‘A whole sweet countryside amuck with murder’

War Poetry and the Flemish Frontline

By the time the small British Expeditionary Force had crossed the Channel and arrived on the outskirts of Mons in August 1914 most of Belgium, in spite of brave and determined resistance, had been over-run by the massive power of the German army.

For the next four years much of the countryside and many towns and villages were devastated by grim and relentless fighting. By the end of the war the battlefields of Flanders had become immortalised in the name of one small Flemish village: Passchendaele. Now Passendale, near Ypres, it will forever be synonymous with the words carnage, comradeship and courage.

In Other Men’s Flowers (1944), Lord Wavell said that ‘battle poems are seldom written by those who have been in battle’. This was no longer the case by the end of the First World War. During the first weeks, however, a surge of verse jingoism, calls to join a holy crusade and to sacrifice self for God, King and Country came from the pens of patriots, war-mongers, and established English poets too old to enlist. As the war months progressed soldier-poets, many fresh from school or university, recorded the slaughter, suffering and grim conditions in the trenches and on the battlefields. Over the last eighty years the majority of these writers have been neglected or forgotten, but three well-known names, Rupert Brooke, Julian Grenfell and John McCrae, wrote poems from Flanders which were to be among the most anthologised and eulogised of the war.

Rupert Brooke, who did not live to fight in the trenches, was nevertheless one of the first British poets to write of his war experiences as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Anson Battalion of Winston Churchill’s newly formed Royal Naval Division. The Battalion was part of the abortive mission to relieve Antwerp at the beginning of October 1914. Deeply affected by this ordeal, Brooke composed his powerful sequence of war sonnets shortly afterwards and wrote in a letter: ‘I marched through Antwerp, deserted, shelled, and burning, one night, and saw ruined houses, dead men and horses… And the whole heaven and earth was lit up by the glare from the great lakes and rivers of burning petrol, hills and spires of flame. That was like Hell, a Dantesque Hell, terrible. But there – and later – I saw what was a Truer Hell. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons, moving with infinite slowness out into the night, two unending lines of them, the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard white drawn faces, the children playing or crying or sleeping. That’s what Belgium is now: the country where three civilians have been killed to every one soldier…’

A big picnic

As Brooke returned to England with his battalion, patrols of the German 3rd Cavalry Division entered Ypres, one of the great medieval cities of Flanders. The following day British forces reoccupied the city and pushed the Germans back eastwards. The Ypres Salient was formed. The Salient was a defensive semi-circle with the city in the centre, and its perimeter formed the Allied Front Line for the next four years. In the early months it was a five mile arc from Hill 60 in the south to Steenstratt in the north where it joined the sector held by the Belgian Army. The First Battle of Ypres opened on 15 October 1914 and relentless defensive fighting continued for the next thirty-three days, at the end of which the Germans gave up their immediate aim of breaking the line and taking the city.

On the first day of the battle, Julian Grenfell, a young Captain in the Royal Dragoons, wrote from billets at Wytschaete that it was ‘all wonderful fun’ and continued to write descriptive letters home over the next seven months. Educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford Grenfell was a professional soldier who had served in India and South Africa. On 21 October his battalion took over front line trenches at Zandvoorde: ‘…I adore War. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy…’

On 15 November Grenfell was in trenches in a wood very close to the enemy, north of Klein Zillebeke. He went out on his own behind the German lines on two days, shot three Germans at close range and returned to his battalion in time to report a fast-approaching German attack. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

On 15 April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres started – a ‘long-drawn torture of three weeks’ action’. On the evening of the 22nd the Germans attacked near Langemarck with heavy artillery accompanied by the first use of poison gas. The following day the 1st Royal Dragoons moved to billets at Houtkerque near Watou and from a barn Julian Grenfell wrote his poem, a hymn to creation, ‘Into Battle’. By 10 May the Allied line had withdrawn to within two miles of Ypres. The Dragoons were in the second line of trenches between Hooge Lake and a railway line half a mile to the north. In the early hours of Ascension Day, 13 May, the Germans started a heavy bombardment of the trenches. During the morning Grenfell went up Railway Hill and was knocked down by a shell which tore his coat. He returned with the news that the Germans were outflanking the Royals and later went up the hill again with the Brigade General. A shell landed a few yards from them and they were both hit. Grenfell had a shell-splinter in his head and was taken to a hospital at Boulogne. He underwent two operations but died on 26 May and was buried in the cemetery above Boulogne.

