small arms or artillery fire. The word is of German origin and a popular slogan amongst the German Army during the war was 'Gott strafe England' or 'God punish England'.

Gurney describes being caught in a 'strafe' a couple of times in letters back to Marion Scott. On 22nd June 1916 he mentions that he survived a strafe, and then a few days later on the 29th June he described a strafe as being like 'all heaven seems to be falling on top of us'.

The poem is short, almost lyrical, and is typical of Gurney's work at this time. There is the obvious juxtaposition of the trench experience (the strafe itself) and the longing to return to Gloucestershire (the cry for Framilode and Maisemore, two locations near Gloucester that Gurney knew well). The 'laughing linnet' (a small bird) is in complete contrast to the destruction of the repeated shelling that surrounds the crouching men, and notably the technological monster of a shell the size of a motor bus. Gurney also employs repetition to reinforce the repeated bombardment (note how line 1 is repeated twice) and the thumping rhyme scheme of ABAAABAB..

Gurney completed two drafts of the poem (he later notes he wrote this East of Laventie), and then Marion Scott copied a third in her own handwriting before it went to print as part of Severn & Somme (published November, 1917). The drafts themselves are very similar but small clues in punctuation and the variants indicate which is Gurney's final draft. Similarly the handwriting in one of the three is clearly different from the other two. This is Marion Scott's copy.

Contained in the poem are a few references that may not be that familiar:

Large explosion, or sound of shell bursting; by extension the shell itself.
Place near Gloucester
Village to the north of Gloucester

Dr. Stuart Lee, 2009