'I suppose that of all the victims of the War', writes George Simmers, 'the one we should be sorriest for is Jessie Pope.' As a marker of A level exam scripts, George is well placed to report on the opprobrium directed at that most convenient of scapegoats. Never mind that Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' makes no mention of Jessie Pope. The best-known fact about the poem is that its earliest draft was ironically dedicated to her. Why this piece of apparently arcane information should be so widely emphasised is a question which ought to give us pause. Not wanting to be implicated by Owen's indictment, we hastily reinstate the dedication so that we can safely remain as disapproving judge and jury. If Owen is accusing Jessie Pope, he can't be accusing us.
Pope was no poet, but she wrote fairly accomplished verse. 'War Girls' shows her at her best:
There's the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There's the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
And the girl who calls for orders at your door.
Strong, sensible, and fit,
They're out to show their grit,
And tackle jobs with energy and knack.
No longer caged and penned up,
They're going to keep their end up
Till the khaki soldier boys come marching back.
There's the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
There's the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There's the girl who cries 'All fares, please!' like a man,
And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.
Beneath each uniform
Beats a heart that's soft and warm,
Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
But a solemn statement this is,
They've no time for love and kisses
Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back.
There is no point in breaking butterflies upon wheels. Yet 'War Girls' does merit attention on sociological grounds, for the skilled way in which it responds to contemporary anxieties. Ought women to tackle male roles? Can they do them well? Will they lose their femininity and become 'like a man'? The poem makes a virtue of necessity, celebrating the war girls' 'energy and knack' and reassuring readers that 'Beneath each uniform / Beats a heart that's soft and warm'. These girls are, of course, the sexual reward for returning soldiers (see the contemporary music-hall songs below), so Pope also stresses that 'They've no time for love and kisses / Till the khaki soldier-boys come marching back.'
But what happens when the men do come back? Love and kisses are all very well, but who takes the job on civvy street? 'War Girls' had already made clear, in a piece of social criticism unusual for Pope's poetry, that gender politics prior to the War had oppressed women: they had been 'caged and penned up'. Never again can that situation be permitted. For all its attempts to allay fears, 'War Girls' exposes a conflict between the rights of women and the rights of soldiers to return to their pre-War jobs. 'Where are they now?', Ivor Gurney would come to ask of his comrades in a poem of 1922, before bleakly answering his own question: 'on state-doles'.