The Canadian, John McCrae, had fought in the Boer War, and by 1914 was one of the most respected doctors and lecturers in medicine in Montreal. At the outbreak of the war he offered himself as a ‘combatant or medical’, and was appointed Brigade Surgeon and second-in-command of the First Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. The Brigade was ordered up the line on 22 April. Two days later the village of St Julien was captured by the Germans; the Canadian front-line infantry suffered appalling losses and were withdrawn on 25 April. The artillery remained in action. McCrae later wrote: ‘…As we moved up there was heavy firing about 4.30 on the left, the hour at which the general attack with gas was made when the French line broke… We got into action at once, under heavy gunfire. We were to the left entirely of the British line, and behind French troops, and so we remained for eight days…’

Brigade headquarters was on the Poperinghe-Ypres road and was under continuous bombardment. Grief-stricken after a close friend was killed at the beginning of May, John McCrae wrote the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ outside his dugout. After the Canadian artillery was withdrawn he wrote to his mother on 10 May: ‘… We have been in the most bitter of fights. For seventeen days and seventeen nights none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even… In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds…’

Thomas Ernest Hulme graphically described life in the trenches under fire from the point of view of the private soldier. Hulme, one of the most dominant figures in London’s intellectual life before the war, enlisted as a private in the Honourable Artillery Company. He kept a diary for the first three months of 1915 when his Company was alternating between trenches at Kemmel and St Eloi and billets at Locre, Lindenhoek and Dickebusch. Five days before he was wounded at St Eloi Hulme described a night carrying barbed wire up to the trenches and later wrote a poem, ‘Trenches: St Eloi’, based on his experience: ‘April 9th 1915… We got into an open trench about 1.30 having started at 10, so you may tell what sort of a job it was, to go along 2 miles. There were no shelters and it poured continually for several hours. Fortunately the next 36 hours it was finer and then we marched back about two pm to a rest barn… Every night we have had to march back to the trenches about 4 miles and dig. The night before last we were out from 8 pm till 4 in the morning. We have only had a proper night’s rest in the last three weeks… We are back again to the trenches tonight for four days continously… This is a curious thing, we move as you know always at night and troops going always in the same direction make definite paths. One of our snipers walking about in the daylight discovered that one of these paths that we walk over led right over the chest of a dead peasant (Belgian)…’

Unutterable foulness

Many soldier-poets struggled with the paradox of where a God of love and peace stood in the nightmare inferno of battle. A much loved Padre-poet, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, acknowledged the dilemma:

I know. It is not easy to explain
Why should there be such agony to bear?
Why should the whole wide world be full of pain?….

Studdert Kennedy was widely known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ because of the pocketful of Woodbine cigarettes he always had ready for the troops. He wrote powerful poems and preached unconventional sermons to packed congregations, winning the hearts of the soldiers with his comradeship and down-to-earth sense of humour. He spoke in plain and forthright language: … the brutality of war is literally unutterable: there are no words foul and filthy enough to describe it…’ Although he suffered from repeated attacks of asthma he continually rescued the wounded under fire and was awarded the Military Cross at Messines Ridge in June 1917 ‘for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty…’

