Thursday 21 May 2020

Update May 2020

The Great War at Sea Poetry Project has now come to an end. I want to thank everyone who has shown an interest, offered support, and feedback. Hopefully the point about 'War at Sea' poetry deserving some recognition has been made, whether related to World War 1 or other conflicts.

Now working on the following projects    Blog about 17th century literature related to the subject of War.

BleakChesneyWold    Charles Dickens / 'dark' 19th century history new blog launched 2nd February 2023

No Longer Updated 

Monmouth Rebellion 1685 About the life of the Duke of Monmouth and the 1685 Rebellion   So far has been more orientated to the reigns of King John and Henry III .

Michael Bully

21st May 2020

Thursday 31 January 2019

The Sinking of HMY Iolaire 1st January 1919

                                       Part one -Introduction


                       Image of the Iolaire memorial, the Isle of Lewis, courtesy of the
                      IWM, via non-commercial licence copyright Donald I Macleod reference WME44784


The worst British Maritime natural disaster since 'The Titanic' occurred in the early hours of 1st January 1919. Men from the Isles of Lewis and Harris who had served in World War 1 were returning home. They had spent up to 23 hours travelling across Britain to converge on Kyle of Lochalsch station, then the pier. It seems that the authorities weren't prepared for the numbers of men who had gathered seeking transport the Western Isle. A yacht that had already been commandeered by the Admiralty- HMY Iolaire- was ordered from the Isle of Lewis over to Kyle of Lochalsch, to take the men to Stornoway. At 7.30 pm 31st December 1918 the voyage began. The weather worsened during the night, with a strong gale and squalls breaking out.

It was later to emerge that the crew were undermanned and not used to navigating at sea in the dark. When HMY Iolaire was being steered to enter Stornoway Harbour a terrible misjudgement was made. The Iolaire ended up striking rocks known locally as the 'Beasts of Holm', just before 2am Ist January 1919, 30 feet from the shore . It seemed that the yacht initially got stuck, then driven back into the sea, then battered against the rocks again, finally to sink.

There is a slight disagreement regarding those who died, figures suggested range from 201- 205. The most likely is 174 men from the Isle of Lewis, 7 men from the Isle of Harris, 18 crew and 2 passengers.  Around 80 men survived, but with the terrible knowledge that their homecoming was going to become  perpetually overshadowed by so many losses occurring in one night amongst a relatively small population.

The thought of families preparing to welcome their young men home from war, only to be called out to identify their bodies washed up on the beaches, is heart breaking. And some bodies were never found.

The centenary has seen an official commemoration service on 1st January 2019, a new memorial, a commemorative art installation, an exhibition in Stornoway, along with new poetry and songs, have been written about the tragedy. Particularly impressive is Lewis musician/songwriter Iain Morrison's piece An Isolaire Sal. Mr Morrison's great grandfather  was one of those who died in the tragedy.

So many commentators have mentioned that for generations the tragedy was hardly spoken about in the communities who had endured such loses . The Centenary of the Great War seems to have released a need to create and to commemorate.

 This poem -'Last night the Iolaire was Torn' by Murdo Macfarlane is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914- 1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon. Reproduced by kind permission of the publishers.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn- By Murdo Macfarlane ( first four verses ) 
The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.
The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.
They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.
Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.......

 Whole poem can be found at     Birlinn Publishers  page on the 'Iolaire'

Links connected with  HMY Iolaire 

National Poetry Library of Scotland  page on responses to  Iolaire  Listing of the casualties 

Malcolm MacDonald , local historian , talks about Iolaire
Iain Morrison  musician from Isle of Lewis commissioned work to mark the Centenary of the sinking of Iolaire  
Both Malcolm and Iain are descendants of men who died on the Iolaire 
In Sight of Home The Iolaire   Excellent BBC Scotland Documentary 

Michael Bully  Current projects
A Burnt Ship       17th century war & Literature blog 
Bleak Chesney Wold new blog launched February 2023 -Charles Dickens/Dark Victoriana 

Saturday 12 August 2017

A Burnt Ship - Early Modern Roots of War at Sea Poetry (1)

                                              Update from August 2017 and research notes

                                         Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom 'Battle between England and Spain 
                                                      1601-[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Further Update - a revised version of this article has been used to launch a new blog that began at the start of October 2017  A Burnt Ship    about 17th Century War poetry

Update  Though the Great War at Sea Poetry Project has officially collapsed, and little has been posted on this blog in 2017, visitors from all over the world keep visiting. Really appreciate your interest. Thank you.

