Thursday, August 11, 2022

Oldest Surviving War Poet

Dearmer from article in Dutch Daily NRC (24 Mar. 1993), Michiel Hegener

Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are two of the best-known poets of the First World War; John Oxenham was the best-selling poet during the war, and Edgell Rickword, born in October of 1898, is often identified as “youngest of the soldier-poets” (Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War). But the oldest surviving soldier-poet of the Great War is a name few will recognize: Geoffrey Dearmer. 

Dearmer was born March 21, 1893, just three days after Wilfred Owen. In 1914, Dearmer enlisted with the London Royal Fusiliers, serving in Malta, Egypt, Gallipoli, and at the Somme. He was demobilised in 1920. By the time of his death on August 18, 1996 at the age of 103, he was “the oldest member of the Fusiliers Association, the Gallipoli Association, the Society of Authors and the Poetry Society.”* As he approached his 100th birthday, Dearmer was asked by a radio interviewer “‘the secret’ of reaching the century so mentally agile and in such comparatively good shape physically. He replied: ‘Bad temper shortens life. Even temper never does.’”* 

Dearmer is perhaps best-known for his poem "The Turkish Trench Dog," but his lesser-known work deserves attention as well. His poem "Resurrection," first published in Poems (1918) as the second of two “Trench Poems,” grapples with the incomprehensible deaths of millions. 
Detail "Resurrection of the Soldiers,"
Stanley Spencer NT790185 Sandham

II. Resurrection

Five million men are dead. How can the worth 
Of all the world redeem such waste as this? 
And yet the spring is clamorous of birth,
And whispering in winter’s chrysalis
Glad tidings to each clod, each particle of earth.
So the year’s Easter triumphs. Shall we then
Mourn for the dead unduly, and forget 
The resurrection in the hearts of men? 
Even the poppy on the parapet 
Shall blossom as before when Summer blows again.
—Geoffrey Dearmer

Dearmer starkly assesses the cost of war—he was no stranger to loss and death. His younger brother, Christopher, died at Gallipoli in October 1915, just one week before Geoffrey arrived there, and his mother died the same year of typhoid while nursing the wounded in Serbia (she and his father were volunteers in Serbia with the Red Cross ambulance). What sets Dearmer’s work apart from that of the canonical war poets is that he finds solace in the restorative power of nature and faith. 

Geoffrey Dearmer
Although Dearmer’s war poems were well received during the war and in its immediate aftermath, they slipped into obscurity for close to 70 years until friends and admirers arranged to have a selection of his work, A Pilgrim’s Song, published to honour his 100th birthday in 1993. In the Foreword to that book, Jon Stallworthy writes of Dearmer, “his trust in God survived the horrors, and he was the ministering beauty of a natural world that never ceases to bind the wounds that man unnaturally inflicts.” Stallworthy notes, “One does not have to share Geoffrey Dearmer’s beliefs to respect them and to recognize that he speaks for many less articulate victims of the Western Front. No doubt his seemingly unshaken vision of this world and the next helped to sustain him and bring him safely home to make a fresh start.”**

Dearmer’s legacy lives on in the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize, annually awarded by the Poetry Society for the best poem published in The Poetry Review written by a poet who doesn’t yet have a full collection. All his life a modest man, Dearmer said after the publication of A Pilgrim’s Song, “I don’t know if I like any of the poems in it very much. Some are rather worse than others. Remember, all the great poets died.”*** 
* Laurence Cottrell, “Obituary: Geoffrey Dearmer,” Independent, 19 Aug. 1996. 
** Jon Stallworthy, “Foreword,” A Pilgrim’s Song by Geoffrey Dearmer, John Murray, 1993, vii. 
*** Dearmer quoted in “‘The Dead Turk,’ Geoffrey Dearmer (1916): Echoes of Calvary in Gallipoli,” by Nigel Steel, Telegraph special supplement "Inside the First World War: Redrawing the Middle East," 2 Feb. 2014. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

A Soldier's Candid Opinion

Doiran Cemetery, Greece
photo from Researching the Lives and Service Records of FWW Soldiers

 “His major wrote that he was a brave and resolute soldier,” states the Roll of Honour entry for William Fox Ritchie. Serjeant Ritchie died less than two months before First World War ended, killed in Greece (then known as Macedonia) in a British attack on the Bulgarian lines on Sept. 12, 1918. He was thirty-one years old. 

