Tragedy Beyond the Battlefield: Grief in Homer’s Iliad and WWI Poetry

Safa Malik

“The rage of Achilles, sing it now goddess, sing through me the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief.”

Odysseus’ embassy to Achilles, Attic red-figure cup attribute to Doulis, c.470 BC (found in Vulci, Italy, and now in the British Museum, London).

The opening sentence of Homer’s Iliad is all about “grief” (mūria algea,“countless pains”, in the Greek). I first picked up the Iliad a few months after I lost a beloved uncle. So although many have rightly claimed that this epic is a glorification of war, upon my first reading I experienced it as a tragedy. That tragedy involves human mortality: the loss of lives cannot be reversed, and the sorrow felt by the bereaved is profound.

This is portrayed so poignantly in the Iliad. At the heart of the poem’s tragic tale is the love that defines grief. The Iliad is a story in which parents lose sons, children lose their fathers, sisters lose their brothers, and men lose their comrades.

The immense impact that war has on the mothers of fighters can be explored by comparing the suffering of the women in the Iliad with the portrayal of torment and grief in poems from the First World War (1914–18) written by women. Here I will explore three key themes: the loss of past love, the loss of present love, and the loss of future love.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Battle of the Somme, which commemorates 72,000 British soldiers who died in WW1, 57,000 of whom died on 1 July, 1916 (designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and completed in Thiepval, France, in 1932).

The Loss of Past Love

The unconditional love and protection that a mother shows her baby can no longer suffice when the child has grown up: she must encourage him to face the complexities and difficulties of life.  There is melancholy in witnessing this transition, and that feeling is all the more poignant in times of war, when mothers are forced to put aside their natural maternal instincts and encourage their sons to fulfil their societal duty by fighting in battle.

Teresa Hooley (1888–1973) depicted a mother’s fear in her most renowned poem, “A War Film”. Hooley was an English poet who established her reputation before the Great War by writing poems in the Daily Mirror.” She married in 1920 and had one son. Her poem “A war film” describes her reaction to seeing a film of the First World War, and refers to the Great Retreat of British forces from the Belgian town of Mons in August and September 1914.

A War Film

I saw,
With a catch of breath and the heart’s uplifting,
Sorrow and pride,
The ‘week’s great draw’ –
The Mons Retreat;
The ‘Old Contemptibles’ who fought, and died,
The horror, the anguish and the glory.

As in a dream,
Still hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.

When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him som
Naked upon my knee
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me?…
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me…
If, someday
It should be taken away
To War. Tortured, Torn.
Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain –
My little son…

How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him so, crooning his name?
He though that I was daft.
He thought it was a game,
And laughed and laughed.

Teresa Hooley in the WWI uniform of the Women’s Land Army.

The narrator describes her son as “the body I had borne, nine moons beneath my heart, a part of me.” She calls him “a part of me”: to lose him would inevitably feel like losing a part of herself. This sounds like Thetis raising Achilles in the Iliad: “I bore a son who became the greatest of heroes, strong and handsome; he shot up like a young sapling, and I tended him like a tree on an orchard hill.” (Il. 18.39–41)

Marina Coray, in her commentary on Book 18 of the Iliad, suggests that the verb “shot up” depicts “a rapid increase in height and stresses the speed with which, in retrospect, the child grew in the eyes of his mother… the mother-son relationship is stressed in this scene by the designation of Achilles as ‘son’ and ‘child’.”[1] Thetis’ words demonstrate that, no matter how strong or renowned a son grows to be, the maternal attachment of a mother does not lessen over time. This deep-rooted bond between mothers and their infant sons is strengthened further when the mother directly provides sustenance for her child.

The prothesis (lying-in-state) of a courpse attended by mourners, Attic black-figure pinax (plaque) attributed to the ‘Gela Painter’, late 6th cent. BC (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

The poet Iris Tree (1897–1968) illustrates this point in an untitled poem. Tree was a poet and actress born in London to two famous thespians, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his wife Helen. She studied at the Slade School of Art, and sat as a model for Amedeo Modigliani. In her untitled poem she describes the affection that soldiers received from their mothers when they were infants:


Of all who died in silence far away
Where sympathy was busy with other things,
Busy with words, inventing how to slay,
Troubled with rights and wrongs and governments and kings.

The little dead who knew so large a love,
Whose lives were sweet unto themselves a shepherding
Of hopes, ambitions, wonders in a drove
Over the hills of time, that now are graves for burying.

