Friday 24 October 2014

Vera Brittain- Testament of Youth -the movie

                                         "HMHS Britannic" by Allan Green, 1878 - 1954 Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - 

Was lucky enough to be able to see the preview of 'Testament of Youth' as part of the BFI film festival in London on 16th October 2014. Should be on general release on 2nd January 2015. One section of the book-published in 1933-  that was left out of the film was Vera's account of VAD nursing in Malta.

Aged 22, Vera sailed on HM hospital ship  Britannic on 24th September 1916, arriving on 7th October 1916, and left Malta on 22nd May 1917. Still grieving for the loss of her fiance Roland Leighton, who served on the Western Front and  died of wounds on 23rd December 1914, Vera wrote in 1933

" The memory of my sunlit months in the Mediterranean during the War's worst period of miserable stagnation still causes a strange nostalgia to descend on my spirit. "

Chapter VII of 'Testament of Youth' titled 'Tawny Island' opens with this poem.


So then we came to the Island,
Lissom and young, with the radiant sun in our face;
Anchored in long quiet lines the ships were waiting,
Giants asleep in the peace of the dark-blue harbour.
Ashore we leapt, to seek the magic adventure
Up the valley at noontide,
Where shimmering lay the fields of asphodel.

O Captain of our voyage,
What of the Dead?
Dead days, dead hopes, dead loves,dead dreams, dead sorrows-
O Captain of our Voyage,
Do the Dead walk again ?..............

The journey was fraught with danger. HM hospital ship Britannic was at risk of attack from mines and torpedoes.Vera claimed that Britannic managed to lose its cruiser escort ships in The Agean. At Mudros the VAD nurses were transferred to a disease ridden liner Galeka. Britannic was eventually sunk on 21st November 1916, most likely striking an underwater mine. Britannic was also sister ship to the ill fated Titanic.

Asphodel meadow is where the spirits of dead dwell in 'The Odyssey' .  I've never seen 'We Shall Come No More' published in any anthology but it's a personal favourite of mine, from the Great War at Sea poetry genre. Particularly enjoy the contrast between the enchanting first verse...the exuberance reminds me of Francis Ledwidge's short poem 'Going to the War ' , his journey en route to Gallipoli.

 'In the Mediterranean- Going to the War'

Lovely wings of gold and green
Flit about the sounds I hear,
On my window when I lean
To the shadows cool and clear.

Roaming, I am listening still,
Bending, listening overlong,
In my soul a steadier will,
In my heart a newer song.

But this excitement  is followed by the refrain which suddenly evokes Vera's grief at the loss of her fiance from wounds .
Dead days, dead hopes, dead loves,dead dreams, dead sorrows
Her question Do the Dead walk again? 
Suggests that Vera felt that she too  was with the Dead, and not sure if she could come back to life again .

UPDATE  New blog by Michael Bully, February 2023 Bleak Chesney Wold related to Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victorian. 

Saturday 13 September 2014

Royal Naval Dockyard Chatham -Live Bait Squadron commemoration 22nd September 2014

                                         HMS Cressy, one of three cruisers sunk by the U9 on 22nd September 1914

"As part of The Historic Dockyard Chatham’s First World War Centenary commemorations, an event of national significance will remember the three Royal Navy Cruisers - HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy - which were sunk by enemy submarine action on 22nd September 1914 off the Dutch coast in the North Sea with a total loss of life of 1,459 men. "

From the Historic Dockyard Chatham website


YEARS ahead, years ahead,
Who shall honour our sailor-dead ?
For the wild North Sea, the bleak North Sea,
Threshes and seethes so endlessly.
Gathering foam and changing crest
Heave and hurry, and know no rest :
How can they mark our sailor-dead
In the years ahead ?
Time goes by, time goes by,

And who shall tell where our soldiers lie ?
The guiding trench-cut winds afar,
Miles upon miles where the dead men are;
A cross of wood, or a carven block,
A name-disc hung on a rifle-stock
These shall tell where our soldiers lie
As the time goes by.

Days to come, days to come
But who shall ask of the wandering foam,
The weaving weed, or the rocking swell,
The place of our sailor-dead to tell ?
From Jutland reefs to Scapa Flow
Tracks of the wary warships go,
But the deep sea-wastes lie green and dumb
All the days to come.

Years ahead, years ahead,
The sea shall honour our sailor-dead !
No mound of mouldering earth shall show
The fighting place of the men below,
But a swirl of seas that gather and spill;
And the wind's wild chanty whistling shrill
Shall cry " Consider my sailor-dead! "
In the years ahead.


