For remembrance: soldier poets who have fallen in the war/Chapter 7


Come home!—Come home!
The winds are at rest in the restful trees,
At rest are the waves of the sundown seas;
And home—they're home—
The wearied hearts and the broken lives—
At home! At ease!

Clifford Flower, to whom a few lines back I made casual reference, was a Leeds boy, who began life at the age of thirteen and a half in the office of a local firm of iron and steel tube manufacturers. He had been promoted to the drawing office of the firm's headquarters at Birmingham, and was in his twenty-third year when Germany invaded Belgium. No sooner were Kitchener's posters calling from walls and hoardings for volunteers than he offered himself for enlistment, and was rejected. He tried to dodge in at two or three other recruiting depots, but was consistently barred out by them all because he was half an inch short of the standard military height. But the youngster who, a year before, could pour such a passion of sympathy for the Black Country strikers into his verses, 'My People's Voice,' could not be deaf to Belgium's greater agony, and was too bent on doing his duty to be easily baulked. He wrote to Lord Kitchener direct, says the memoir which prefaces the privately printed sheaf of his verse, and 'stated his case as to how he had presented himself for enlistment at various recruiting offices and been rejected every time owing to a slight shortness of height. He concluded his letter thus: "My Lord, I have answered your appeal, will you answer mine?" It cannot be said that the letter ever reached Lord Kitchener, but a reply came from the War Office by return of post, enclosing a sealed document which he was instructed to deliver to the recruiting officer. It was an order to "Enlist the bearer, Clifford Flower, at once." And it worked like magic. Without any further examination, he was passed as a private into the 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment, but got himself transferred to the Royal Field Artillery. 'Three weeks after joining, he was offered a stripe on the condition that he joined the clerical staff, but this he declined, preferring to rough it with the ordinary Tommies.' Rough it he did out in France during the first year of the war, but, cheerful and a sturdy optimist, he ignored his hardships in his letters or made a jest of them. Most of his verse dates from his civilian days; of the four poems he wrote at the front, two are in a lighter vein, blithely anticipating peace, and commemorating the luck of his battery; one calls upon Red, the king of colours, to pay homage henceforth to Khaki; and the fourth, 'A Calm Night at the Front,' sketches the scene around him and the thoughts that it stirs in him:

...The rifle fire has died away,
All silent now: the moon on high
Would set a truce until the day,
God staying the hand of destiny....

O womenfolk of British lands,
Who toil and sweat in holiest cause,
Oh raise in prayer your clasped hands
That men may see the curse of wars

A single star-light held in space
Has filled the trench with radiance white,
A cautious soldier hides his face,
Somebody 's calling, so good-night.

He took a shrapnel wound in his left arm as buoyantly as he took every other trouble that came his way, and remained on duty. Nominally a driver, for the last eighteen months of his service he was on the signalling staff. On Easter Sunday 1917 he was one of three signallers who volunteered to accompany an infantry battalion in the advance towards Lens, and at six in the morning went over the top with them in a blinding snowstorm. At Easter in the year before the war he had returned home from Birmingham, and described his delight in that home-coming very simply and vividly in 'Easter—Home Again':

The wheels of the train sing a full-toned song
As they rattle the hours of waiting along,
And soon I am swinging across the street
To the rhythm of joy which my pulses beat,
To arrive at the gate, which creaks as of old;
Its bars of iron seem like pillars of gold
Flashing behind as I leap to the top
Of the clean-scoured steps then, brought to a stop,
I ring at the bell, give the firm hand to Len,
And I 'm fast in your arms and home again!

It might well have stood as a snapshot of his home-coming from France, but he was not to return from there. On 20th April, he was in a dug-out in the lines that had been newly captured from the enemy when a German shell thundered at the entrance and he was instantly killed.