Ritchie enlisted in the British Army with the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in April 1909, just shy of his twenty-second birthday. He served for six years in Malta and India prior to the war, arriving on the Western Front in December of 1914. Early in 1915, while in the fighting line near Ypres, he “was one of five who had to be dragged out of the trench, and was the only one of that number who was able to speak, the others being utterly exhausted and practically paralysed from the hips down.”† The Wigton Free Press reported that the men had been “standing for nineteen hours, waist-deep in water, in the trenches, and had to be dug out.” Suffering from severe frost-bite, Ritchie was hospitalised in France, then transferred to England, and finally sent home to recover in Scotland with his parents, who were living in Colmonell on the estate of local landowner where his father worked as gamekeeper and forester. 

While home recovering from his injuries, Ritchie wrote a poem that was copied into one of the estate’s guest books: 

A Candid Opinion*

Do we want to go back to the trenches?
To get biscuits and bully to eat,
To get caught by a sniper’s chance bullet
Or crippled with frost bitten feet?
There are some say they’re anxious to get back,
There are others who say they are not.
It is not that they care for the danger
Or are frightened that they will get shot.
It’s the awful conditions you live in,
Midst the rain and the mud and the dirt,
Where you’d give a month’s pay for a square meal,
And twice that amount for a shirt.
No, I’m not at all anxious to get back,
But I’ll have to go that’s understood.
So I’m willing and ready to go there,
And if needs be to stop there for good.
    —William Fox Ritchie (dated April 23, 1915)

Ritchie did not come home from the war. After recovering from frostbite, he earned the qualification to serve as a Musketry Instructor, but instead,“volunteering for active service, he was transferred to the 12th Battn. of his regiment.” From July of 1917, his unit fought with the British Salonika Army, and Ritchie was “killed in action at the Grande Couronne, Salonika, 12 Sept. 1918.... He was recommended by his Commanding Officer (who was subsequently killed) for the Croix de Guerre.”††

Few know of the Salonika campaign, and fewer still visit its battlefields and cemeteries. William Fox Ritchie is buried in the Doiran Cemetery in Greece. The inscription his father chose for his son’s grave—  “UNTIL THE DAY BREAK AND THE SHADOWS FLEE AWAY"—comes from a hymn published in 1918. The last two verses must have provided poignant comfort to William’s grieving parents: 

Many of His waiting ones in Him now sleep,
Till the night be over, earth their dust will keep;
But at day break, they from out their graves shall rise,
And with all His people meet Him in the skies.

He is waiting patiently for that bright day,
When the earthborn shadows will have fled away;
When He will receive us to Himself at last—
No more separation, sin and sorrow past.
† 26 March 1915, Carrick Herald, “Colmonell and the War.”
* I have edited minor errors in punctuation; the original text can be seen in the photo accompanying this blog.
†† From the “Roll of Honour” sent to me by Ritchie and Lorna Conaghan of the Girvan and District Great War Project. They have spent countless hours researching men listed on war memorials in Colmonell, Ayrshire, and the surrounding area, and I am grateful to them for generously sharing this poem and its history with me. Any errors or inaccuracies are mine. 

Sunday, April 24, 2022

To Tony, Aged 3

The Great Offensive, Samuel Begg (Illustrated London News, 1916)

In 1918, shortly after the death of her brother on the Western Front, Marjorie Wilson wrote an elegiac poem that tried to make sense of the tragic loss. The poem was published in the Spectator on October 26, 1918, just seven months and three days after Theodore Percival Cameron Wilson was killed during his unit’s withdrawal from Hermies. 

To Tony—Aged 3
In Memory (T.P.C.W.)* 

Gemmed with white daisies was the great green world
Your restless feet have pressed this long day through—
Come now and let me whisper to your dreams
A little song grown from my love for you.
. . . . . . .
There was a man once loved green fields like you,
He drew his knowledge from the wild birds' songs,
And he had praise for every beauteous thing,
And he had pity for all piteous wrongs ....

T.P. Cameron Wilson 
A lover of earth's forests—of her hills,
And brother to her sunlight—to her rain—
Man, with a boy's fresh wonder. He was great
With greatness all too simple to explain.