Thought that I would look at the roots of War at Sea Poetry from the turn of the 16th century so that people who keep returning to this blog actually have something new to read. 

New blog launched in February 2023 Bleak Chesney Wold Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana

                               A Burnt Ship 

Fighting at sea can be particularly ferocious, simply because there is so little chance to retreat let alone desert ; as the medieval chronicler Froissart observed  concerning the 1340 Battle of Sluys;

“It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill.”

In other words there a combatant who loses his nerve during a sea battle  can't play dead, hide under a pile of corpses or in a fox hole, abandon the battlefield. The sea will not offer sanctuary.

'The Burnt Ship ' -John Donne

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap'd forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes' ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown'd.

John Donne ( 1572- 1631) was one of the few British poets to have been to sea, and one of even fewer poets to have experienced warfare at sea- he joined the notorious 1596 expedition to Cadiz led by Sir Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex .The town was sacked and some prize galleons set on fire. John Donne was with a fleet that sailed for the Azores in 1597, but a storm drove them back to Plymouth. A second sailing was more successful,

What is fascinating is about this epigram is that the sea is neutral . All the action concerns human conflict, the only hint of how menacing the sea can be is in the last line  they in the burnt ship drown'd. The claustrophobia of being trapped between fire and water is a constant theme in War at Sea poetry. Looking at Alan Ross writing during his time on Arctic convoy PW51b as a rating on board HMS Onslow at the battle of Baring Sea on 30th December 1942 , using a hose to tackle a fire beneath desks whilst sea water is also leaking in ( from the poem 'PW51b".)

"So Onslow rejoined in falling darkness.
Having aided the elements cancellation
Of each other; fire and water"

John Donne wrote a large amount of love poetry, and also as Dean of St. Paul's , became renowned for the quality of his sermons. The theme of the sea returned to his work.


'The Calm' - John Donne

Storms chafe, and soon wear out themselves, or us;
In calms, Heaven laughs to see us languish thus.
As steady'as I can wish that my thoughts were,
Smooth as thy mistress' glass, or what shines there,

The sense of  man’s  helplessness is conveyed so well. The sea is part of a elemental world which is largely indifferent to the fate of humanity. John Donne himself was on a ship that was becalmed in September 1597. Not surprisingly , ‘The Calm’ ends with a sense of late 20th century existential angst.

“Fate grudges us all, and doth subtly lay
A scourge, 'gainst which we all forget to pray.”


“ Is man now, than before he was? He was
Nothing; for us, we are for nothing fit;
Chance, or ourselves, still disproportion it.
We have no power, no will, no sense; I lie”

          In the world of sail, ships rely on wind to navigate. The sense of human vulnerability is even stronger, As well as current and storms, the risk of being stranded if the winds simply do not move is great. Or if sails and rigging are destroyed in battle. ‘The Calm ‘ is one of the strongest poems to convey this.

Andrew Marvell ( 1621- 1678) summed up how vulnerable ships could be to enemy raids;

‘Last Instruction to a Painter ‘ -Andrew Marvell

There our sick ships unrigg’d in summer lay
Like molting fowl, a weak on easy prey,
For whose strong bulk earth scarce could timber find,
The ocean water of the heavens wind-
Those oaken giants of the ancient race,
That rul’d all seas and did our Channel grace "

The sick ships are in fact the becalmed Royal Navy of 1667, an easy target for the fleet of the Dutch Republic under the command of the mighty Michiel De Ruyter , who managed to sail up the Medway and caused some havoc.. The Royal Navy Dockyard at Chatham euphemistically refer to the event as' The Battle of the Medway' , the Dutch call their visit on 10th-12th June 1667 'De Tocht Naar Chatham' , 'the excursion to Chatham.' The Royal Navy towed away the English flagship the 'Royal Charles'

Pieter Cornelisz van Soest [Public domain], via Wikimedia Common

The year before, on 10th -12th August 1666, an English fleet under Robert Holmes had raided the Dutch town of West Terschelling, which was set on fire along with some 140 merchant ships . This incident is sometimes referred to as 'Holmes Bonfire'. A future post will look at the work of John Dryden, whose poem -'Annus Mirabelis' also covered the Second Anglo-Dutch War .

