|The young Rupert Brooke, pre-war photograph.|
Brooke the War Poet - "The Soldier"
Rupert Brooke is famous as one of Britain's war poets - along with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and others. While the other poets survived enough into the war to record their experiences of the horrors war, Rupert Brooke would die before he experienced the full extent of the conflict. In some ways, his poems reflect the terrible naivety or innocence of those early days of the war. One of his most famous poems is "V: The Soldier" which was published by The Times (London) on 11th March and read from the pulpit of St Paul's Cathedral on Easter Sunday (4 April). The poem reads:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven."
|Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke|
On 15th September 1914, Rupert sought a commission in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was appointed as Sub-Lieutenant in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division.
This Division had been formed in 1914 by Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, due to the huge surplus of men unable to get a place aboard warships. It consisted of 8 battalions, all named after naval commanders. It was regarded as a highly efficient fighting force and played a prominent part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Brooke took part in the failed expedition to defend Antwerp in October 1914. After Antwerp fell. Brooke and his company had to march twenty-five miles in the retreat, through a landscape wasted by shelling and by pools of burning petrol from a bombed fuel depot. Round them, the carcasses of horses and cattle sizzled, and wagons of dead, wounded and refugees filled the roads. Brooke wrote:
“. . . I saw what was a truer Hell. 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 drawn faces, the children playing or crying or sleeping. . . . The eyes grow clearer, and the heart. But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe, blown through pain to nothingness in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles”.
After returning to England, Rupert and the Division embarked on 28th February 1915 for the Gallipoli campaign.
|Sub-Lieutenant Brooke with other officers of the Hood Battalion|
Rupert Brooke and Lemnos
After sailing from England on the Grantully Castle, via Malta, Brooke and his Division arrived at Lemnos on 12th March. On Thursday 18th March, they departed Mudros Habour for the Dardanelles. But after several hours of inactivity, they were withdrawn and returned to Lemnos.
|HM Hospital Ship Grantully Castle|
They left Lemnos on 24th March bound for Egypt. While in Egypt Brooke and his unit undertook exercises and route marches. He also spent two days in Cairo, visiting the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the famous Shepheard's and Cairo Palace Hotels and touring the moonlit streets by donkey. By 2nd April Brooke was sick with sunstroke and dysentery. It was while in Egypt that Brooke was bitten on the lip by a mosquito.
Brooke and the Division then departed for Lemnos again on Saturday 10th April 1915. Yet Mudros Harbour was then so full of ships for the landings, that the Brooke's Battalion was diverted to Skyros' Trisboukes Bay, off the south west of Skyros.
Skyros - Illness and Death
Brooke arrived at Skyros on 17th April. While there Brooke and his Battalion undertook landing practice and route marches up the valley of Trisboukes Bay. On Tuesday 20th April, during a long day on the island, they rested in the olive grove where the grave now stands: Brooke remarked on “the strange peace and beauty of this valley”.
|The Royal Naval Division at Skyros, probably Trisboukes Bay. AWM|
|The Royal Naval Division at landing practice on Skyros, probably Trisboukes Bay. AWM|
Brooke had seemed to recover from his illnesses. He wrote letters home, stood watch aboard his ship and took part in landing practice on Skyros. But this would only be temporary.
That evening of the 20th, Brooke began to fall seriously ill: a swelling on his upper lip - unnoticed earlier, and probably a mosquito bite from Port Said - became inflamed. Over the next hours the inflammation spread. A bacteriologist on board identified it as a diplococcal infection - in other words, blood poisoning.
Brooke was moved to a neighbouring French hospital ship on Thursday 22nd April - . the Duguay-Trouin, which was moored in Tresboukis Bay off the Island of Skyros. As this was awaiting the injured from Gallipoli, he was the only patient on board, under the care of twelve doctors and surgeons.
Throughout his life, Brooke had been frequently ill with recurrent conjunctivitis and disabling colds. He had suffered severe coral poisoning and inflammation in Tahiti the previous year, and had caught both dysentery and sunstroke at Port Said. Indeed, he had probably been running a temperature for several weeks before his arrival off Skyros, and was ill-equipped to face this new infection.
On Friday 23rd April his temperature rose and he lost consciousness, dying in the late afternoon, at 4.46pm. He was 27 years old.
|Rupert Brooke's service record|
The spot was chosen because he had liked it during his march on the Island in the days before he fell ill. Early in the evening of the 23rd, three of his fellow officers took a digging party ashore to the olive grove and set to work.
His coffin was draped in the Union Jack, with his pith helmet, pistol and holster on to - in the coffin, Brooke lay in his uniform.
As the funeral party - a group of 12 Australian Petty Officers - left the quay and went up the dried river bed that was the valley, the moon was clouded and the way was lit by men with lamps posted every twenty yards.It took 2 hours to reach the olive grove and grave site. during the final commital, sprigs of olive and sage branches were placed on the coffin. Just before midnight three volleys were fired as the coffin was lowered, to the sound of the last post - in the dark silence of the deserted valley, amidst the scent of flowering sage.
One present remarked that he felt the presence of "old Greek divinities", and "was transported back a thousand years". His friends erected a small cairn of white and pink marble rocks on the grave - a cairn to a soldier on the Island of Achilles.
His friend and fellow officer wrote of his death:
A Lemnian Farewell
This original wooden cross that marked his grave on Skyros, which was painted and carved with his name, was removed to Clifton Road Cemetery in Rugby, Warwickshire, to the Brooke family plot. When a permanent memorial was made for his grave on Skyros, Rupert Brooke's mother, Mary Ruth Brooke, had the original cross brought from Skyros to Rugby and placed at the plot. However, because of perishing in the open air, it was removed from the cemetery in 2008, and replaced by a more permanent marker. The original grave marker from Skyros is now at Brooke's old school, Rugby.
|Rupert Brooke's grave on Skyros|
Just two days before his own death at Gallipoli, Brooke’s fellow officer Dennis Browne wrote:
“Coming from Alexandria yesterday, we passed Rupert’s island at sunset. The sea and sky in the East were grey and misty; but it stood out in the West, black and immense, with a crimson glowing halo around it. Every colour had come into the sea and sky to do him honour; and it seemed that the island must ever be shining with the glory that we buried there”.
On to Gallipoli
Four hours after the burial, Brooke's comrades were sailing for the Dardanelles aboard the Grantully Castle. The Division was one of two full British Divisions (the other being the Regular Army 29th Division) that fought at the Gallipoli landings, taking part in both the battles at Anzac and Helles. Of the five officers who had remained at the end of the funeral to build a cairn, only two survived the war.
The Anzacs and Rupert Brooke
The burial party included twelve bearers, a party of 12 Australian Petty Officers from Brooke's Hood Battalion, mostly Australians, as well as the Royal Naval Division's Bernard Freyberg, his Company Commander, who would go on to be one of New Zealand's most decorated soldiers for his service in the First and Second World Wars (including in the Greek campaign).
Years later - in 1927 - the famous Australian Gallipoli veteran, author and refugee worker, Sydney Loch, visited Brooke's grave. As he read aloud the inscription on the grave from Brooke's The Soldier, he remarked that if Brooke had made it to Gallipoli the experience would have made his poetry less romantic. Loch himself would write a blistering account of Gallipoli from a soldier's viewpoint - an account that was banned in Australia.
If you would like to visit Brooke's grave on the Island, see the map below:
Lemnos and the Anzac story is woven into the story of Anzac in surprising ways.
Lest we forget.
Lemnos Gallipoli Commemorative Committee