by Dr Jack Binns
The most famous and most widely mourned English casualty of the Dardanelles-Gallipolli tragedy did not even reach the peninsula and did not die of battle wounds: his name was Rupert Brooke, the Great War’s earliest poet.
Brooke was born in 1887 at Rugby where his father was the school’s Classics teacher and housemaster. Between 1906 and 1909 he read for a Classics degree at King’s College, Cambridge. There his amazing good looks, charismatic character, acting and athletic ability and intellectual prowess won him great admiration and many prizes. From 1909 until 1912 he lived at Grantchester with which he is poetically associated. His first volume of poetry was published in 1911 and two years later he was awarded a Fellowship at King’s. By 1914, at the age of only 26, he was already moving in social circles which included Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, Violet Asquith, the Prime Minister’s daughter, and many contemporary artists such as WB Yeats and Stanley Spencer. Like several intellectuals of the time, Brooke admired the Germans, detested the Russian regime, and distrusted the French, so that when Britain declared war on the first in alliance with the other two he wrote to a friend, “Everything’s just the wrong way round.”
Deeply perplexed by his bi-sexuality and utterly confused about his destiny, Brooke found the war gave purpose to his life. Though embarrassed by his lack of military experience apart from “some khaki drilling at Rugby”, he still welcomed the offer from Churchill of a commission in the Royal Naval Reserve. “I rather despise the Army,” he wrote, “Britannia rules the waves.”
After only a few weeks training at Walmer in Kent (where he found the accents of the fifty men in his charge almost unintelligible) in October, 1914, his Anson Battalion of marines was posted to the relief of Antwerp. There, outside the city in makeshift defensive trenches, Brooke had his first (and last) experience of enemy shell-fire. But within hours the battalion was evacuated, Antwerp soon fell to the Germans, and Brooke and his men were back in England. Nevertheless, he was now reassured that he would not “break under the strain of danger and responsibility”. For someone who had endured public school boarding, the military life of an officer was no hardship!
Back home, he complained to one of his group of female lovers that, unlike the Belgians, the English had not yet woken up to the realities of warfare. He prayed that “a score of civilians” might be “killed” to bring the population to its senses! From now on, he wrote, “the central purpose of my life” is “to get good at beating Germans”. And later, “it’s a great life, fighting, while it lasts. The eye grows clearer and the heart.”
During the following months, his impatience with English civilian apathy grew in intensity. “I’ve been praying for a German raid”, he wrote. He could not decide which of his “two or three ladies” he might marry and bear him a son before he again set sail on active service. Now he seemed to have premonition of imminent death which was “better than coughing out a civilian soul amid bedclothes and disinfectant and gulping medicines in 1950.”
Brooke was ecstatic when news came in March that his Hood Battalion was soon to sail to the Dardanelles.
“I’ve never been quite so happy in my life, I think...We’re to take Constantinople...And I shall attend the first Mass in St Sophia since 1453...We’re back in May; and it’s a very unrisky job.”!
Recovering from sunstroke in the Casino Palace Hotel in Port Said, Brooke was visited by no less than General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Gallipoli campaign – a recognition of his status now as “our greatest poet-soldier”. A few days later, the Hood Battalion sailed to the Greek island of Skyros and Brooke went with them though he was now suffering from a mosquito bite on the right side of his lip. As his condition worsened, his doctors realised that he was dying of septicaemia. On April 23, appropriately St George’s Day and the date of Shakespeare’s death, Brooke passed away quietly on board a French hospital ship. His old friend, Winston Churchill, wrote a glowing tribute in The Times of April 26.
A month later, Brooke’s posthumous sonnets were first published under the title “1914 & Other Poems.” If in life he had little fame as a poet, by the end of 1915 after 11 editions his war poems had become and still remain perhaps the most famous in English popular literature. In The Soldier, he wrote:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
Not so well known and recited as this inscription carved on his tombstone at Skyros, in another sonnet, Peace, he revealed his conviction that war was both heroic and, in a sense, purifying:
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...
Such sentiments could have been generated by a combatant only in the earliest days of the Great War. If Brooke had lived long enough to experience and witness the sufferings on the Somme or the pain of Passchendaele his response might have been profoundly different. Between the Brooke of 1914-15 and the bitter horror and satire of his successors such as Sassoon, Rosenberg and Owen there was the huge, unbridgeable gulf of the Western Front trenches.
Of all the ironies, the circumstances of Brooke’s death was the greatest. Having turned down Hamilton’s invitation to join his Staff, he died not from a Turkish bullet or shell and not even on the shores of the Hellespont, but from an infected insect bite. It was a death in Greece hardly any more heroic than that of Lord Byron’s. Seven weeks later, Rupert’s younger brother, Alfred, was killed in France.