Born in the same year as Flower, Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson embarked for France early in 1915 as a lieutenant in the Leeds Rifles, and within a few months won the M.C. for bringing in wounded under fire. He was educated at Dorchester and Ilkley Grammar Schools and, having gained scholarships, went to Leeds University for a three years' engineering course, and joined the O.T.C. there. Presently, he became a junior master in his old school at Ilkley, and his contributions of verse, serious and humorous, to the school magazine intimate that his bent was not exclusively towards engineering. Having passed his intermediate B.A. (London) examination with honours, he was preparing for his final when, as with so many others, the war put an end to his plans. After a year of hard fighting in the Ypres trenches, he was appointed town mayor of Varennes, and had risen to the rank of captain when he was killed 'very gallantly leading his company' in the attack on Passchendaele Ridge. Writing to his mother on the eve of that action a letter that reached her when he was dead, he tells her that, apart from 'a shrinking of the nerves which I always have to conquer, I can honestly say that I have not the slightest fear of death in me, which makes it vastly easier.' That is in keeping with the lines on 'Death,' where he turns from his question indifferently and sees how a man may find life in losing it:

What is it? Though it come swiftly and sure
Out of the dark womb of fate,
What that a man cannot dare and endure,
Level heart steady, eyes straight?...

The fight shall roll o'er us—a broad crimson tide,
Feet stamp, shells wail, bullets hiss,
And England be greater because we have died:
What end can be finer than this?

And he dedicates himself to death for the victory of right over wrong with a note of still loftier triumph in 'To My People before the Great Offensive,' offering comfort to those whose son he is and bidding them not to sorrow overmuch for him if he falls—

If then, amidst some millions more, this heart
Should cease to beat,
Mourn not for me too sadly; I have been
For months of an exalted life, a King;
Peer for these months of those whose graves grow green
Where'er the borders of our Empire fling
Their mighty arms. And if the crown is death,
Death while I 'm fighting for my home and king,
Thank God the son who drew from you his breath
To death could bring

A not entirely worthless sacrifice,
Because of those brief months when life meant more
Than selfish pleasures. Grudge not then the price,
But say, 'Our country in the storm of war
Has found him fit to fight and die for her,'
And lift your hearts in pride for evermore.
But when the leaves the evening breezes stir
Close not the door,

For if there 's any consciousness to follow
The deep, deep slumber that we know as Death,
If Death and Life are not all vain and hollow,
If life is more than so much indrawn breath,

Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson.jpg


Then in the hush of twilight I shall come—
One with immortal Life that knows not Death
But ever changes form—I shall come home;
Although beneath

A wooden cross the clay that once was I
Has ta'en its ancient earthy form anew,
But listen to the wind that hurries by,
To all the song of Life for tones you knew:
For in the voice of birds, the scent of flowers,
The evening silence and the falling dew,
Through every throbbing pulse of nature's powers
I 'll speak to you.

It were easy enough to write so courageously of dying and play with fancies of what may happen after death if, writing as a distant onlooker and in no danger, one merely dramatised the thoughts and emotions of the men who were in the battle lines; but the strength and glory of these soldier poets is that they wrote in the heart of darkness, that the terrors they clothed in beauty were storming round about them, that they were fronting the bitter death they felt they were doomed to die and welcomed in their songs, and that they justified in action the highest and proudest of their written words. They could look forward without a tremor, and if they could not always glance back without regret it was because the sacrifice they were making was a very real one—they were all young, life was sweet to them and had been rich in promise; yet they had it in them to subdue themselves and trample their regrets unflinchingly underfoot, upheld by the faith that they gave their lives that the world might remain worth living in for the rest of us.

