For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 2
War is declared in Britain, such is the news and true;
Now that the mother 's smitten, what will her litters do?
Volunteers, all come forward, stand to your arms like men,
Let the Germans know that where'er they go,
If at home or here, they will meet their foe
When they come to the Mother's den.
Capt. Brian Brooke, Only a Volunteer.
Before Armageddon was upon us, then, and the old world came to an end, we used to say that all our war songs were written by soft-handed civilians who were never under fire; and this was true enough when we said it, but is true no longer. In the past, the poets seldom became soldiers. When they did they saw too much of what lay behind the glory of war to make any songs about it. No soldier, but the scholarly poet-antiquary, Michael Drayton, enriched our literature with the vigorous, triumphant 'Ballad of Agincourt'; it was the snug civilian Campbell who sang the most bellicose and immortal lyrics on our naval victories; the recluse dreamer, Tennyson, who thrilled us with 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'—indeed, he and the even less soldierly Swinburne gave militant patriotism the noblest utterance it has achieved since Shakespeare, another man of peace, voiced it in proud phrases that stir the old Adam in us still like the sound of a trumpet.
Since August 1914, however, a new world and a new order of things have been rising out of a new chaos. Civilian poets have been writing memorable songs of this war, but not often in the old mood. What was a minor strain in the war verse of Napoleonic and Crimean years (it is in some of Byron's and Coleridge's poems and, later and more poignantly, in Sydney Dobell's 'England in Time of War') has persisted until it is the major theme of the civilian and soldier war poetry of to-day. The fighting men are no longer contented to be dumb pawns in a game; they no longer remain silent of their own experiences and ideals; no longer leave inexperienced civilian singers to paint fancy pictures of battle and interpret their thoughts and emotions for them. They have stripped the thing of its gaudy trappings, they have bared their own hearts to us, and we know that they are speaking now not for themselves only, but for our armies and our nation as a whole. For when the Hun, mad for power, started to run amok through human rights and the sanities of civilisation, and the young manhood of our race spontaneously rose to answer that challenge, they were of all sorts and conditions who swarmed to the recruiting stations—aristocrats and navvies, artisans and university professors, tradesmen, farmers, lawyers, stockbrokers, actors, artists, and poets—and these last, drawn also from every grade of society, have coalesced into a representative group which is of itself a sort of microcosm of our army, as our army is of our nation.Before the war, Rupert Brooke had won the Rugby school prize for his poem, 'The Bastille,' gained a Fellowship at King's, Cambridge, and was devoting himself to scholarship and literature; Francis Ledwidge had been a scavenger on the roads of Ireland; Edward Thomas was already a distinguished critic and essayist; Hugh Reginald Freston was at Oxford reading for his B.A. degree; John William Streets was a Derbyshire miner, striving for self-culture and writing verse in his leisure; while the Hon. Julian Grenfell and his brother, the Hon. Gerald, the Hon. E. Wyndham Tennant, the Hon. Robert Palmer (brother of Viscount Wolmer), Ivar Campbell, grandson of the eighth Duke of Argyll, and the Hon. Colwyn Philipps, born and bred in far other circumstances, were as ready to sacrifice all that was theirs in the common cause. Leslie Coulson was a brilliant young London journalist; Charles Hamilton Sorley was fresh from Marlborough; R. E. Vernède was a successful novelist; Nicholas Todd and Bernard Pitt were schoolmasters; Clifford Flower a clerk to an iron and steel manufacturer; Alexander Robertson a lecturer on history at Sheffield University; Arthur Scott Craven had made a reputation as an actor in London and America, had published a play, two volumes of verse, and a novel of considerable power; Henry Field was an art student; John E. Stewart, the son of working-class parents, was a school teacher; Charles Masefield, a cousin of John Masefield, was a lawyer; Francis St. Vincent Morris had entered his name on the books of Wadham, Oxford, but went from Brighton College, when the war came, to take a commission in the Sherwood Foresters; Bernard de Boismaison White had been on the staff of a London publishing house and in the publicity department of the Marconi Company; Thomas Kettle was an Irish barrister and a professor at Dublin University; Richard Dennys had taken his M.R.C.S. and L.R.C.P. degrees, but never practised—he was in Florence when war was declared, 'working with Gordon Craig at his school for the improvement of the Art of the Theatre,' and at once returned to England, and was gazetted to a regiment of the line.
One might go on, and having completed this list of the homeland's soldier poets who have been killed in action, add to it an even longer list of such poets who came back from the fighting line (I am saying nothing, for the moment, of the many, their peers in song as in arms, from the Britains overseas), and you would discover that, till the German onslaught left them no honourable choice, they were, with one or two exceptions, essentially men of peace—they belonged to or were preparing for almost any trade or profession but that of the soldier. They were the true pacifists, so sincere in their devotion to Peace that they did not hesitate to fight and die for her sake; they were the authentic conscientious objectors, loathing bloodshed, yet ready to shed their own in safeguarding others who were dear to them, not afraid to put aside private scruples and, in a spirit of self-abnegation, to risk losing their personal souls that the freedom of the world and the general soul of the race might be saved.