References ; 'John Donne -the complete English Poems' edited by A.J. Smith,Penguin, ( 1971).
'Froissart's Chronicles' Geoffrey Bereton translation, Penguin ( 1968)
'Andrew Marvell- The complete Poems' , Penguin, edited - Elizabeth Story Donno, Penguin ( 1972)
'Alan Ross Poems selected and introduced by David Hughes', Harvill Press, 2005

Monday 10 April 2017


The Great War at Sea Poetry Project will come to an end on the 30th April 2017. I would like to thank everyone from so many different countries who has visited the blog.

The posts on this blog will be archived at  whilst anyone interested in World War 2 poetry is welcome to visit

Michael Bully
Brighton- 10th April 2017

Sunday 4 December 2016

Vernon Watkins/Janet Hills

                             Last Post of 2016
 Thank you to the large number of readers from many countries who have logged into the view this blog.  Please also consider looking at the associated blog
The latest post concerns Siegfried Sassoon's influence on World War 2 poets.

                  Vernon Watkins ( 1906- 1967), sometimes referred to as the 'other Welsh poet' due to his close association with Dylan Thomas. Thomas was due to be Vernon Watkins' best man, but missed the wedding ceremony .Vernon Watkins  did a great service to sea poetry generally by translating the  poetry  of Heinrich Heine (1797- 1856) from  German, appearing in the collection  'The North Sea ' (1955).

Watkins served in the RAF from 1941- 1945, including a spell with RAF Intelligence, and was stationed at Bletchley Park.

                                         Vernon Watkins photograph (1948) from BBC Wales site

'Griefs of the Sea' was most probably written around 1940. The poem appeared in 'More Poems from the Forces- A Collection of Verses By Serving Members Of The Navy, Army and Air Force' edited by Welsh poet Keidrych Rhys in 1943, and dedicated to the USSR.

'Griefs of the Sea'- Vernon Watkins

Is it fitting to mourn dead sailors,
To crown the sea with some wild wreaths of foam
On some steep promontory, some corner cliff of Wales
Though the dead wave hear nothing.

It is fitting to fling off clothing,
To enter the sea with plunge of seawreaths white
Broken by limbs that love the waters, fear the stars,
Though the blind wave grope forward to the sand
With a greedy silvered hand.

It is a horrible sound, low wind's whistle
Across the seaweeds on the beach at night.
From stone to stone through hissing caves it passes
Up the curved cliff and shakes the prickly thistle
And spreads its hatred through the grasses.

In spite of that wicked sound
Of the wind that follows us like a scenting hounds,
It is fitting on the curved cliff to remember the drowned
To imagine them clearly for whom the sea no longer cares,
To deny the language of the thistle, to meet their foot -firm
Across the dark-sown tares
Who were skilful (sic) and erect magnificent types of godhead,
To resist the dogging wind, to accuse the sea-god;
Yet in that gesture of anger we must admit
We were quarrelling with a phantom unawares.

For the sea turns whose every drop is counter
And sand turns whose every grain a holy hour-glass holds
And the weeds turn beneath the sea, the sifter life slips free,
And the wave turns surrendering from its folds
All things that are not of the sea, and throws off is the spirit
By the sea, the riderless horse which they once mounted.

The view of the sea, as a potentially hostile element, indifferent to the fate of humanity, is clearly evoked here. The sea 'no longer cares' about the drowned. The 'dead wave hear nothing' , there's also an image of a 'blind wave. There's also a mention of a 'sea-god' who isn't named, like some force one can not  intercede with. Interesting how the wind is portrayed in the same bleak fashion. 'We were quarrelling with a phantom unawares', suggest Nature generally is not interested in negotiating with us.

                                   ' Autumn by the Sea'-Janet Hills 

    The Autumn's ashes here.
No warmth of berries, and the sunlight grieves
  With no woods near.
The unescapable, the desolate sea,
Rigid through all its changes, deadens me,
And pale as Autumn seas, the scattered leaves
Break round the long-stalked flowers on homeless land

   We loved to talk of peace,
And looked to see the rising of a truth
 If war should cease.
Now, in the darkness, listlessly we guess
Towards some future blood-drained weariness.
For we , cut off from grace, must spend our youth
For something we abhor, but know must be.