That is the feeling, plainly expressed or implicit, in so much that the soldier poets have written of the war. To turn for a moment from the poets to a prose writer—it is the feeling, the desire that speaks to you from the letters of Harold Chapin, who was on the high road to success as a dramatist when, after attending classes in first aid, he enlisted in the R.A.M.C. on the 2nd September 1914, to be killed at the battle of Loos, on the 26th September, a year later. So far as I know, he wrote nothing in verse, but there is the truest poetry of idea and of emotion in certain of his plays. American by birth, he had lived many years in England and done the best of his work here, but it was not for England only that he went into the war. Nor was he out after the quickest peace of any sort that would last his time. He thought less of his own future than of the future of his little son, and contemplating the likelihood of his not returning, he writes more than once of what he would wish his son to be taught, and not to be taught, when he is old enough. 'Have I warned you against rumours?' he says in a letter from the front to his wife. 'Yes, I believe I have. Beware of them, especially rumours of peace. We don't want peace till they 're beaten, do we?' And to his mother, in June 1915: 'I made the discovery yesterday that unless I can leave a nice, well-finished-off war behind me I don't want to come home. This in spite of the fact that I am regularly and miserably homesick for at least half an hour every morning and two hours every evening, and heartily fed up with the war every waking hour in between.... To go home to Vallie and Mummy is not what I want yet. I want from the bottom of my heart to see it out'; and to his mother again a week later: 'Don't listen to peace talk yet—discourage it if you can. Nothing makes us madder out here. Remember we are on the wrong side of the top to talk of peace. It is a worse idea than the war. A patch-up peace with those bloody gentry over there!' This was a man at the front who wrote that, and added, 'Do you realise that I can see one of them now?... I can hear them in the distance too.... No peace until we are on top, please.' It was the home-staying pacifist, claiming to be more humane than such men as these, who clamoured incessantly for peace by immediate negotiation because, forsooth, as he speciously reiterated, peace would have to be made by negotiation at last—as if it made no difference whether you tried to reason with your enemy while he had his foot on your neck or after you were well on your feet again and at no such disadvantage.

There is a passage in Dixon Scott's Men of Letters, in an essay on Rupert Brooke—almost the last literary work that he did—which chimes with the songs of our poet soldiers and has always seemed to me to embody the motives, the ideals, often inarticulate, that, in the main, prompted our younger generation, as they prompted him, to their impetuous defence of the rights of every man against the outrageous brigandage of the Hun. Loathing war and unable to imagine, as he told me, that he could ever really bring himself to 'stick a man,' he joined up at once and was already a lieutenant of artillery when he wrote this essay, in which he says that for him Brooke's sonnet commencing,

captured completely 'one of the dimmest and deepest, one of the most active but most elusive, of all the many mixed motives, beliefs, longings, ideals, which make those of us who have flung aside everything in order to fight still glad and gratified that we took the course we did. There do come moments, I must admit,' he adds, 'when doubts descend on one dismally, when one's soldiering seems nothing but a contemptible vanity, indulged in largely to keep the respect of lookers-on. And, of course, cowardice of that sort, a small pinch of it anyway, did help to make most of us brave. There was the love of adventure, too, the longing to be in the great scrum—the romantic appeal of "the neighing steed and the shrill trump"—all the glamour and illusion of the violent thing that has figured for ever in books, paintings and tales, as the supreme earthly adventure.... But beneath all these impulses, like a tide below waves, there lies also a world of much deeper emotion. It is a love of peace, really, a delight in fairness and faith—an inherited joy in all the traditional graces of life and in all the beauty that has been blessed by affection. It is an emotion, an impulse, for which the word "patriotism" is a term far too simple and trite.... One fights for the sake of happiness—for one's own happiness first of all, certain that did one not fight one would be miserable for ever—and then, in the second place, for the quiet solace and pride of those others, spiritual and mental sons of ours, if not actually physical—the men of our race who will depend for so much of their dignity upon the doings of the generation before. War is a boastful, beastly business; but if we don't plunge into it now we lower the whole pitch of posterity's life, leave them with only some dusty relics of racial honour. To enter into this material hell now is to win for our successors a kind of immaterial heaven. There will be an ease and a splendour in their attitude towards life which a peaceful hand now would destroy. It is for the sake of that spiritual ease and enrichment of life that we fling everything aside now to learn to deal death.'