Of all the tenderness that flowed to them,
A milky way streaming from out their mother’s breast,
Stars were they to her night, and she the stem
From which they flowered – now barren and left unblessed.

Of all the sparkling kisses that they gave
Spangling a secret radiance on adoring hands,
Now stifled in the darkness of a grave
With kiss of loneliness and death’s embracing bands.

No more!-And we, the mourners, dare not wear
The black that folds our hearts in secrecy of pain,
But must don purple and bright standards bear,
Vermillion of our honour, a bloody train.

We dare not weep who must be brave in battle-
‘Another death – another day – another inch of land –
The dead are cheering and the ghost drums rattle’….
The deaf are dumb and the dumb cannot understand….

Of all who died in darkness far away
Nothing is left of them but LOVE, who triumphs now,
His arms held crosswise to the budding day,
The passion-red roses clustering his brow.

Hector’s body brought back to Troy: detail from a sarcophagus, a Roman copy of a Greek original, AD c.200 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Louise Pratt rightly notes that the baring of the breast is “the ultimate symbol of maternal care”,[2] and the mother’s breast is just as potent a symbol in the Iliad. When Hector is about to fight Achilles, Hecuba weeps and offers from the folds of her robe one of her breasts. She says, “Hector my child, take pity on me, if ever I gave you this breast to suckle. Remember those times and fight off this brutal man from inside the wall” (Il. 22.78–81)

Pratt suggests that at this moment “the Iliad abandons its presentation of Hector as a father, and presents him as a son, in need of his parents’ protection”. This interpretation is likely to have been Hecuba’s perspective of the situation; she demonstrates that the intimate bond mothers share with their offspring is ever present. However, once their sons have become adults, they are no longer able to provide them with the same comfort and safety. In times of war, mothers cannot protect their soldier sons, despite their desperate desire to grant them safety and comfort.

The despair of Hecuba, Pierre Peyron, 1784 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

The Loss of Present Love

A key element in the loss of love and affection is the passing of time. Grief generally accompanies loss; in war, losses are also accompanied by feelings of accountability and guilt. As Michael Roper writes, “near the end of the 19th century, masculinity and militarism became intimately linked; this process intensified during the early years of the 20th century… by 1914 the war appeared to be a test of manhood, defined by courage, strength and the spirit of sacrifice.”[3] A well-known WWI propaganda poster exemplifies this: it depicts a woman standing outside her home with her maid and young child and she watches unperturbed as her husband goes to war. Across the top of the poster is written the command, “Women of Britain say ‘Go!’”

British Army recruiting poster, E.J. Kealey, 1915.

Elizabeth Vandiver has examined notions of honour and the duty of women in poetry, referring particularly to W.M.L. Hutchinson’s poem “Matri Dolorosae”, which uses a “Spartan mother as a model for the British mother to emulate and transcend”:[4]

Matri Dolorosae

They bore a warrior home upon his shield
To hollow Lacedaemon, long ago;
… Then all his house made moan, but tearlessly
His mother watched beside her firstborn dead;
And when they bade her weep for him she said—
‘Sparta has many a worthier son than he.’
A soul as steadfast looks from your wan face,
O English Mother, now like her bereft,
Yet not, like her, denied a hope divine.
You too have known the sovereign pride of race;
You that have said, ‘Though I be desolate left,
Take, England, this my son, for he is thine.’[5]

The front cover and spine to The Golden Porch: A Book of Greek Fairy Tales (Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1925), one of Winifred Hutchinson’s several direct engagements with the Classical world.

The Spartan mother does not grieve for her son, since she prioritises her duty and devotion to her state. Vandiver argues that “Hutchinson’s depiction is undoubtedly meant to inspire [women], not to repel,” hence the English mother’s attitude at the end of the poem imitates that of the Spartan mother. As signalled by the sonnet’s Latin title, which means “To the sorrowful mother”, the poet is encouraging mothers who have lost sons to view their sacrifice as necessary and righteous.