In saying this I am not trying my hand at rhetorical flourishes; I am merely summarising, as best I may, the gospel, the ideals, the aspirations that are enshrined in their war poetry. There is a wide world of difference between those romantic old war lyrics that our patriotic civilians used to write and the grim realism or high spiritual significances of those that were written in the mud and squalor of the trenches, in dug-out or billet, just before going into action, just after coming out of it, in the quiet of a rest-camp or while their writers were lying wounded in hospital. No Hymn of Hate is among them, no glorification of slaughter, no note of boastfulness or blatancy, but a deep love of country, a clear, rational sense of the tragedy and dire necessity of what must be done, in such an hour as this, by all who value liberty and honour more than peace at the price of both, an unwavering vision of the end to be fought for, faith in God and in each other, with those qualities of self-sacrifice and heroic resolve that you would look for in men who had rallied to what they were determined should be a last crusade against the folly and crime of war, and had gone forth together on that knightly quest, following the Holy Grail of a great ideal.
There are inevitable contrasts in the appeal of war to the man who became a soldier from natural inclination, and the man who never would have adopted that profession from choice and did so only in a crisis and from a deliberate realisation of patriotic or altruistic duty. Both live and die by the same code of chivalry, honour, indomitable courage, for our New Army has grown up in the proud traditions of the Old. Given a cause worth defending, the one goes eagerly into battle, berserker-like, for the sheer joy of it. The other goes with equal readiness, pluck and grim purpose, feels the same fierce joy of it in the heat of conflict, but in his before and after thoughts cannot so stoically away with doubts and compunctions.
The two types have their spokesmen among the poets who have fallen in this war. The Old Army speaks through Captain Brian Brooke and Captain Julian Grenfell; the soul of the New Army reveals itself in the songs of a multitude of singers.
Brian Brooke was a born soldier. He came of a notable fighting stock; his father and two brothers were in the Army, and two other brothers had entered the Navy. From his childhood he revelled in tales of military prowess; 'his greatest longing had always been to be a soldier,' we are told; but his sight was defective and he could not pass the medical examination. Making the best of his disappointment, he went to British East Africa, won the adoration of the natives by his good comradeship and boundless daring, and grew famous there as a big game hunter. The outbreak of war gave him his opportunity, and he fought as a trooper in the British East African Force. But news that his brother had been killed in action in Flanders brought him home, and he succeeded in getting gazetted captain in his brother's regiment, the Gordon Highlanders. 'He refused a good appointment on the staff of the force then advancing into German East Africa,' says M. P. Willcocks, 'went to France early in 1916, and within three weeks was commanding in the Great Push at Mametz, on 1st July. Twice wounded, he still led his men over two lines of German trenches, but at the third fell, torn with terrible wounds, and died after three weeks of agony, his sole regret being that he could not go back to his troops.'
This is the man as he discloses himself in his book—an ardent, downright man of action, full-blooded, intensely alive, simple, honourable, likeable, not troubled overmuch with brooding introspection and the pale cast of thought, but rich in a rugged, common-sense philosophy and a breezy humanity that find outlets in his stirring ballads of hunting, fighting, and adventure. Danger and hardship exhilarated him; he would risk his life in a gamble as keenly as others risk their money. When we were struggling desperately against the first gigantic onrush of the enemy, and voluntary recruiting here was in full swing, he was scathingly contemptuous of
and into one verse of 'A Father's Advice' he has condensed his soldierly creed—which is the creed, after all, of our Armies both New and Old:
Never look for Strife, he 's an ugly brute,
But meet him whenever and where he likes;
Only draw your gun when you mean to shoot,
And strike as long as your enemy strikes.
Never force a fight on a smaller man,
Nor turn your back on a stronger clown.
Keep standing as long as you darned well can,
And fight like the devil when once you 're down!
The dogged heart of the Old Contemptibles is in that: it was so they quitted them on the Great Retreat, and made defeat as glorious as a victory.In Julian Grenfell, eldest son of Lord Desborough, the characteristic qualities of the old and new soldier met and were reconciled. He passed from Eton and Oxford, four years before the war, to take a commission in the Dragoons. Delighting in the profession of arms, he was also something of a visionary, a mystic, and when he came to write of battle and death transfigured them to shapes of spiritual loveliness. 'He had,' says Miss Viola Meynell, 'such shining qualities of youth, such strength and courage and love, that to others who are young he seems like the perfection of themselves. They know so well day by day just what their own youth can fall to and rise to; and it is when their youth rises most, to its utmost fierceness and tenderness, that they come near to him, who was made of those things.' He and Charles Lister were friends; and not long before he also fell in battle, Lister wrote to his friend's mother, Lady Desborough, of the grief that unmanned him when he thought of Julian's death. 'I suppose everybody noted dear Julian's vitality,' he adds, 'but I don't think they were so conscious of that great tenderness of heart that underlay it. He always showed it most with you; and with women generally it was his special charm.... I remember a time when he was under the impression that I 'd chucked Socialism for the "loaves and fishes," etc. etc.; and of course that sort of thing he couldn't abide, and he thought this for a longish while; then found out that it wasn't that after all, and took my hand in his in the most loving way.' He goes on to recall Julian Grenfell's moral courage, his physical bravery, his passionate search for truth, and 'what an ardent love he had for honesty of purpose, and intellectual honesty, and what sacrifices he made for them; and sacrifices of peace of mind abhorrent to most Englishmen.'