This is why he and thousands of his fellows went to war—not for the glory of conquest and with insane ambitions of world power—but for love of peace and honour and freedom, and that it might not be said of them that they had betrayed posterity into bondage. After all, there are dearer things than life, things without which life is not worth having; and in this knowledge Scott laid down his own at Gallipoli in October 1915.

In the same month of that year, a kindred spirit, Charles Hamilton Sorley, was killed in action at Hullach; and look what a little thing he could make of the death he was to die:

All the hills and vales along
Earth is bursting into song,
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die, perhaps.
Oh sing, marching men,
Till the valleys ring again.
Give your gladness to earth's keeping,
So be glad when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,
Think what you are marching to.
Little live, great pass.
Jesus Christ and Barabbas
Were found the same day.
This died, that went his way.
So sing with joyful breath.
For why, you are going to death.
Teeming earth will surely store
All the gladness that you pour....

From the hills and valleys earth
Shouts back the sound of mirth,
Tramp of feet and lilt of song
Ringing all the road along.

For remembrance, soldier poets who have fallen in the war, Adcock, 1920 DJVU pg 259.jpg


All the music of their going,
Ringing, swinging, glad song-throwing,
Earth will echo still, when foot
Lies numb and voice mute.
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song.
Sow your gladness for earth's reaping,
So you may be glad, though sleeping.
Strew your gladness on earth's bed,
So be merry, so be dead.

Here, in a splendour of bizarre metaphysical fantasy, is the rapt sense of mystical joy in dying for a great end that shines through Grenfell's 'Into Battle,' and Rupert Brooke's

If I should die think only this of me:
That there 's some corner of a foreign land
That is for ever England...

and is the prevailing note in the poems of J. W. Streets, whose love of life is so intense that he never doubts but he shall pick up the thread of it again on the other side of night:

And if thy twilight fingers round me steal
And draw me unto death—thy votary
Am I. O Life, reach out thy hands to me.

The same ecstasy thrills in his many references to the privilege of offering up one's youth on the altar for the realisation of a noble purpose:

The soul of life is in the will to give
The best of life in willing sacrifice;
Youth only reaches greatness when he dies
In fullest prime that love and truth may live.

'Youth's Consecration' is achieved when he has gladly sacrificed himself for the salvation of freedom:

Lovers of Life, we pledge thee, Liberty,
And go to death calmly, triumphantly.

Christ taught us to succour need and 'led the way to Life—to Sacrifice':

O Thou who pleaded ever 'mid disdain
That when for weaker comrades we did give
Our own sweet lives, alone then did we live—
Know Thou, O Christ, Thou didst not live in vain,
For youth hath found in Love vitality
And treads with thee the way to Calvary.

His 'Triumph' is that 'feeling the presage of the unborn years,' Youth will

Brave the dark confines
And wrest from Death his diadem of tears,

and that though he should die in Belgium he will have no regret nor dream that his Youth has been in vain, knowing still 'that Love its life in death can find'; and his requiem over the dead is a rejoicing:

For these like some great planet spheric-whirled
Have swung into the orbit of a greater world.
These topped the hill of Youth; stood on the verge
Of vision; saw within the furthest star
Spiritual presences, Love's own avatar;
These the twin worlds of soul and flesh did merge
Into a dream, a consciousness that stole
Around their spirits like an aureole.

He hails the dead as

Youth triumphant, greater than his fate;

and elsewhere exults that he and his comrades, dying, will have given their all, even their heritage of youth, that the reign of humanity shall be restored:

We march to death singing our deathless songs,
Like knights invested with a purpose high,

and foresees how the youth of the years to be

Will hear our phantom armies marching by,

and learn from them how to die for liberty.