War was also a test of manhood in Homeric society: a man’s status and reputation – his kleos – were defined by how well he fought in battle. Charles Segal remarked that “in a shame culture, like that of the society depicted in Homer, where esteem depends on how one is viewed and talked of by one’s peers, kleos (glory and renown) is fundamental as a measure of one’s value to others and to oneself.”[6] Hecuba wants her son to be a courageous and upstanding protector of Troy. In Book Six of the Iliad, Hector returns to Troy; Hecuba asks him “Why have you left the fighting and come here, my dear child?” (Il. 6.258). Franco Maiullari interprets this scene as Hecuba “almost scolding him for having abandoned the battle.”[7]

In contrast to that harsh verb “scolding”, Magdalene Stoevesandt notes that Hecuba responds with “maternal concern”,[8] suggesting that Hector “also uses the opportunity to fortify and rest himself”. None the less, there is undoubtedly a clash between Hecuba’s desire for her son to be known as a bold fighter who does not abandon the battlefield, and her wish to be there for him to ease his weariness.

Thetis bringing the shield to Achilles, Benjamin West, 1804 (priv. coll.).

Thetis also knows that her son Achilles must participate in the fight, admitting that she “sent him to Ilion to fight the Trojans” (Il. 18.42). Women were forced into a position that required them to encourage their sons to risk their lives in battle. In “A War Film”, Hooley observes “the horror, the anguish and the glory” on the battlefield. Thetis is dejected by her decision to send Achilles to Troy: “but never again shall I see him, return to his home, the house of Peleus” (Il. 18.43–4)

Christos Tsagalis notes that Thetis’ words here present her “as being responsible for the participation of Achilles in the war”;[9] but that view is not entirely correct. Thetis was not responsible for Achilles’ inevitable participation in battle; instead, Homer presents her as a mother who feels responsible for the life Achilles was fated to lead.

When Hector is killed, Hecuba says: “My child, how unhappy I am! How can I live with this misery, now you are dead? You were my pride every day of my life” (Il. 22.432). Likewise, Achilles imagines that once he dies Thetis’ “heart will be filled with endless grief for the death of her child.” (Il. 18.73)  The Spartan woman in “Matri Dolorosae” says: “Take, England, this my son, for he is thine”; the reactions of Thetis and Hecuba depict the harrowing reality of how women felt about losing sons in war.

A map of the 54 “Thankful Villages“: the only communities in the UK that lost no soldier in WWI; of these fourteen lost no solder in WWII either. No village in Scotland or Northern Ireland could be so thankful (research and map by Tom Morgan; a triple-album by Darren Hayman dedicated a track to each of these villages.

The Loss of Future Love

Through their roles as mothers or nurses for wounded soldiers, women had constantly to endure seeing or receiving news of young men losing their lives in battle. Nosheen Khan observed that “the First World War provided women with an opportunity to observe war on a scale hitherto unknown”,[10] since many joined military hospital units and assisted at the front, whilst others worked as Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs). Winifred Letts (1882–1972) and Eva Dobell (1876–1963) are women who joined the VAD as nurses in WWI. The former worked in Manchester, whilst the latter went to France; both wrote poems based on their experiences.

Winifred M. Letts in the 1910s.

In “Screens”, Letts details an everyday incident of hospital life, and describes the sight of a young man who had been admitted:

Screens (In A Hospital)

They put the screens around his bed;
 A crumpled heap I saw him lie,
White counterpane and rough dark head,
 Those screens—they showed that he would die.

They put the screens about his bed;
 We might not play the gramophone,
And so we played at cards instead
 And left him dying there alone.

The covers on the screen are red,
 The counterpanes are white and clean;—
He might have lived and loved and wed
 But now he’s done for at nineteen.

An ounce or more of Turkish lead,
 He got his wounds at Suvla Bay;
They’ve brought the Union Jack to spread
 Upon him when he goes away.

He’ll want those three red screens no more,
 Another man will get his bed,
We’ll make the row we did before
 But—Jove!—I’m sorry that he’s dead.

Eva Dobell in the 1920s.

Dobell offers a similar description in her poem “In A Soldiers’ Hospital 1: Pluck”, describing an injured soldier:

In A Soldiers’ Hospital 1: Pluck

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.

The comparison to a child inevitably brings to mind a mother, and the agony this loss would have caused her. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), “seeing another person who has recently been, or is being, seriously injured or killed”[11] is a significant criterion for PTSD. The role of a nurse would have been unavoidably traumatic. The pathos of witnessing these young deaths lies not only in the loss of current relationships; in “Screens”, Letts notes, “he might have lived and loved and wed.”

A WWI recruitment poster for the Voluntary Aid Detatchments.