⁠He was a dreamer and a poet, and brave
To face and hold what he alone found true.
He was a comrade of the old—a friend
To every little laughing child like you.
. . . . . . .
And when across the peaceful English land
Unhurt by war, the light is growing dim
⁠And you remember by your shadowed bed
All those—the brave—you must remember him;

⁠And know it was for you who bear his name
And such as you that all his joy he gave—
His love of quiet fields, his youth, his life,
To win that heritage of peace you have.
                —Marjorie Wilson

The love and admiration that Marjorie Wilson feels for her brother is evident in references to his vocation as a school teacher and to his poetry (Magpies in Picardy was published posthumously by the Poetry Bookshop in 1919). And the poem shimmers with tenderness for the young boy Tony, as she whispers to his dreams “A little song grown from my love for you.” 

Many readers have assumed that Tony is Marjorie’s son, but she served during the war as VAD nurse (unlikely if she had a young son), and she never married. She is buried in Blaxhall, Suffolk, where her father was a rector from 1928 until Marjorie’s death in 1934.**

Marjorie Wilson Memorial,
Blaxhall, Suffolk

Perhaps Tony was the son of another of TPC Wilson’s five siblings? His sister Alice (born in 1889) served during the war with the Duchess of Sutherland’s nursing staff in France, making it unlikely that she was married or a mother at the time of her brother’s death (although she later married Arthur Thorne). And Charles, born in 1899, was most probably too young to have had a son born in 1914 or 1915.  Yet it is possible that either Christopher (born in 1883) or John (born in 1890) named a son after their brother.

But there is another possibility suggested by a manuscript written in pencil that was found with TPC Wilson’s effects after his death and published in 1920 as Waste Paper Philosophy. The philosophical musings left behind by the twenty-eight-year-old soldier were dedicated “To my son.” In the introduction to Waste Paper Philosophy, Robert Norwood writes, “Like Rupert Brooke, who held it his greatest loss to die without a son, Wilson lets the world feel his longing for the boy to come after him in these last words” (viii). 

Yet in Waste Paper Philosophy, Wilson repeatedly and directly addresses his son, at times noting that the child is young: “Go on building, my son, go on building, for nothing on earth begins or ends suddenly” (29); “An uncle of yours once lived to tell the Scotch Manager of a Sugar Plantation exactly what he thought of him” (32); “God help you, little son, if you are trodden under those well satisfied hoofs of authority” (32); “Look for the soul of things, son” (40). 

One of the poems published in Magpies in Picardy also addresses a “little son” (“The Mathematical Master to His Dullest Pupil”). Additionally, several previously unpublished poems of Wilson’s are added to Waste Paper Philosophy, including “The Silver Fairy.” This poem begins, “Listen to me, my son,” and proceeds to conversationally share a vision the soldier in the field experiences: 

Peter Pan, Arthur Rackham
Well, yesterday night when work was done,
And I was smoking a pipe in the sun,
I saw you breasting the bank at a run
I mean the band where the turf goes down
Goes down and up till it ends in a crown
Of yellow chrysanthemums nodding their heads
Over the last of the garden beds,
I saw the last because just beyond
Is weeds and snails and the duckety pond.

It’s a fantastical vision, as the boy is accompanied by a silver fairy astride his neck, but there is a charming specificity in the description of a young child’s running play. 

Perhaps Wilson’s philosophical writings were dedicated to an imagined son he might have had one day, but it’s not impossible that the child was real. In the final philosophical musing of the penciled manuscript, Wilson writes,

I think that sometimes the most loyal of women must doubt her man, must think herself false to his memory because she cannot fit a halo to his funny old head. I know those who live among the naked truths of war cannot pretend that the man they have loved and who has been killed by their side was a saint because he was dead.... Think of your dead friend (of your dead father, my son, when the time comes) as moving, sweating, struggling always, his sins, his laughter, his nastiness, his kindness, his stupidities as much a part of him as the colour of his eyes. Never complete, always developing in one direction or another, moving, moving, moving. ‘Working out his own salvation.’ .... Expect no man to be a saint, but when you find a saint reverence him as you love the sun. And because death has closed his hand over a sinner do not think that his sins have been frozen on him for eternity. He is not petrified like the corpses of Pompeii. He goes on, my son,—surely he goes on. 