From 'Shadows of War -British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' ,edited and introduced by Anne Powell, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1999.

                      Janet Hill is listed as an English graduate from Sommerville, then joined the WRVS, then became  an officer in Intelligence. One collection of her work, titled 'Fragments', was published in 1956. So far haven't located any more of her work in World War 2 poetry anthologies, apart from one further poem in 'Shadows of War'. Particularly like the reference to the 'desolate sea/ Rigid through all its changes deadens me'. The sea is not portrayed as being hostile to the poet, but 'unescapable' (sic) , like the fact that the poet's generation is committed to fight an inevitable war. This sense of fatalism is typical of World War 2 poetry from Britain. Poetry is neither a tool for recruitment nor trying to enlighten non-combatants about the 'true' nature of war.

Latest blog by Michael Bully Bleak Chesney Wold Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana  launched February 2023

Tuesday 8 November 2016

'Voices of Silence' -Vivien Noakes /The Poetry of J. L. Crommelin Brown

Greetings to readers of this blog in many countries, interest always appreciated. A companion blog to this one is World War 2 Poetry Blog

UPDATE the latest project from Michael Bully is Bleak Chesney Wold relating to Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana 

Voices of Silence- The Alternative Book of First World War Poetry’ (2006) edited by Vivien Noakes was a landmark attempt to deliberately move away from the more established poets.
In her own words ;
“What I discovered was a body of rich, exciting, often deeply moving work that complements the established literary canon, the two should be read side by side “

Work by all serving  ranks along with poems written by Conscientious Objectors and civilians was  included in this anthology without distinction. There was no attempt to elevate certain poets above the others. Copies are still available and a kindle edition has been launched.

Vivien Noakes included a section on sea poetry. One favourite that was selected ;

Image taken from Pinterest - unsure of origin.

                                            The Lusitania

" In a world that is neither night nor day,
    A quiet twilight land.
With fifty fathoms over you
And the surge of seas to cover you,
    You rest on the kindly sand.

Above, the earth is March or May,
   And skies are fair in spring.
But all the seasons are one with you,
Summer and winter have done with you,
  And wars, and everything.

Surely this is a goodly gift,
To sleep so sound and sure
That neither  spite  nor weariness,
Passion, nor pain, nor dreariness
Can touch you any  more .

In drifting fume and flying scud,
  When the great tides shoreward sweep,
The seas that are in all to you
Whisper and move and call to you.

Whisper and call and weep."

J.L. Crommelin Brown

One question that doesn't seem to be addressed now is what happens after the centenary ? It's now hundred and one years after the torpedoing of the 'The Lusitania' on 7th May 1915 with the loss of 1198 lives. Thought that it was worth selecting this poem deliberately out of sync with all the anniversary marking. 

J.L  ( John Lewis) Crommelin Brown (1888- 1953) fascinates me. Involved in the Cambridge Footnotes, where he was a university contemporary of Rupert Brooke,and later a commissioned officer in Royal Garrison  Artillery in December 1915:  Vivien Noakes placed him at the Western Front in February 1916 then invalided out of the Army in March 1916. Between  May 1917 and July 1918 he was an instructor at the Cadet School at Trowbridge, and sent to Salonika in August 1918.

His work 'Dies Heroica' war poems 1914-1918 featured such subjects as The Battle of Dogger Bank, the novelty of submarine warfare, war at sea in general, a tribute to Rupert Brooke, along with poems attacking German icons such as Krupps and Nietzsche. And J.L Crommelin Browns poetry managed to get ignored in subsequent anthologies until 'Voices of Silence' . In later years he became better known for playing cricket for  Derbyshire. The poem 'Morphia' , written whilst the poet was recovering in hospital in 1916, is a neglected gem

“I eddy upwards towards a thing half-seen;

Sways like sea-currents, fluidly and green,
The flood of consciousness across my sight;
Till, one by one, the veils are stripped away;
The smoke of slumber blows away like dust;

And follows, sudden as a bayonet thrust,
The swift intolerable light of day.”

Text of Dies heroica

Will leave this post with some lines from J. L. Crommelin Brown's poem 'Troy' , written in April 1915, connecting Gallipoli with Antiquity,

For nigh three thousand years have rolled 
Since Hector fought and Homer sung, 
When Greece and all the world was young. 