Within the ramparts of Ypres the first edition of the trench magazine, The Wipers Times, was produced on 12 February 1916. An old printing-house had been bombed and the press was rescued by a sergeant who had been a printer before the war. The editor was a battalion commander in the Sherwood Foresters who wrote that the early editions consisted of ‘any old thing that came into our heads. Little incidents in the Salient were turned into adverts, or small paragraphs.’ In this way the horror of war was reflected through humorous and irreverent prose and verse. The first editorial den — ‘rat-infested, water-logged cellars’ — was shelled shortly after the publication of the second edition of the magazine; undeterred, the small team procured a new printing machine and found shelter at Hell-Fire Corner, a notoriously dangerous place where the Menin Road, the Potijze-Zillebeke road and the railway met. The team was forced to move several times and the magazine underwent various name changes until by December 1918 the one-time Wipers Times, now The Better Times, was produced for the last time. Gilbert Frankau, a young officer serving in the Royal Field Artillery, contributed light verse to the magazine until he returned to England after the Battle of the Somme. On 17 April 1916, after the press was moved to Neuve Eglise, Frankau wrote A Few Words, satirical ‘parish prose’ in verse form: ‘… Is it not good, dear friends, to hop away from Reninghelst and Pop; only on others’ maps to see the walls that once were Potijze; to leave the sinful whiskied throng that filled the Ramparts all night long, the snares that wait for youthful feet in City Square and Regent Street, the pit that yawns for wicked ways where Hell Fire Corner’s Shell-fires blaze; is it not good, my friends, to perch in safety by this dear new church?…’

In his poem ‘The Other Side’, published in 1918, Frankau remembered the ‘stark stupendous horror… the unutterable foulness’ of the Salient. The harsh reality of Frankau’s lines was echoed in poetry and prose by many of the soldier-poets serving on the Flemish front line. After taking Holy Communion in a barn at Dickebusche, Alec de Candole remembered that even while he knelt ‘a sound of hate burst sudden on us’; Edward Wyndham Tennant, aged only nineteen, responded with ‘The Mad Soldier’ after he had spent the 1916 winter of bitter cold and mud in trenches at Ypres. John Stewart, MC, who enlisted as a twenty-three-year-old volunteer in August 1914 and rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel within thirteen months, wrote of ‘grim and distorted trees’ in his poem ‘The Messines Road’, where once ‘old and young walked up to Mass’; the road which ran from Poperinghe, through Ypres to Zonnebeke, trees ‘torn with shrapnel’ and ditches ‘where the guns have claimed their dead’ were remembered by Hugh Lyon, a young officer in the 6th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, in his poem ‘A Road: A Memory of 1915’; Edmund Blunden and Herbert Read wrote of the agony of the Third Battle of Ypres; Raymond Asquith, son of the British Prime Minister, recorded in June 1916 the horror of a wood near Vlamertinghe: ‘… the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate – a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nestling in the hedges, and over all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden…’

Silent witnesses

The continuity and beauty of creation provided solace to the weary soldier. Amongst shattered ruins, and over the shell-scarred countryside he could occasionally discover an isolated copse, wild flowers, soft fruit in an abandoned garden, stars and birds in the sky above him. A constant theme in the poetry and prose is the comparison between the very least of nature’s wonders and man’s relentless madness and destruction. Walter Lyon, from a trench in Glencorse Wood, near Ypres, compared the ‘quiet sky huge and thick with stars’, with the guns and shells bursting ‘in death and thunder’. In his ‘Last Song’, written from Hazebrouck in June 1917, Henry Simpson mourns for his broken songs which have fled ‘the filth and the weariness and the dead’ leaving only birdsong, rain and dew.

‘The voice of nature cries in many ways where violence savages’ was the thread running through much that Edmund Blunden wrote from the trenches and after the war. Blunden, ‘a harmless young soldier in a shepherd’s coat’, won the Military Cross serving with the IIth Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment during the Battle of the Somme. Early in 1917 the Battalion took over trenches at Potijze. The front line, which ran from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank to the south, was ‘crude and inhuman’ and battalion headquarters was in the ruined Chateau. With the threat of a German offensive he was one of many who went out frequently on patrol in bitterly cold weather; stick-bombs buried in the snow, sudden shell-fire, and unexpected enemy raids, were a constant danger. Later the battalion went to Ypres and ‘occupied various cavities of less or more insecurity’, and then went to hold trenches on rising ground in Sanctuary Wood, near Hill 60. Blunden was then sent as Brigade Intelligence Officer to where headquarters was concealed in an old brick vault under the ramparts close to the Lille Gate. Here he compiled information gathered from the front-line, wrote daily reports, and made long tramps day and night visiting trenches and other positions in the vicinity. Early in June the battalion was in a camp in the ominous and dangerous woods west of Vlamertinghe. The road, made of planks, passed through ‘a gorgeous and careless multitude of poppies and sorrels and bull-daisies’ to the grounds of the Vlamertinghe Chateau which Blunden later celebrated in his poem, Nlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July 1917’.