All which squares with the casual self-revelations in letters he wrote home while he was on service in India and Africa: 'I hate material books centred on whether people are successful. I like books about artists and philosophers and dreamers, and anybody who is a little off his dot.' 'I agree with what you say about success, but I like the people best who take it as it comes, or doesn't come, and are busy about unpractical and ideal things in their heart of hearts all the time.' 'I am so happy here. I love the Profession of Arms, and I love my fellow officers, and all my dogs and all my horses.' Later, from Flanders, he wrote that he longed to be able to say he liked what he was going through there: 'But it 's beastly. I pretended to myself for a bit that I liked it, but it was no good, it only made me careless and unwatchful and self-absorbed; but when one acknowledged to oneself that it was beastly, one became all right again, and cool.' Again, writing from the front of the hard times he was enduring, 'It is all the best of fun,' he said. 'I have never, never felt so well, or so happy, or enjoyed anything so much. The fighting excitement vitalises everything, every sight and word and action.'
There are unforgettable stories of his gallantry on the day when he was mortally wounded. He volunteered to carry a message through to the front line, and got there and back under heavy fire. As he rejoined his General on a hill, he was struck in the head by a shell splinter, and said as he lay bleeding, 'Go down, sir, don't bother about me. I 'm done.' The General helped to carry him down, and Grenfell told a brother officer, 'Do you know, I think I shall die,' and being contradicted said quietly, 'Well, you see if I don't!' At the dressing-station he asked for the truth, saying, 'I only want to know. I 'm not in the least afraid.' A fortnight after, on the 26th May 1915, he died of his wound—only two months before his younger brother, Lieutenant Gerald William Grenfell, a gracious spirit loving 'whatsoever things are fair' (to apply to himself a phrase from his lines on the death of a friend), was killed in action.
Early in May 1915 Julian Grenfell had sent home to his friends his one great poem, 'Into Battle,' which in character and temperament chimes perfectly with what Charles Lister wrote of him, and with what we learn of him from his letters:
The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze.
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight,
And who dies fighting has increase.
The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth,
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth,
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after dearth....
In dreary, doubtful, waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers:
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!
And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind—
Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel can reach him, so
That it be not the destined Will.
The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air death moans and sings,
But day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And night shall fold him in soft wings.
The difference of attitude and feeling in the new soldier, who became a soldier not from predilection, but against it and from a sheer sense of duty, is manifest at once, I think, in the '' of W. N. Hodgson, the third and youngest son of the Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich. In March 1913 he took a First Class in Classical Moderations at Oxford; next year, in the first days of the war, he obtained a commission in the 9th Devon Regiment. He was mentioned in despatches, and in October 1915 the Military Cross was conferred upon him; on the 1st July 1916 he fell in the battle of the Somme. There is strength and spiritual and emotional beauty in his verse and that air of plain sincerity which distinguishes all these poets who were soldiers. At least two or three of his poems will have an abiding place in all war anthologies, and one of such must assuredly be his ' ':
By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening's benison;
By the last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done;
By beauty lavishly outpoured,
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived,
Make me a soldier, Lord.
By all of all men's hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing:
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his sad catastrophes,
Make me a man, O Lord.
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of Thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this:
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
The sturdy, sober courage of this matches Grenfell's brave ecstasy. The difference between them is only of tone and temperament—the same fighting blood is in each, as it was in the long-ago Cavalier and Roundhead. Maybe it is that our race is compact of these two elements; the Cavalier and Roundhead have intermarried and are inextricably mixed in us all, but in very varying proportions. They came near, perhaps, to striking a balance in Rupert Brooke. He responded so instantly to 'the call' that he was a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy in September 1914, and in October took part in the Antwerp expedition. His greeting of the war shouts in that first of his sonnets, 'Peace,' with all the exultation that is in Grenfell's lines, but not because he foretasted the joy of battle. He was supremely satisfied because he felt that in the years of peace our souls had put on too much flesh; we had become gross and sordid, had forgotten our ideals, and now the war had suddenly uplifted us from the slough, restored our manhood to us and touched us to noble issues:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour
And caught our youth and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love....
And again there is this rush of joyance in his rapturous requiem:
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There 's none of these so lonely and poor of old
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold....
Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.