His sister’s poem “To Tony, Aged 3” is the last poem in Waste Paper Philosophy, and to it has been added the title “L’Envoi,” a title often used for the last poem in a collection that adds explanatory or concluding remarks.
*This is the version of the poem that appears in T.P.C Wilson’s Waste Paper Philosophy (1920). In that publication, the title “L’Envoi” has been added.
**Those wishing to know more about Marjorie Wilson's last days can read Arthur Mee’s account in The King’s England: Enchanted Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1936, pp. 182–184).
***I’d be grateful if anyone with knowledge of the family could provide further information.  

Friday, April 22, 2022

And what is war?

Lt. Arthur Greg, Quarry Bank archive, NT

On April 23, 1917, 2Lt Arthur T. Greg was killed in aerial combat over St. Quentin, France. He was twenty-two. Assigned to the 55th Squadron Royal Flying Corps, Greg was returning from a bombing raid when his DH4 bomber was attacked by German Albatros DIII scouts (it is likely that one of the German pilots was Hermann Göring). Greg’s plane crashed behind British lines at Ervillers, but he had been fatally wounded, and his observer Robert William Robson died of wounds nearly a month later.*

Upon receiving the news of Greg’s death, his fiancée, Marian Allen, began to write of her grief and loss. In 1918, she published a short collection of poems, The Wind on the Downs, dedicating it to “A.T.G.” Her poem “And what is war” appears near the end of the volume.

 And what is war? one said; what of its story?
    A mustered host, a noble battle-throng,
A tale of valour, and a tale of glory,
    Of vanquished enemies and righted wrong?

That is war, we say, but not that only; 
    It is a rising water, deep and wide,
Which washes some away, and leaves some lonely, 
Greg's grave in France,
Quarry Bank archive, NT
    Like driftwood, stranded by the ebbing tide.

War is the passing gleam of eager faces,
    An understanding that makes young men wise
A growing stillness, many empty places,
   A haunted look that comes in women’s eyes;

Unquestioned duty, youthfulness and laughter,
    Sometimes a sudden catching of the breath,
A sure, swift knowing what may follow after—
   Withal a gay indifference to death;

The sound of laughing voices disappearing,
    The marching of a thousand eager feet,
Passing, ever passing out of hearing,
    Echoing, ever echoing down the street;

A sudden gust of wind, a clanging door,
And then a lasting silence—that is war.
              —Marian Allen

 Most of the poems in Allen’s The Wind on the Downs are melancholy and ache with loss, but they attempt to resolve grief into hopeful purpose with lines such as “Beautiful in death as life” (“May-flies”), “Crossing the silent river, there to find / Host upon host their comrades glorified, / Saluting them upon the other side” (“Charing Cross”), and “For you death was a sudden-passing glory” (“Beyond the Downs”).

But “What is war?” questions traditional reassurances that link combat deaths with courage and glory. War may be valorous and noble, but we are reminded that it is also a dark and drowning flood that sweeps all before it. War leaves in its wake empty places, haunted eyes, barred entries, and interminable stretches of silence.

In August of 1918, Irish poet Katharine Tynan, writing for the Bookman, offered a short review of Wind on the Downs, describing it as “a collection of poems of a wistful beauty. It has scarcely outstanding qualities, but it cries its sorrowful music at your ear and you are fain to listen. It is drenched with the colours and fragrance of English country.”**

For Marian Allen, the river gliding beneath the trees, the song of the lark, still pools of water, and winds from the sea were all reminders of the love she had lost.

Marian Allen and Arthur Greg,
Quarry Bank archive, NT
For more on Marian Allen and her poetry, see the post on this blog "Stronger than Death."
* “Arthur Tylston Greg, Cross & Cockade International Forum, post by NickForder, 22 June 2009,
** Katharine Tynan, “Songs in War Time,” Bookman, August 1918, pp. 152–153.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Pageant of War

Parade to War, Allegory by John Steuart Curry (1938)

 In 1916, British author Margaret Sackville published a collection of poems titled The Pageant of War. The 180-line title poem begins, 

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down
Beheld amazed,
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town. 