No militarism is here, nor in any of the poems I have read by these soldiers; no strut of the goose-step, no taste for slaughter nor lust of conquest for its own sake, nor any of the cheap, dazzling blatancies that belong to the militaristic spirit. These men were too sanely human to cherish hatred except of war and the folly or mad ambition of those who had plunged the world into it. Streets at one end of our social scale is not more passionate in his love of humanity, his detestation of the wrong and brutality of war and the silly desire for such glory as it can give than, at the other, was the younger son of the Earl of Selborne, Captain the Hon. Robert Palmer, who died a wounded prisoner in the hands of the Turk, and in the year before his death made this his battle prayer:

How long, O Lord, how long before the flood
Of crimson-welling carnage shall abate?
From sodden plains in West and East the blood
Of kindly men streams up in mists of hate
Polluting Thy clean air; and nations great
In reputation of the arts that bind
The world with hopes of Heaven, sink to the state
Of brute barbarians, whose ferocious mind
Gloats o'er the bloody havoc of their kind,
Not knowing love nor mercy. Lord, how long
Shall Satan in high places lead the blind
To battle for the passions of the strong?
Oh touch Thy children's hearts, that they may know,
Hate their most hateful, pride their deadliest foe.

Staying in Germany, a month before the war Charles Sorley wrote that though there was a type of German who had been ruined by Sedan he liked the German nature, 'as far as it is not warped by the German Empire.' After war had commenced and he was in the army, he says, 'I think the Kaiser not unlike Macbeth, with the military clique in Prussia as his Lady Macbeth, and the court flatterers as the weird sisters'; and in another letter he thinks 'a close parallel may be drawn between Faust and present history' (with Germany as Faust and Belgium as Gretchen). 'And Faust found spiritual salvation in the end!' At the outset, before the Hun had proved himself by such appalling inhumanities as sink him below the level of aboriginal negroes, Sorley could find it in his heart to write a largely tolerant, compassionate sonnet 'To Germany,' commiserating her and ourselves on the woe that had overwhelmed both:

You were blind like us. Your hurt no man designed
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble, and we do not understand....

And Alexander Robertson, finding on the body of a dead German soldier a prayer-book, letters, and photographs of wife and children, writes pityingly in 'Thou Shalt Love Thine Enemies':

They were not meant for our too curious eyes
Or our imaginations to surmise
From what they tell much that they leave untold.
Strangers and foemen we, yet we behold,
Sad and subdued, thy solace and thy cheer....

When you know something of Alexander Robertson, scholarly, peace-loving, high-minded, you recognise how unself-consciously he has revealed his personality in the verse he has written. He was born at Edinburgh in 1882; had a brilliant career at school and college, winning at Edinburgh University medals in Latin, Education, and Political Economy. He took his M.A. degree there, with a First Class Honours in History. Then for three years he taught, as senior master in History, at his old school, George Watson's College, Edinburgh. He also taught in a French Lycée at Caen, and attended the university of that city. But feeling that school-teaching narrowed his sphere too much, he gave it up, and went for three years to Oxford. 'With his scholarly tendencies and aspirations, these were very happy years to him,' says his brother. Dr. Niven Robertson, 'as the tenor of the poems in Comrades show. He spent most of his time in historical research, and gained the B.Litt. of Oxford. The subject of his thesis was The Life of Sir Robert Moray. This is to be published in book form, but its publication has been delayed by the war. By those who are able to judge he was regarded as one who would, sooner or later, make his name as a historian, but this was not to be.'