(From Page 100 of 'Modern Poetry' edited by Guy N. Pocock . (1920) )

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

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Great War at Sea Poetry Project Website

          Use of above image of HMS Vanguard by kind permission from Orkney Library & Archive

 Great War at Sea Poetry Project now has a website at

Pages have been added about HMS Vanguard, Editha Jenkinson, poetry written to commemorate Lord Kitchener's death on aboard HMS Hampshire on 5th June 1916, the Battle of Jutland, war poetry generally.
Future topics include poetry about troopships, Wilfred Owen's view of sailors, and more 'Great War at Sea Poetry'.

I am working on a longer project provisionally titled 'Hilton-Young's Cigar ' which will look at Ltn. Edward Hilton-Young's one poetry anthology 'A Muse at Sea' published in 1919. Hilton-Young (20th March 1879 -11th July 1960)    served aboard HMS Iron Duke and HMS Vindictive at the time of the 23rd April 1918 Zeebrugge Raid.

Here's an attempt to describe the Great War at Sea Poetry Project

The Great War at Sea Poetry aims to encourage research into the sea as a setting for war poetry of this era written by combatants and non-combatants alike. Looking at contemporary anthologies, war at sea poetry was published during the Great War  but became marginalised and neglected in later years.

Whether this was due to the sea becoming less of a source of inspiration for poetry, or how categories such as ‘war poets’ and ‘war poetry’ have been constructed, remains an open question. Wider connections between ‘Great War at Sea Poetry’ with  ballads and other verse forms have become apparent, particularly in the work of such poets as Cicely Fox Smith.

There  is no attempt to create a category of  ‘Sailor Poets’ or to claim that sea poetry reveals some hidden historical  truth about the nature of Naval conflict , and reading poetry is not a viewed as a  substitute for historical research into the ‘Great War at Sea’.

It is hoped to get an anthology of ‘Great War at Sea Poetry ‘ published to commemorate the centenary of Jutland in 2016.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

HMS Vanguard

             HMS Vanguard 9th July 1917 

                                 Image of the Chatham Naval Memorial  used with the kind
                                            permission of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Remembering today 9th July 2014 those who died aboard the HMS Vanguard, who exploded whilst moored off the coast of Scapa Flow with the loss of over 800 lives -figures vary from 804 - 835 dead. Some men serving were absent from the ship on shore leave. A representative of the Japanese navy was also amongst the dead. The cause of the explosion may have been badly stored cordite or a bulkhead overheating and igniting explosive material.

The  Western Front Association  have published a fascinating article on HMS Vanguard and other accidental losses in home waters.

Always worth  remembering that the bodies of the Great War dead at land, sea and air were not always found-and how important local war memorials. plaques, national memorials such as the Naval Memorial at Chatham became. Again there seems some discrepancy in figures of the number of bodies found of those who served on HMS Vanguard, ranging from one to seventeen.

 Poetry, quite frequently published in newspapers and magazines, helped form a culture of mourning. 

From a poem by David Horne that first appeared in From the Chatham News, 24 July 1917, with kind permission  of Jonathan Saunders and originally published on line

                                                         HMS Vanguard 

                                                                    " Stand still! Stand Still! Ye leaping waves 
And mourn along with me
For a gallant ship has crossed the bar
Of the great eternal sea:
A flash, a roar, a blood red flame,
Then a huge overwhelming cloud,
And a thousand soles (sic)  are wrapped within
The ocean's winding shroud.

Ten thousand doors do ever lead
To death upon the deep:
Sometimes they open silently
Sometimes our hearts do creep
When a blinding flash, and a deafening crash
Sends a good ship to her doom
And her gallant crew are hid from view
Within a watery tomb.........."

Thursday 12 June 2014

Cicely Fox Smith -Commemoration


Delighted to hear that the life and work of  Cicely -Fox Smith (1882-1954)  is going to be commemorated at Bow, Devon, on 21st June 2014.  More details from ;
Celebrating Cicely

 An extensive prose writer and poet, a huge body of her work concerns themes relating to the Sea, and war at sea.  Her poem 'Home Lads Home' , written around 1916, was set to music about twenty years ago and performed in British folk clubs. Her poem 'North Sea Ground' about Grimsby during the Great War was set to music by classical composer  E.J. Moeran .

A favourite of mine is  'Stormy Dusk',which appears in her anthology 'The Naval Crown-Ballads and Songs of the War' (1919). This anthology contains poems that originally appeared in 'Punch', 'The Spectator' , 'Daily Chronicle', 'Sphere' and 'Country Life', making one realise what a potentially large readership her work had.