The poem describes a vast parade “Of a million and a million feet” that are led by War, “sitting astride / A pale and neighing horse.” The self-satisfied, glutted leader of the parade wears a mask, for if anyone were to view “That obscene countenance too near,” they would “shrink in loathing and in fear, / And turn upon this thing and slay it there.” But disguising himself, War proudly leads the millions who march. 

Following him  are “The pitiful bright army of the dead,” mourning mothers, war profiteers carrying their bags of gold, and emissaries of peace, all cheered on by a vast crowd of onlookers. 

Yet beneath the feet of those who follow War, the road gleams strangely white, and the poem’s narrator finally realizes why:

I looked again at the white stones;
I saw.
        The dust was trampled bones.

’Twas they that made the road so white.

There were bones of children, bones of men,
Trampled in since the world began.
Road of triumph—road of glory!—
This road conceived by men and then
Built from the ruins of man.
Road which every land has trod
Since the beginning of its story,
And called in turn the road of God;
Road of myriads vowed to rape,
Destruction, mutilation, wrath,
Since there was no escape
And this road was their only path!

Behold! since the world began,
This shining road—man’s gift to man.

The bones which make it are so light
(Children’s bones weigh very little)
You would think the surface of this white
Shining road must be too brittle
To bear the heavy loads which go
Trampling upon it to and fro;
But no—
These bones are ground to such fine dust,
So fine, so firm they form a crust
As firm, as thick as the earth’s crust,
Which all who will may safely tread.
They have no ghosts, these dead!
They are but children, peasants of the soil,
And women—ravished, torn
And murdered at their toil.

It is for this that they were born. 

Bethlehem Steel Parade, 1916
Bill Weiner collection
Since the crowd shouts in its delight
To see along the road so white
The pageant pass in the sunlight.

I will forget the road, the stones
Are less than nothing—dust and bones:
And what has life to do with bones?

Unless they should rise up, these bones!

They are silent—let them so remain,
These very humble folk, these quiet slain,
And let the living smile—
Until they too shall suffer the same pain.

Whilst the long pageant stretches mile on mile—
As though these innocents had died in vain.

Shrilly, exultant, from afar
I heard, and rushing down
Beheld amazed,
The pageant of triumphant War
Come trampling through the town. 
—Margaret Sackville 

Sackville’s poem can be seen as a companion piece to one of the most famous poems of the First World War: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Both poems caution against glorified idealizations of war; Owen focuses on the sufferings of soldiers, and Sackville highlights the torment and trauma of noncombatants.

Owen and Sackville warn that children are too often the victims of war, both those who have been told “the old lie” and those whose light bones are ground into dust by the passing Pageant of War.  Sadly and ironically, Sackville's poem ends exactly as it begins, with no alteration in the pace of the marching throng or in the cheers of the crowd that urges them forward. 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Returning Soldiers

Unidentified African American soldier
Library of Congress, 2021653121
When American entered the Great War, many African Americans supported the war effort and joined the US Army, believing that military service would help them to gain them full citizenship rights, including both social and political equality. Yet African-American soldiers returned home to heightened racial tensions and an increase in mob violence. Social and political unrest exploded in the “Red Summer” of 1919. A report prepared for the U.S. Congress identified 38 race riots in towns and cities across America in the nine-month period from January through October,* and “at least sixteen veterans were lynched between November 1918 and the end of 1920, some of them still in uniform.”**

W.E.B. DuBois’s editorial “Returning Soldiers,” appeared in The Crisis in May of 1919. He reminded readers of the sacrifice that black troops had made in fighting “for America and her highest ideals,” but lamented the violence and degradation of on-going racism: 

This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land. It lynches. And lynching is barbarism of a degree of contemptible nastiness unparalleled in human history. Yet for fifty years we have lynched two Negroes a week, and we have kept this up right through the war.***

“Sam Smiley,” published in 1932 nearly fifteen years after end of the First World War, protests the violence that African Americans continued to experience. The poem works “to make a case for civil rights…. in effect to protest lynching by portraying lynching.”†

Sam Smiley

The whites had taught him how to rip
    A Nordic belly with a thrust
Of bayonet, had taught him how
    To transmute Nordic flesh to dust. 

Unidentified African American soldier with rifle
Library of Congress, 2017648680 
And a surprising face had made
    Belated impress on his mind:
That shrapnel bursts and poison gas
    Were inexplicably color blind.

