Monday, February 5, 2018

The Black Watch Poet of Dundee

WWI soldier's grave, Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg
photo by Beate Felten-Leidel

“A gash goes through all our lives, and that gash is the war.  With a brutal hand it has torn our lives in two.”
            —Willibald Hanner, German disabled veteran of the First World War*

Two million German soldiers died in World War I, and the International Encyclopedia of the First World War estimates, “Taking into account those who lost two or more children…at least 1 million [German] parents grieved for their sons.”**  Medical research has found that grief can be literally heart-breaking; the risk of suffering a heart attack is 21 times greater for individuals in the 24-hour period following news of a loved one's death than before, and it is 6 times greater in the week following the experience of grief.†

In 1916, Scottish soldier-poet Joseph Lee published Ballads of Battle. The slim, author-illustrated volume included the following poem:
German mourning card
The Bullet

Every bullet has its billet;
Many bullets more than one:
God! Perhaps I killed a mother
When I killed a mother's son. 
            —Joseph Lee

Lee published an even briefer poem on the same theme in his second collection of war poetry, Work-a-Day Warriors:

Casualty List

Maidens and matrons; mothers o’sons,
How many have fallen a prey to the guns? 
           —Joseph Lee

It is impossible to determine how many died of grief during the First World War.  Known as the “Black Watch poet,” Lee and his battalion fought at Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and the Battle of Loos.  During the war, Lee was one of the more popular of the trench poets; Ballads of Battle “was relatively successful at the first run, becoming increasingly popular as the public started to take note, and eventually three further prints were run.”†† The London Spectator's review of Lee's war poetry was enthusiastic: 
Of the verse that has come straight from the trenches, the Ballads of Battle, by Lance-Corporal Joseph Lee, of the Black Watch, are among the very best. In him the “Jocks” have found a true interpreter. The horror, the exultation, the weariness, and the humour of trench warfare are here, and at the back of it all the vision of “the little croft beneath the Ben.”°

Joseph Johnston Lee, 1916
© Dundee University Archive Services
During the Battle of Cambrai, Lee was taken prisoner by the Germans.  He survived the war and returned to a career in journalism, dying in Dundee in 1949.  His poem “Epitaph,” which appeared in Work-a-Day Warriors (1917), is a fitting tribute to Scotland’s forgotten war poet:


Where the long trench twines snake-like
To keep the foe at bay,
There be the place to lay me,
And this be what you say:

Here lieth one who loved all life,
Sunshine and song, and sword and strife;
Sea and storm, and wind and rain,
Breaking bud, and bursting grain,
Pulsing pleasure, and stabbing pain—
Who would, an he could, live all over again!
* Williband Hanner speech, quoted in Robert Weldon Whalen’s Bitter Wounds: German Victims of the Great War, 1914-1939, Cornell UP, 1984, p. 182.
** Silke Fehlemann, “Bereavement and Mourning (Germany),” 1914-1918 Online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 10 Aug. 2014. DOI10.15463/ie1418.10177.
† Elizabeth Mostofsky, Malcolm Maclure, Jane B. Sherwood, et al. “Risk of acute myocardial infarction after the death of a significant person on one’s life: The determinants of myocardial infarction onset study,” Circulation 125, 2012, pp. 491-496.
†† Bob Burrows, Fighter Writer, Breedon Books, 2004, p. 84.
° “Literary Supplement: War Time Poems,” 7 October 1916, p. 19. 


  1. Short but haunting these poems. War has so many more casualties than the boys killed by guns.

    1. The casualties that are never counted -- thanks for reading and commenting, Patty.

  2. I have spoken to many people who have lost loved ones to violence and I know the grief never ends. These are insightful, powerful poems.

  3. Thanks for reading and for listening to others who have suffered loss.

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