The first few lines are quite ominous, but overall there's not the graphic depiction of war of say Rosenberg, Owen, Gurney, or the satire of Sassoon, or triumphalism of Jessie Pope, just a simple prayer for the safety for the men at sea and for victory. A reminder that war poetry could be quite under-stated at times.

Stormy Dusk
To-night the dark came stormy down,
The sun went red to rest;
And fleets of clouds like battleships
Filled all the burning West.
The wind was rising to a gale,
It howled in hedge and tree . . .
And it's cold, bitter cold,
Where our sailormen must be,
Oh, it's bitter cold this night
In the wild North Sea!

To-night I heard the church clock strike
Across the gusts of storm . . .
And I thought how go the hours at sea
While we are sheltered warm . . .
I prayed God guard our ships at sea
And keep them from all harm . . .
And guide them through the pitch-black tides
Where the drifting death may be,
And give them soon a safe return
And a fruitful victory . . .
And Christ our Lord who walked of old
On waves of Galilee,
Be near our men this night
In the wild North Sea!
There is an online version of   The Naval Crown
Wish to thank various pals from the Great War Forum, particularly Sea Jane, for their help. 

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Kipling-The Verdicts

                   Will  the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrakschlacht be                         Remembered ?

                                                              Portrait of Kipling courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery -London 

                      'On the afternoon of Wednesday 31st May a naval engagement took place off the coast of                    
                      Jutland. The British ships on which the brunt of the fighting fell were the Battlecriuser Fleet                                                         supported by four fast battleships.'    Admiralty communique of  2nd June 1916

 The 98th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland/Skagerrakschlacht has just passed without much attention. The much anticipated clash between Britain and German fleets took place on 31st May 1916 and regarded as a 'draw': British losses of ships and men were higher but realistically Britain still retained control of the seas and still was able to impose its naval blockade against Germany.

If Britain had lost the battle, and control of the seas, then the outcome of the Great War would have been different. In 'Jutland 1916 -death in the grey wastes' Nigel Steel & Peter Hart' (2003) , the back cover 'blurb'  (looking at the 2004 paperback edition) announces that these authors want the battle to
return to its rightful place alongside the Somme and Passchendaele as one of the key episodes of the Great War.I am intrigued by the idea of return , the implication that Jutland somehow was once considered as a key episode  but somehow slipped from view.  

Jutland has not really been the theme of War memoir or poetry that is regularly anthologised. The numbers of men engaged were tiny compared with those who served on the Western Front. The number of those killed in action , 6,097 on the British side/ 2,551 on the German side, were not high compared with other 'key' battles.  Those who oppose Britain having engaged in the Great War don't seemed to have found enough in the battle; paradoxically, those who longed for Admiral David Beatty to be a 'Nelson' for the 20th century didn't feel that their high expectations were met.

Kipling considered the battle in  his poem 'The Verdicts' 

The Verdicts
Not in the thick of the fight,
Not in the press of the odds,
Do the heroes come to their height,
Or we know the demi-gods.

That stands over till peace.
We can only perceive
Men returned from the seas,
Very grateful for leave.

They grant us sudden days
Snatched from their business of war;
But we are too close to appraise
What manner of men they are.

And, whether their names go down
With age-kept victories,
Or whether they battle and drown
Unreckoned, is hid from our eyes.

They are too near to be great,
But our children shall understand
When and how our fate
Was changed, and by whose hand.

Our children shall measure their worth.
We are content to be blind . . .
But we know that we walk on a new-born earth
With the saviours of mankind.

The poem doesn't need a great deal of clever commentary-obviously scales incredible heights in remembrance terms: Not acceptable to people today who place an automatic premium on war poetry that is held to be anti-heroic, realistic in depicting the inhumanity of war, and ironic.
Kipling was still suffering from the news that his son John Kipling was missing, feared killed in action at Loos, on 25th October 1915.

From- The Kipling Society Journal of April 1931 

In conclusion, I would refer to " The Verdicts," R.K.'s poem
on The Battle of Jutland. This exactly expresses what 99 per
cent. of the R.N. think of the way in which that action has
been treated by the public as a whole. We have always felt
that there was, at least, one person who understood what the
action meant, and was not led astray by the remarks appearing
in certain newspapers at the time.
John Martin,
Lieutenant Commander, Royal Navy, Douala, Cameroun,
French Equatorial Africa.
The Kipling Society can be found at

In 1966 Steel and Hart remind us that on the 50th anniversary of Jutland, met again in North Sea, and quote from one veteran's account;

"Not so the British and German veterans who grinned and waived like anything at their former antagonists. The veterans in both squadrons cast memorial wreathes on  the sea,then each squadron cheered the other, and finally there was an exchange of signals and mementos." 