He picked up, from the difficult
    But striking lessons of the war,
Some truths that he could not forget,
    Though inconceivable before.

And through the lengthy vigils, stuck
    In never-drying stinking mud,
He was held up by dreams of one
    Chockfull of laughter, hot of blood.


On the return Sam Smiley cheered
    The dirty steerage with his dance,
Hot-stepping boy! Soon he would see
    The girl who beat all girls in France.

He stopped buckdancing when he reached
    The shanties at his journey’s end;
He found his sweetheart in the jail,
    And took white lightning for his friend.

One night the woman whose full voice
    Had chortled so, was put away
Into a narrow gaping hole;
    Sam sat beside till break of day.

He had been told what man it was
    Whose child the girl had had to kill,
Who best knew why her laugh was dumb,
    Who best knew why her blood was still.

And he remembered France, and how
    A human life was dunghill cheap,
And so he sent a rich white man
    His woman’s company to keep. 

Julius Bloch, "Lynching"
Woodmere Art Museum


The mob was in fine fettle, yet 
   The dogs were stupid-nosed, and day
Was far spent when the men drew round
    The scrawny woods where Smiley lay.

The oaken leaves drowsed prettily,
    The moon shone down benignly there;
And big Sam Smiley, King Buckdancer,
   Buckdanced on the midnight air.
—Sterling A. Brown

The poem’s author, Sterling A. Brown, was too young to serve in the war. He entered Williams College in the fall of 1918 on a minority student scholarship and went on to complete a MA in English from Harvard in 1923.†† Southern Road (1932), his first collection of poetry, includes Brown’s first ballad, “Sam Smiley.” Biographer John Edgar Tidwell notes, “Brown's poetry received its motivation from a need to reveal the humanity that lies below the surface racial stereotypes only skim.”†††
*“For Action on Race Riot Peril,” New York Times, 5 Oct. 1919, p. 10. 
**Mark Whalen, The Great War and the Culture of the New Negro, University Press of Florida, 2008, p. 12. 
*** W.E.B. DuBois, “Returning Soldiers,” The Crisis, May 1919, pp. 13-14.
† David A. Davis, “Not Only War Is Hell: World War I and African American Lynching Narratives,” African American Review, vol. 42, no. 3/4, 2008, pp. 477, 479. 
†† John Edgar Tidwell, “Sterling A. Brown,” Oxford Companion to African American Literature, Oxford UP, 1997, p. 105.
††† Tidwell, “Sterling A. Brown,” p. 105.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

"My good lady, go home and sit still"

Mary HJ Henderson, 1917

In spring of 1918, Mary H.J.  Henderson published a small collection of poetry, In War and Peace, Songs of a Scotswoman. A London Times review noted that the author possessed "an accomplished gift of expression," and the forward to the book was written by John Oxenham, one of the most popular contemporary poets of the war. Oxenham provided a brief context for the poems, explaining that the author, Mary Henderson, “has had experiences beyond most, even for one living in these chaotic times.”* 

Henderson’s experiences were truly extraordinary, for she assisted Dr. Elsie Inglis in founding the Scottish Women’s Hospitals of the First World War, serving in hospitals in Russia and Rumania. Oxenham relates that at one point Henderson was nearly captured as a prisoner of war,  and he describes the dangers she encountered in her war-time service, as well as her dedication: 

In Russia she saw more than enough of the revolution—saw the victims being buried in scarlet coffins—and met the glorious Women’s Battalion of Death. Those quiet fearless eyes of hers have seen many grim sights—have looked Death in the face, and have not shrunk before the horrors of modern warfare. And yet, withal, she is a very woman, large-hearted, deep and high thoughted, sweet-voiced, full of tenderness for all humanity. Very restful too; yet full of Scottish grit and grip a great organiser, and one who sees things through. A dominant feature of her character is her strong civic conscience. She is a devoted upholder of Woman’s Suffrage, has a passion for Race-Welfare, and the care of the child is her speciality.... All her life her very best has been freely given for others. She is selfless to an extraordinary degree…. Her poetry is the joyous expression of her real self—the spontaneous outgiving of a soul that loves to sing, and instinct with higher things. She sings because she must.** 