A nobler Navy breasts the waves, 

Across the plain fresh armies go, 
Once more above those quiet graves 

From dusk to dawn the watch-fires glow. 
Perchance some bugle faintly blown, 

Some distant echo of the fight, 
May bring them, sleeping there alone, 

The memory of another night 
When, black beneath the Southern Cross, 
The lean ships came from Tenedos.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Troopship in World War 2

On 3rd September 2016 a World War 2 poetry blog was launched

Roy Broadbent Fuller 

Roy Broadbent  Fuller ( 11th February 1912- 27th September 1991)  was already a published poet when he was  conscripted into the Royal Navy in 1941. His first collection  'Poems' appeared in 1939, and he'd also appeared in the prestigious 'Twentieth Century Verse' anthology edited by Julian Symonds. His next collections, 'The Middle of a War' (1942) and the 'Lost Season' ( 1944 ) were well received.  He was promoted to Petty Officer and served in Africa in 1942, returning to Britain  as a lieutenant in the Admiralty in London in 1943. He was demobbed in December 1945.

Fuller became a reviewer of some note, further poetry collections and novels followed. His careers were varied, including a directorship with The Woolwich, and professor of poetry at Oxford University (1968- 1973). Fuller also became a BBC governor, and held positions on the Arts Council and Library Advisory Council for England. He had the distinction as a poet of having his later work held in high esteem. In fact his 1989 collection 'Available for Dreams' is often cited as featuring his greatest poetry.

His work was praised by fellow World War 2 poet Vernon Scannell in his 1976 work 'Not Without Glory-poets of the Second World War' , who also drew attention to Fuller's initial support for Marxism, and the fact that Fuller's service during the War involved little direct combat. Another contemporary, Alan Ross, who also served in the Royal Navy , was a friend of Fuller's for decades, and dedicated his poem 'The Sea 1939- 1945' to Fuller.

                               Image of ill fated troop ship RMS Laconia torpedoed on 12th September 1942
                                         courtesy of Wikipedia 

Troop Ship

" Now the fish fly, the multiple skies display
Still more astounding patterns, the colours are
More brilliant than fluid paint, the grey more grey.

At dawn I saw a solitary star
Making a wake across the broken sea,
Against the heavens swayed a sable spar.

The hissing of the deep is silence,the
Only noise is our memories.

                                             O far,
From our desires, at every torrid port,
Between the gem-hung velvet of the waves,
Our sires and grandsires in their green flesh start,
Bend skinny elbows, warn: 'We have no graves,
We passed this way, with good defended ill.
Our virtue perished, evil is prince there still. "

From 'Collected Poems 1936- 1961' -Roy Fuller
published 1961

A theme that occurs with 'War at Sea' and sea themed poetry is the notion that the sea, perhaps nature overall, is simply indifferent to humanity. However much beauty one finds in nature, its sky colours more 'brilliant than fluid paint' -it's superiority to something that humans can create, there are the ghosts who have passed this way. Their virtue having perished. Nature, like warfare itself doesn't reward the good.

The tension of embarkation in World War 2 must have been immense. As well as sailing off to fight in a foreign land, there was the realisation that loved ones weren't safe from bombing, even invasion.

A contrast can be found  by looking at the poem by one  Harry Beard , who began his war service by December 1940 at least,  commissioned in 1941, served with Egypt and 8th army in Italy. Later to work for Army Intelligence.

The Troopship

Through the tropics once again,
with a stinking cargo of two thousand men,
each one sweating in his hammock;-
hip to buttock....

Bear us quickly to out journey's end,
we have our freedom to defend.

She carried prisoners before
to the Antipodes; we go to war.
But here they pack us us as they packed the foe,
eighty in this foul-aired space below.

Bear us quickly to our journey's end,
we have our freedom to defend. 

At sea December 1940 

From 'The Voice of War- Poems of the Second World War ' , published by The Salamander Oasis Trust 1995.  The Salamander Oasis Trust began during the Second World War itself, and aimed to preserve the work of those who served in the Armed Forces during the conflict.

The poems compliments Roy Fuller's impression in that the sense of lower deck claustrophobia dominates. The sea is not even mentioned, and the voyage is uncomfortable and tedious.


UPDATE  New Blog launched in February 2023  by Michael Bully 
Bleak Chesney Wold  related to Charles Dickens/'dark' Victoriana