A great deal more can be said about Kipling and Great War at Sea Poetry but want to move the focus on to lesser known poets; But in returning to 'Great War at Sea Poetry' will end on the first verse of Guy Noel Pocock's poem 'Years Ahead' from an anthology that Pocock edited titled 'Modern Poetry' ( J M Dent & Sons- London,1920)

YEARS ahead, years ahead,
Who shall honour our sailor-dead ?
For the wild North Sea, the bleak North Sea,
Threshes and seethes so endlessly.
Gathering foam and changing crest
Heave and hurry, and know no rest :
How can they mark our sailor-dead
In the years ahead ?
Time goes by, time goes by,

Monday 19 May 2014

Great War at Sea Poetry Project


Image-Newhaven Fort -courtesy of South-East History Boards

“War’- Francis Ledgwidge (Killed in Action 31st July 1917)

Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all,
My Mother was a storm I call
And shorten your way with speed to me
I am Love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I
I am the pride in the lover’s eye
I am the epic of the sea .

The purpose of this blog is to encourage research into Great War at Sea Poetry, written by combatants and non-combatants alike.  Trying to establish how the  sea as a setting for human conflict and the sea as an actual natural element were sources of inspiration.

The Great War Centenary

At the time of writing it not clear whether or not the 1914-1918 commemoration will be a period  of remembrance or an attempt to reconstruct how the Great War is viewed. But the War at Sea is deemed to be neither important nor of great significance to the direct experience of warfare and/or the final outcome of the Great War.  The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War is due in a matter of weeks , but as I write there is little in the way of commemoration of the war at sea. And it’s possible to produce whole documentaries about the Great War without mentioning the conflict at sea once.

Number of men serving        

Is the Great War at Sea sidelined as proportionally  fewer men served in the Royal Navy and its associated force than the Army : The historian Martin Stephens in his  ‘Never Such Innocence- a New Anthology of Great War Verse’ (1988) partly explained the lack of sea and air poetry
“ The numbers of men involved in both the war at sea and the war in the air were miniscule compared with those involved in the land campaign.”

But still some 640,237 men served in the Royal Navy ( along with other related forces such as Royal Naval Air Service, and Royal Naval Division and Mercantile Marine Reserve ) during the Great War.  Even if we remove the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Naval Division as not really being devoted to conflict at sea, the numbers were not inconsequential.
Martin Stephens went out to say
“ Unlikely soldiers  such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg might well join the Army, but pre-war poets were much less likely to find themselves in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service or the Royal Navy, with the Navy, in particular, tending to retain its traditional intake; there as no ‘New Navy’ to go with Kitchener’s ‘New Army’, nor a need for one.”

Certainly this contention answer more if we accept that there is such a  category as ‘war poets’ as a distinct category apart from others usually, non-combatants, who might be writing poetry.

Were  there such beings as ‘Sailor Poets?’

The first use I can find of the term ‘Soldier Poets’ is in 1916 .But  has Great War at Sea poetry   suffered from the fact that none of the poets with literary connections such as having Edward Marsh as a patron or being connected to The Poetry Bookshop served with the Royal Navy :Though literary agent Edward Marsh, (most possibly using his position as secretary to Admiral Lord Winston Churchill)  assisted Rupert Brooke to obtain a commission as a lieutenant in the Hood Division of RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves), they fought on dry land. Brooke is most known for his sonnets-such as ‘The Soldier’ - than any sea related  poetry.

Furthermore, the most famous Great War at Sea poem is ' My Boy Jack?' by Rudyard Kipling about the Battle of Jutland , Kipling was aged 50 when he wrote it and was too old to serve. His 1916 anthology 'Sea Warfare' , containing articles, anecdotes, and poems relating to the 'Great War at Sea' was sponsored by the Admiralty. But as one sharp critic mentioned 'He wrote a series about Jutland, but he had not been within 500 miles of the battle'.

Another factor to consider is that surviving  so named ‘Soldier Poets’ also were memoir writers : Siegfried Sassoon with the ‘George Sherston’ series, Robert Graves with ‘Goodbye To All That’ , Richard Aldington ‘Death of a Hero’ , Edmund Blunden with ‘Undertones of War’. It’s quite a task to find the Royal Navy equivalent besides Lieutenant Edward Hilton Young whose verses ‘A Muse At Sea’ were published in 1919 and his war memoirs ‘By Sea and By Land’ (1920).