In September 1914 he enlisted as a private, joining from a sincere sense of duty only, as he had no inclination to fighting—his whole life had been devoted to study; he had never cared for sport or strenuous doings of any but a studious sort; and he could not but have wistful recollections, such as came to him 'On Passing Oxford in a Troop Train':

...Away with memories? Yet there 's one
I fain would keep till life be done;
No pining for a vanished bliss
Which once we had but now we miss—
Such is the comfort of the weak;
The strong another solace seek;
New circumstance alone can bring
Fresh outlook and imagining.
So that dear mother of the soul
Who found us sick and made us whole
Restrained not but enjoined the quest
Of Truth until the final rest,
And hinted that the search might be
The object of eternity;
That in defiance and in hope
Alone may lie the means to cope
With what life brings of ill; that naught
Is failure but despairing thought.
Him who remembers this the years
Can bring no too triumphant fears
Nor the stern future's gaze appal,
Mysterious-eyed, inimical.

War could have no possible attractions for a man of his intellectual aims and gracious personal character. 'When he entered the Army he sacrificed all his joy of life in the world of intellectual pursuits,' but the great mood in which
For remembrance, soldier poets who have fallen in the war, Adcock, 1920 DJVU pg 269.jpg


the sacrifice was made is in that verse of his. The love of culture remained with him even in the midst of army life, when there was little time or privacy to foster it, and in Egypt, where he went with his battalion in December 1915, he gave the leisure he could get from railway making and trench digging to the study of Italian. His regiment was transferred to France in April 1916, and after a spell in hospital, with epidemic jaundice, he was glad to rejoin his old university comrades in the front line near Albert, early in June. On the morning of 1st July, in the great offensive on the Somme, he died along with several of those comrades in the very forefront of our attack on the German position. All his poems were written while he was on active service. 'It was his greatest joy and a great solace to him,' writes his brother, 'to express his soul in them, as army life was far from congenial to a man of his character.' Like his 'Moses on Pisgah,' he saw far off the land of promise he was not to tread. Strife and bloodshed were around him, but his dreams were not of them—always, as in the hospital at Provence, he was grateful for a window, a small space, through which he could yet see nature and humanity. His vision of the 'Survivors,' who shall reach the goal, sees them looking back with sadness on the dark hours when necessity made them blind to pity, as to danger,

Our human kind
Debasing to an instrument to slay
Man and his hopes;

and the reward that is to be theirs for all they have done and endured is not the crushing of their enemy, the conquest of his land, but to live their own lives once more, to have

Self-mastery again, once more the sweet
Beatitude of freedom and the sense
Of quiet and security, intense;
Home and home faces lit with unexpressed
Joy, and the gladness of the spirit's rest.

Less of a student, perhaps, more of a man of action, Lieutenant A. L. Jenkins was still a dreamer, an idealist, whose ideal of happiness was not of a kind that could ever be won by the sword, but is the strange, sweet, immaterial something that he sighs after in 'Forlorn Adventurers,' the lyric that lends its title to his book:

...The sweetest love of the loves of earth,
Treasure thrice tried in fire,
Power beyond the dreams of kings—
These we have got in our venturings,
But never our heart's desire.

And of such spoil we are content
Our loves alone to keep:
Gold through our careless hands shall run,
And all the lands we lightly won
Wiser than we shall reap.

Wayfaring men, yea, fools are we,
Who do not count the cost:
Of little worth in men's esteem,
Yet happy, for we chase a dream
More fair than aught we lost.

The eldest son of Sir John Lewis Jenkins, K.C.S.I., I.C.S., he had himself hoped to enter the Indian Civil Service, 'for which,' writes Frank Fletcher, in an introduction to Forlorn Adventurers, 'he seemed naturally destined by the traditions of both sides of his family and by his father's brilliant record.' Another Marlborough boy, he went to Balliol with a classical scholarship, but abandoned all personal ambitions, and became a lieutenant in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in 1914. He served for a year in India, and then went in charge of a machine-gun section to Aden, and his recollections of campaigning there are in 'Arabia,' written just before he left Aden for Palestine:

An aching glare, a heat that kills,
Skies hard and pitiless overhead,
And, overmastering lesser ills,
Sad bugles keening comrades dead:
Fever and dust and smiting sun,
In sooth a land of little ease:
Yet, now my service here is done,
I think on other things than these.

