The battlefields of France were divided by miles upon miles of countryside, and so soldiers grew accustomed to the idea of marching between one rest top and the next, between one battle and the next, but it was often tedious and unrewarding work over soggy, wet marshland. To alleviate some of the boredom, soldiers would sing as they marched, resulting in a number of popular songs, such as ‘Tipperary’, or more commonly, songs along the lines of ‘When this Bloody War is Over‘, which ran as follows:
When this bloody war is over
No more soldiering for me
When I get my civvy clothes on
Oh how happy I will be
No more Church parades on Sunday
No more putting in for leave
How I’ll miss the sergeant major
How his poor old heart will grieve
And carried on lambasting the living situations and the war in general. Smile, Smile, Smile, in fact, takes its title from a very popular, and very old, song, published in 1915, and used to maintain morale, recruit for the forces, or to rouse belief in Britain’s war aims; most of the song can be found online, however, the pertinent paragraph is the chorus, which goes:
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile.
A ‘lucifer’ is a type of matchstick.
Owen was reportedly so incensed by pictures of three smiling, wounded soldiers, published by a London newspaper, that he wrote ‘Smile Smile Smile’ in response to it.
As with most of Wilfred Owen’s poems, Smile, Smile, Smile is chock-full of righteous indignation and rage, barely contained within the roughly 26 line poem. It combines the imagery of the marching wounded with the images of Britain beyond – of the gains from the war, at the behest and the suffering of the soldiers, and questions whether or not the war, with its price of the human innocence lost, and the human suffering experience, was worth it. Owen was staunchly anti-war, and did not believe in aiding in the fledgling attempts to bolster the troops or to help recruit for the battle. He believed it was a cruelty and indecent of poets to pull in the young and the easily influenced to fight in a horrific battle that left more than thirty-eight million dead.
Smile, Smile, Smile Analysis
Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
Yesterday’s Mail; the casualties (typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;
For, said the paper, “When this war is done
The men’s first instinct will be making homes.
Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,
It being certain war has just begun.
Owen’s primary image is a group of ‘sunk-eyed wounded’, reading from ‘yesterday’s mail’, where the casualties are typed in small print and the rest of the paper is given up to the wondrous and amazing things that war has wrought for the veterans. Not the reference to the casualties ‘typed small’, and then to the ‘Vast Booty’ (in the poem, Owen makes sure to specify that it is written quite largely, thus showing – indirectly – that the government and the people who are in charge don’t care about the casualties lost or the way the soldiers are suffering, but care only about what the war is going to provide them: money, power, land, and control over large swaths of Europe (it is interesting to note that this was a particularly British belief; they saw themselves as standing up for the solidarity and the safety of all of Europe, which is an attitude that reflects quite well to today’s modern politics). Instead, the paper concerns itself with the days after the war – forever starry, ‘the men’s first instinct will be making homes’. When one reads Smile, Smile, Smile fresh on the heels of some of Owen’s other poems, one can see how laughable this image is – to go from the trenches, the blood and death and mud, to making homes, is a ludicrous attitude. Most men were mentally and physically broken from the war, and there was no home for them to return to.
Also, the fact that it references ‘when this war is done’, while near the end it specifies that war has just begun, thereby skipping, or rather ignoring, the traumatic experience of being within a war.
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—
The sons we offered might regret they died
If we got nothing lasting in their stead.
We must be solidly indemnified.
There is something barbaric about the logic evident in this sentence of Smile, Smile, Smile. Owen says, in no mixing of words, that peace – rather than saving the people – would actually be a terrible thing, if there was nothing to commemorate their existence, to show that they had survived and that they had won, thus it was not worth attempting to find a peaceful resolution between the countries, for the only answer – the only worthy sacrifice for the ‘undying dead’ (one can take this two ways – either those of soldiers lost, or those of heroes of the island, which fell before) is to spill more blood during another war. That is how they will be appeased.
Though all be worthy Victory which all bought,
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
Would wrong our very selves if we forgot
The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,
Who kept this nation in integrity.
Owen’s rage cannot contain itself here – he criticizes the people at home, too, asking them how they can be the judges – ‘we rulers sitting in this ancient spot’ (here, Owen also criticizes the women at home; his hatred for women was almost legendary, particularly when it came to the wives of fellow soldiers who abandoned them when they were injured) – when the soldiers who fought and died for the nation’s integrity are forgotten, or worse than that, plastered in false memories. The glory of the nation’s integrity should belong to the soldiers, however Owen does not trust the people sitting at home not to want to share in the glory, and so he criticizes their lack of response.
Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe.
This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
(Not many elsewhere now save under France).
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.
In this stanza, again, Owen criticizes the reader at home, lambasting their ineffectiveness towards the brutalities of war; no-one is thinking of the soldiers, according to Owen, everyone is concerned with the gains of war, taken in by the pictures of wounded soldiers smiling happily, not having seen the torment and the blood and the anguish upon the fields of the Somme, or in Verdun; no-one has any idea of the war but the soldiers who fought in it, and Owen is furious that they are forgotten, pushed aside for other things that are deemed more important, such as gains, such as the nation’s integrity, such as new homes and new technology.
In the last line, Owen could be referencing his own poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, one line of which is ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, meaning ‘it is sweet and honorable to die for your country’. Smile, Smile, Smile, and Dulce et Decorum Est are built on the same idea: the people outside the war have no clue what it is like fighting for your life and your country.
Although the song was published in 1915, this poem was actually published in September 1918.