A Tradition of Sea Poetry

Yet some of Britain’s most famous poets and well known poems concern the sea: Coleridge’s ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, Swinburn’s ‘ ‘Channel Crossing’ , Thomas Campion’s ‘Hymn to Neptune’.. Moreover some of these poems concern sea conflict such as Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge- Ballad of the Fleet’ ( about Sir Richard Grenville’s action against the Spanish Fleet at The Azores in 1591.)
And it’s not possible to overlook Felicia Dorothy Heeman’s ‘Casabianca’ (Written in 1826 about the 1798 ‘Battle of the Nile’) -best known for the first lines which have been parodied so many times. 

The Boy Stood on the burning deck
Whence but all he had fled
The Flame that lit the battle wreck
Shone him o’er the dead

Significantly it’s hard to find examples of poets who spent much time at sea apart from John Masefield ( who was working on board ships from 1891-1894)

A decline in sea poetry ?

One possible line of investigation  is that little sea poetry of any literary consequence was being written during the first quarter of the 20th century. John Masefield’s ‘Saltwater Ballads (1902) is an exception. For example a popular anthology such as The Poetry Bookshop’s ‘Georgian Poetry 1913- 1915 ‘ (1915) included no sea-poetry apart from James Elroy Flekker’s ‘The Old Ships’.  It’s hard to imagine that avante-gardist Imagist poets writing about the sea.

Treating the limitless and untameable sea with reverence and  awe would suit the 19th century romantic temperament. There would not be another poem such as Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ just as there wouldn’t be an equivalent of Turner’s seascapes . 
It is interesting to note that Rupert Brooke’s ‘Channel Passage’ (1909)

The Damned ship lurched and slithered ‘Quiet and Quick’.
My cold gorge rose’ the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick

Seems to be mocking  Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’  ( possibly along with other works such as Whitman's 'In Cabin'd Ships at Sea', ) as if sea related poetry belonged to a bygone age.
Perhaps there would not be another poem such as Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ just as there wouldn’t be an equivalent of Turner’s seascapes?  A possible flaw with this line of argument is that the sea as a source of inspiration for symphonic music was far from over : Edward Elgar composed 'Sea Pictures Where Corals Lie' in 1899, and 1910 saw the first performance of Vaughn Williams' 'Sea Symphony' ...though Vaughn Williams used lines from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' from 1855.

The purpose of this blog is to determine whether Sea based poetry can be uncovered.


There was a growing trend amongst poets, who were concerned with the Western Front to pursue pastoralism a vision of agricultural countryside, Blunden, Gurney, Sassoon’s prose are prime examples: The inhumanity and mechanical cruelty of the Western Front contrasted with the wonders of the countryside feature so well in Blunden’s ‘Behind The Lines’:

The thrush that haunts the mellow ground
And runs along and glances round
Will run and revel through my brain
For a blue moon befooling pain,
And elms so full of birds and song
There shall be green the winter long

But the sea was too unruly, too powerful an elemental force, to be used  in such a fashion. The countryside could be evoked as a place of sanctuary, the sea could not.  In respect of the poem 'War' by Ledwidge quoted above, the Sea is used as an image of war. 

The Priveliging of the ‘anti-war’ voice.

Found an inspiring and quite thought provoking quote from Elizabeth Vandiver recently
“The privileging of the anti-war voice in First World War poetry has skewed our ability to recognise other voices;
‘Stand in the Trenches Achilles-Classical Perceptions in British Poetry of the Great War’. (2010).
Many people in the 21st century consider the Great War to have been a futile conflict and there is a danger of gathering poetry  and literature as ‘evidence’ for this stance and setting up the figure of the ‘war poet’ as being a daring truth teller.  This blog does not intend to follow such an agenda.

‘Destroyers’ by Henry Head (1919)

On this primeval strip of western land,
With purple bays and tongues of shining sand,
Time, like and echoing tide,
Moves drowsily in idle ebb and flow;
The sunshine slumbers in the tangled grass
And homely folk with simple greeting pass,
As to their worship or their work they go.
Man, earth, and sea
Seem linked in elemental harmony,
And my insurgent sorrow finds release
In dreams of peace.

But silent, grey,
Out of the curtained haze,
Across the bay
Two fierce destroyers glide with bows a-foam
And predatory gaze,
Like cormorants that seek a submerged prey.
An angel of destruction guards the door
And keeps the peace of our ancestral home;
Freedom to dream, to work, and to adore,
These vagrant days, nights of untroubled breath,
Are bought with death.

‘Destroyers in Line Ahead’ by Bernard Gribble -courtesy of Borough of Poole Museum Service