Dawn on the desert's short-lived dew,
Blue shadows on the silver sand,
Grey shimmering mists that still renew
The magic of the hinterland:
Sunsets ablaze with crimson fire,
Pale moons like plates of beaten gold,
Soft nights that fevered limbs desire,
And stars whereto our stars are cold:

Sharp, rattling fights at peep of day,
Machine-guns searching scrub and plain,
Red lances questing for the prey,
And kites quick stooping to the slain:
Swift shifting stroke and counter-stroke,
Advance unhurrying and sure,
Until the stubborn foeman broke—
These are the memories that endure....

His section being disbanded, he joined the Royal Flying Corps, trained in Egypt, returned to England, and while serving in a home-defence squadron was killed in an aeroplane accident on the last night of 1917. That he too knew for what he died and was more than willing to die for it let his 'Happy Warriors,' an elegy on his dead friends who had fallen in battle, bear witness:

Surely they sleep content, our valiant dead,
Fallen untimely in the savage strife:
They have but followed whither duty led,
To find a fuller life.

Who, then, are we to grudge the bitter price
Of this our land inviolate through the years,
Or mar the splendour of their sacrifice
That is too high for tears....

God grant we fail not at the test—that when
We take, mayhap, our places in the fray,
Come life, come death, we quit ourselves like men,
The peers of such as they.

The gallantry and glamour of old wars is in his 'Crusaders,' written in Palestine, and the one dread that, as in the verse of Major Stewart and others, haunted these brave men—the fear of being afraid—is in his finely impressive lyric, 'Fear'; but an eager joy in the charm and loveliness of the kindlier, sweeter ways of the world blows like a wind of morning through his before the war 'Song of the Road,' 'The Land of Dreams,' and 'In Praise of Devon'; and in one of the last of his poems, 'Bondage,' you see that, like Robertson, he was not fighting for any vain glory of conquest:

Oh, I am sick of ways and wars
And the homeless ends of the earth,
I would get back to the northern stars
And the land where I had birth,
And take to me a dainty maid,
And a tiny patch of ground,
Where I may watch small green things grow
And the kindly months come round....

The wine of war is bitter wine,
And I have drunk my fill;
My heart would seek its anodyne
In homely things and still....

If I have stressed this essentially human note, it is because it is so implicit and insistent in the songs that the soldier poets of this war have sung. They went into battle soberly or with a mystical exultation, prepared to die in it, but with a will to victory for the sake of peace and right and with a settled courage that nothing could shake. They descended into the pit and fought with beasts, but remained unconquerably human. Noel Hodgson, coming out of the desperate fighting at Loos, wrote on his way back to the rest camp:

We that have seen the strongest
Cry like a beaten child,
The sanest eyes unholy,
The cleanest hands defiled;
We that have known the heart-blood
Less than the lees of wine,
We that have seen men broken,
We know man is divine.

And Dennys, when his death was imminent, sent up from amidst the carnage and desolation a vastly different message than that which Achilles shouted over his trenches:

But now I know that nought is purposeless,
And, even in destruction, we can find
A power whose steady motive is to bless
The ultimate redemption of mankind....

Ours is the privilege of sacrifice,
And cheerfully we heap the sacred pyre,
Our willing selves the offering—the price
Demanded to make fierce the cleansing fire.

Ourselves we set the light, and know it wise,
(Seek not, O faint of heart, our hands to stay),
That, phoenix-like, a nobler world may rise
From out the ashes of a dead to-day.

Belief in a divinity that is shaping the rough-hewn brutalities of war to beneficent ends breaks as clearly from 'The Shrine,' one of Eugene Crombie's poems:

...Returning through the woods at evening's hour
I lay before Thy shrine my offering,
My candle-flame a yellow crocus flower,
Its life but newly lit, to Thee I bring,
In thanks that I can see Thy guiding hand
In every flower that decorates the land.

