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The collection

Image showing hospital from world war one

WW1 Hospitals Highbury Gymnasium, Credit: MS 4616

The War Poetry Collection was originally presented to Birmingham Central Library in 1921 in memory of Private William John Billington of the 2/24 Regiment, who was killed in action in Palestine in March 1918. The donor, William John Cross of Rubery, had assembled an unrivalled collection. It contained 1,233 printed books in English, French, Italian and other languages of the British and Allied Nations, consisting mainly of First World War poetry, written by both soldier poets and civilians.

"What connects the war poets with our time is, among other things, the inescapable war - not only as they were committed to realizing the terror of their condition, but as those conditions are relevant to poets now."

Jon Silkin Out of battle: the poetry of the Great War, 1972

Since 1921 many additions have been made to the Collection, notably in 1938 when a fine collection of over 40 albums of news cuttings of poetry and verse from many newspapers and periodicals of the 1914-1918 period was acquired. They represent an unusual conspectus of the social attitudes of war, and display clearly the moods of the British people from patriotic jingoism to disillusionment and concern.

In 1971 it was decided to widen the scope of the Collection and to include war poetry of all times. An attempt has been made to add poetry from the German side of the 1914-1918 conflict. Poetry by major and minor poets of the Second World War has been transferred from the main literature collection and a number of volumes of poems from that period have been bought expressly for the Collection. Poetry by those involved in the Vietnam War has been added, and small sections have been formed for poetry of the American Civil War, the Boer War and the Spanish Civil War, with some representative poems from even earlier wars.

The War Poetry Collection is now one of the largest of its kind in the world. It has gathered together evidence of poets reacting to the strains, stresses, tribulations and horrors of war. Some of the poets represented - Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg for example - would be remembered without such a collection as this, for the greatness of their poetry has ensured their inclusion in all libraries devoted to literature.

The vast majority of poets in this collection may not be represented today, except in the largest reference libraries, and many of the unknown soldiers whose works were printed privately in memory of their death in action will probably only be found in local collections.

Recent acquisitions have included: Here, Bullet (2007) by Brian Turner who writes first-hand of his experiences in Iraq. And the donation of two books by Geoffrey Fyson Here Comes She Home (1949) and The Survivors (1919)

The Library has taken out a subscription to War Poetry Review, published annually from 2007 by the War Poets Association.

Famous War Poets

I am the enemy you killed my friend

Wilfred Owen, Strange meeting (1918) Poems, 1920.

Sombre the night is;

And though we have our lives we know

What sinister threat lurks there

Isaac Rosenberg, Returning we hear the larks, Poems, 1922.

This is no case of petty right or wrong

That politicians or philosophers

Can judge

Edward Thomas, Last poems, 1918.

Access to the Collection

The collection is housed in Archives and Collections.

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