The mothers who lost sons in the Iliad also felt sorrow upon considering their sons’ unfulfilled lives. Homer often draws attention to the mother of a young hero at the moment of his death on the battlefield. When mentioning the parents of dying young fighters, he makes clear that these young men will never have the chance to become parents themselves. When Simoisius is killed in battle, Homer narrates that he was “a young man, the son of Anthemion, whom his mother had borne by the Simois river as she came down from tending her flocks on Mount Ida” (Il. 4.445–8).

William Brockliss, commenting on this passage, suggests that “for early audiences, the description of such a landscape would have carried connotations of vegetal fertility, [as] they would have been familiar with the fertile soil around the rivers of the Greek world.”[12] Like his mother, Simoisius also had the potential to contribute to creating new life in the world, but his own life was taken before he had a chance to do so. Brockliss notes that “the fecundity of Simoisius’ mother is situated within a succession of fertile human generations, of grandparents begetting parents [but] this succession is interrupted when Simoisius is killed.”  

Sarpedon’s body carried by Hypnos (Sleep) and Thanatos (Death), while Hermes watches.:Side A of the “Euphronios krater”, an Attic red-figure calyx-krater signed by Euxitheos (potter) and Euphronios (painter), c.515 BC (formerly in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, but now in the Archaeological Museum at Cerveteri, Italy).

The death of Gorgythion also evokes notions of death and fertility through floral imagery: “[Teucer] aimed… and hit Gorgythion in the chest, Priam’s son by a wife who came from Aesyme, Castianira, as beautiful as a goddess; and his head drooped, like a poppy in a spring garden weighed down with seeds and heavy rain: so his head leaned to one side beneath the weight of his helmet” (Il. 8.279–86). Brockliss closely examines Homer’s use of the poppy simile here, noting that, according to the ancient botanist Theophrastus, “the cumin and the poppy have the greatest yield of all plants.”[13] Vegetal fertility is, therefore “given special emphasis in this passage: the poppy in the simile has produced so many seeds that it can no longer hold up its head.” Like Simoisius’ mother, the fertile body of Gorgythion’s mother juxtaposes her son’s young body being cut down. Brockliss compares the poppy that “is ready to engender many new plants [to] Gorgythion [who] will never sire a grandchild for Castianeira.” This denial of future loving relationships is an important element of the tragedy.

With almost every death we are reminded that the fallen soldier had a family, who would have painfully to accept that he will never return home. Upon reading the Iliad for the first time, I connected with the sorrow and sadness prevalent throughout the whole epic. The death of my uncle had impacted his friends and family who survived him; my grandparents lost a son, my cousins lost a father and my mother lost a brother. The way I felt the first time I read the Iliad is well articulated by Alan Bennett:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”[14]

Safa Malik recently completed a BA in Ancient World Studies at University College, London. She is particularly interested in the epics of Homer and Virgil, and she recently wrote a review of The Song of Arms and a Man, a live performance of the Aeneid by the Latin Qvarter, for the Virgil Society newsletter.

Further Reading

Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand In The Trench, Achilles: Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford UP, 2010).

Catherine Reilly, Scars upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War. Virago Press, London, 1981)

Nosheen Khan, Women’s Poetry of the First World War (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1988)


1 M. Coray & S.D. Olson, Homer’s Iliad Book XVIII (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2018).
2 Louise Pratt, “The parental ethos of the Iliad,” Hesperia Suppl. 41 (2007) 25–40.
3 Michael Roper, “Between manliness and masculinity: the ‘war generation’ and the psychology of fear in Britain, 1914–1950,” Journal of British Studies 44.2 (2005) 343–62.
4 Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles (Oxford UP, 2010).
5 First published in The Spectator, 21 November 2014.
6 Charles Segal, “Kleos and its ironies in the Odyssey,” L’Antiquité Classique 52 (1983) 22–47.
7 Franco Maiullari, “Andromache, a post-traumatic character in Homer,” Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica 113.2 (2016) 11–27.
8 Magdalene Stoevesandt and Stuart Douglas Olson, Homer’s Iliad Book VI (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2015).
9 Christos C. Tsagalis, “The poetics of sorrow: Thetis’ lament in Iliad 18.52–64,” Quaderni Urbinati Di Cultura Classica 76 (2004) 9–32.
10 Nosheen Khan, Women’s Poetry of the First World War (University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY, 1988.
11 Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam (Scribner, New York, 1994).
12 William Brockliss, Homeric Imagery and the Natural Environment (Centre for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC, 2019).
13 Theophrastus, On the Causes of Plants 4.15.2.
14 Alan Bennett, The History Boys, 2004.