He wrote this at his billet in France shortly before he marched out to the attack in which he fell. Surely, it is more wonderful that he, and others with him, could hold by such faith there, where the vast menace of death was close about them, than that the saint of old, in no immediate peril, should be able to say, 'Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.'

Eugene Crombie was the only son of J. W. Crombie, who for sixteen years was Member of Parliament for Kincardineshire. From Summersfields School he went to Winchester, and but for the out
For remembrance, soldier poets who have fallen in the war, Adcock, 1920 DJVU pg 279.jpg
Photo by Auxiliary Portrait Studios, Westminster.


break of war was to have gone to Oxford. He obtained a commission, was trained at Bedford, and was out in France, a Lieutenant of the Fourth Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, by January 1915. Three months later, on the 23rd April, he was wounded, and on the same day of the same month, in 1917, he was killed in the battle for the Chemical Works at Roeux, on the Somme.

A friend who was with him at Winchester writes that even at eighteen Eugene Crombie 'had an air of perfect maturity. He was wise beyond his years, yet there was a golden thread of boyishness and humour running through all he said and did. He was courageous, morally as well as physically. Those who knew him well knew that within him there was a spiritual fire of true religion which made him love right for its own sake, and that his mind was exquisitely susceptible to the influences of poetry, nature, and music. But this side of him was kept hidden; not all who came into contact with him found it; but it was there, and reveals itself in the few poems he has left us, especially in the last two that he wrote. He owed much to Winchester, but has repaid the debt by adding one more name to the long roll of those who have lived and died in accordance with her highest traditions.'

He had looked forward to following in the steps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, who had all been in the House of Commons, and he showed every promise of becoming an eloquent speaker, possessing a fine voice, a good presence, and considerable dramatic talent.

A faith as sure as his, a quiet religious earnestness, are characteristic also of Cyril Winterbotham, especially in his last poems, 'A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches' and 'The Cross of Wood,' the latter written a month before he was killed in action. He had written verses since his childhood, and the early poems gathered into his little volume show a delightful sense of humour and a real love of nature. From Cheltenham College he went to Oxford in 1906; and in 1911 he was called to the Bar. He was keenly interested in politics, and in 1913 was adopted as prospective Liberal candidate for East Gloucestershire. His warmest sympathies went out to the poor and unfortunate, and he gave much of his time to useful work with the Oxford and Bermondsey Mission. In September 1914 he obtained a commission in the 1/5 Gloucestershire Regiment, and was in Flanders and France from March 1915 until his death. 'He was essentially a man of peace,' writes his mother, 'and had a horror of war and bloodshed, but when the call came he did not hesitate—every other feeling gave way to the desire to serve his country, and to deliver the oppressed. He sacrificed his own ambition to the great cause of Liberty and Honour, to which he believed he was called by God Himself. His horror of it all made no difference to the doing of what he felt was his duty, even to the laying down of a life which had always been pleasant to him and held so much promise for the future.' He was only twenty-nine when he died, and those two last poems of his, written on active service, shall surely give him a lasting place in our remembrance among the soldier poets of this war.

A succession of bizarre, imaginative stories beginning with The Boats of the Glencarrig, had established Hope Hodgson's reputation as a novelist before, at the outbreak of war, he came home from the south of France to qualify for a commission in the R.F.A. He was sent to the western front in October 1917. At the beginning of the following April he distinguished himself by saving his guns in a stubborn rearguard action; and on the 17th of the same month he was killed while acting as observation officer. Before he settled down to a literary career, he had served eight years at sea, and his memories of those days are in his stories and in the lyrics and ballads that are gathered into his one book of verse, The Calling of the Sea, which is now in the press. I recall him as a forceful, enthusiastic personality, seeming much younger than his forty years; an idealist who aimed at the highest both in literature and in life, and I know that if he could have chosen the manner of his ending he would have had no other than the brave death he died.