Henderson’s poem “The Young Serbian” was anthologized in Catherine Reilly’s Scars upon My Heart (titled “An Incident”), and many of Henderson’s works describe the suffering of those in her care (such as “Rumania” and “A Russian Soldier”). But the first three poems in her collection are written for the women who gave so much, for those whose “path of duty still leads to the grave.”***  

Scottish Women's Hospital Royaumont staff

Henderson writes of the women setting out for overseas medical service who “laughed above the lurking submarine, / Clothing Death’s terrors in a happy sheen / Of debonair lightheartedness.” She dedicates her poem “Like That” to “The Rank and File of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals,” as she honors the women who guided stretcher-bearers “over shell-marked ground,” 

Elsie Inglis by Lady Francis Balflour
Creative Commons Wellcome Collection
Dauntless, clear-eyed, strong-handed, even when
        The bullets flung the dust up from the road
        By which you bore your anguished, helpless load.****

But the poem that most captures my imagination is that written in memory of Elsie Maude Inglis, the Scottish surgeon and suffragette, who upon volunteering to organize war hospitals and donate her services as a physician was told by the British War Office, “my good lady, go home and sit still.”†

In Memoriam
Elsie Maude Inglis

Scotland has gathered you, dear daughter, to her breast;
Beneath the shadow of the Castle Rock you passed to rest.
Yet we who followed in that long, long line
Of those who came to honour at the shrine
Of one who held her life a little thing,
Loving her country and her country’s king,
Her country’s honour, and her country’s name,
Loving its glory, bitter for what shame
Might blur the brightness of Great Britain’s fame—
We know you are not dead.

The hands, indeed,
So quick to minister where there was need,
The hands we loved, may not touch ours again,
May not alleviate our mortal pain;
They lie quiescent in the hands of God.
Yet we who followed when your footsteps trod
Beyond our Island shores, who knew your quick
Instinctive action for the helpless sick,
Your clear-voiced answer when there came the call
For succor from a nation like to fall,
Who saw that undulled radiance in your eyes
Given to those with whom “The Vision” lies—
We know that in that Flag-protected cask
Lies but the weariness of her whose Task,
Grown greater than her tired mortal frame,
Bears her beyond to greater strength and fame.
            —Mary H. J. Henderson

Born in India in 1864, Inglis and her family returned to Scotland when she was fourteen. She trained as a physician and surgeon in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in 1904 she established a hospital staffed entirely by women that provided maternity care for the poor in Edinburgh. 

Elsie and some of her sisters by Ethel Moir
Creative Commons

Although she turned fifty just days after Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, Inglis was determined to assist in providing medical care for wounded and refugees and was instrumental in founding the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH). The Scottish Red Cross denied Inglis’s request for funds, explaining that given their partnership with the British War Office, they were unable to support “a hospital staffed by women.”†† 

However, despite repeated obstacles, Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospital raised funds sufficient to send fourteen hospital teams to Belgium, France, Serbia, and Russia. Inglis spent much of her overseas service in Serbia, guiding her medical teams through typhus epidemics and desperately overcrowded conditions (at one point, seven physicians were treating 11,000 wounded). Inglis and her staff repatriated the wounded, gave aid to refugees, and even survived capture by enemy troops. There are numerous memorials to her still in Serbia, where she is perhaps better known than in Great Britain. 

Dr. Elsie Maude Inglis died on Nov. 26, 1917, a day after her return to Britain due to failing health exacerbated by the grueling conditions she endured in her unfailing dedication to others. Henderson's 1918 volume of poetry was published "In aid of the Dr. Elsie Inglis Memorial Fund." The story of these women and others like them is integral to the full history of the First World War and deserves a wider audience. 
*John Oxenham, forward to In War and Peace: Songs of a Scotswoman, by Mary H.J. Henderson, Erskine Macdonald, 1918, pp. 5–6.
**Oxenham, In War and Peace, pp. 6–7.
***Mary H.J. Henderson, “A Grave in France,” In War and Peace: Songs of a Scotswoman, Erskine Macdonald, 1918, p. 11.
****Henderson, “Like That,” p. 12.
† Steven Brocklehurst, “The female war medic who refused to ‘go home and sit still,’” BBC Scotland News, 26 Nov. 2017,
†† Margot Lawrence, A Shadow of Swords: A Biography of Elsie Inglis, Michael Joseph, 1971, p. 99.