The days of waiting continued until the Third Battle of Ypres started on 31 July 1917 with an early-morning allied attack in torrential rain which fell unabated for the next four days. Blunden was waiting in the assembly trench with his signallers: ‘We rose, scrambled ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once feared trench behind them without seeing that it was a trench. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to dilute itself into daylight, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; walking to the slanted low entrances with my revolver, I was well satisfied to prove them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted!’

The next day was ‘dismal, noisy and horrid with sudden death’ and then the diminished battalion was ordered to hold another position which was remorselessly shelled for the next twenty-four hours. The officers’ dugout, a ‘little concrete hutch’, received a direct hit. ‘But we had escaped, and outside, scared from some shattered nook, a number of field mice were peeping and turning as though as puzzled as ourselves.’ Blunden noted in his diary that it was ‘the most wicked twenty-four hours I have ever been through’ and later wrote the powerful poem ‘Third Ypres’.

The Sussex men took part in an attack near Gheluvelt and Blunden directed his signallers from one of two pillboxes at headquarters. The battalion lost almost three hundred men and ‘the small and dazed contingent’ was withdrawn for a few days rest at Mont Kokereele near Kemmel before taking part in ‘the slow amputation of Passchendaele’. The village of Passchendaele, sprawled across a ridge, had been held by the Germans for over three years, when on 6 November 1917, after weeks of terrible slaughter, it was captured by the Canadian Corps in a quagmire of mud and blood.

Herbert Read, who had won the Military Cross a few months previously, was in the line for five days near Zillebeke Lake in command of a company of the 10th Green Howards during the Third Battle of Ypres in October 1917. He told his wife that it was the worst few days he had ever known. ‘Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated’. He later wrote of this experience in the poem ‘Kneeshaw goes to War’. After winning the Distinguished Service Cross during the March Retreat in 1918 Read was again involved in heavy fighting at Dickebusch Lake and the battalion suffered many casualties. After the war Read reflected on the Ypres Salient in his essay First Blood: ‘If you are established at the point of a Salient, it means that you can be fired on from almost every direction. On both flanks the enemy stretches behind you, and from rising ground can shoot into your back. The ordinary defences of trench warfare are useless: there is no distinction between parados and parapet; none between front and flank. You must make the best of a circle. The circle will in effect become a moated mound, with deep-set caves in its sides. But it is futile to dig down into this flat spongey earth; that is only worth while if you want wells to drown rats in. The water is everywhere.’

Two young Celtic poets lie in Artillery Wood Cemetery at Boesinghe. Lance-Corporal Francis Ledwidge, the Irish poet of ‘the fields and flowers and fairies’ and Private Ellis Evans (Held Wyn), the Welsh bard, were killed on 31 July 1917 during the battle for Pilkem Ridge. A ‘mass multitude of silent witnesses’ lie in war cemeteries and are remembered on memorials all across the Flemish countryside. Almost 12,000 Commonwealth soldiers, the greatest number to be buried in any War Graves Commission cemetery on the Western Front, lie at Tyne Cott between Passchendaele and Zonnebeke; seven soldier-poets are amongst the 89,000 names commemorated on the Memorials to the Missing at Tyne Cott and the Menin Gate at Ypres. The soldier-poets who died, and those who survived the war, shared a range of emotions; fear, anger, despair, fatigue, boredom, humour, home-sickness, compassion and grief generated by the cruel and extraordinary conditions under which they existed. They symbolise all the combatants who fought each other over four tragic years. Their names will be evoked whenever their poetry and prose is read and studied by future generations and when pilgrims walk in reverent homage across the blood-soaked battlefields of Flanders.

By Anne Powell

First published in The Low Countries, 1998