Friday, July 31, 2020

The War Office Regrets

Father and son, Royal Engineers
Image from @QMGS191418

Many poems of the First World War recount a soldier’s imagining of his own death (see, for example, Schnack’s “Standing To” or Albert-Paul Granier’s “Fever”). Other poems, often written by noncombatants, imagine the family receiving news of their soldier’s death (such as “His Latch-Key” or “The Mother”). Theodore van Beek’s “The Soldier’s Son” is strikingly original; it imagines a young boy praying for his father at war, unaware that his father lies dead, his body food for vermin and flies.
Family group,
from @QMGS191418

The Soldier’s Son

The little boy whose innocent yellow head
Has bobbed among the buttercups all day,
The earth being silent now and the light shed,
Kneels down to pray.

And, full of faith, he knows that God will keep
Safe one who lies
Feeding the rats that with the shadows creep
And husbanding the flies.
            —Theodore van Beek

“The Soldier’s Son” bitterly contrasts the clean faith of a child with the indignities of death on the battlefield. Van Beek’s disillusionment with the war is also evident in his poem “After the ‘Offensive.’”

Born in South Africa, Theodore van Beek emigrated to Scotland in 1908 to attend the University of Edinburgh. He married Katherine Fairbairn, a young woman from Edinburgh, and by the time war was declared in 1914, the couple had three young sons. Enlisting in the British army, van Beek served first with the Artists Rifles and later with the Royal Field Artillery.*

While on active duty in 1917, van Beek received the news that his youngest son, James, had died. Soldiers of the First World War were frequently witnesses to ugly, messy deaths. What we often forget is that these men were not immune from the loss of loved ones on the home front. What must it have been like for a man at war to receive word of the death of a mother, father, wife, daughter, or son? Many of van Beek’s war poems juxtapose the grim realities of war with the loss of his fair-haired toddler (James was approximately three years of age when he died).

The War Office Regrets…..
Theo van Beek, c. 1914

I was dreaming in the firelight when it came
With its few, blurred lines and vividly, a name.
First I felt a little hand on my own;
Then I heard an eager voice;
Then a flame,
Bright and yellow, danced before me
And was blown into the gloom.

Come to me, my little boy,
Fill with living sound my room,
Run about to your heart’s joy,
I will never scold you.
I will never sigh or frown,
I will never put you down.
Come to me, my little boy,
I will hold you….hold you.
            —Theodore H. van Beek

Although van Beek survived the war, his marriage did not. Before the war ended, his wife emigrated to Canada with their two surviving sons, boys that van Beek may not have ever seen again. After the war, Van Beek remarried Isabella Hamilton Kyle in 1920 and began a new family, but suffered bankruptcy in the 1920s. He adopted the pseudonym Martin Mayne and turned his talents to song writing, composing the lyrics to the Bennie Goodman tune “I Sent You a Kiss in the Night" as well as “I Remember the Cornfields,” recorded by both Evelyn Knight and Anne Shelton.

During the Second World War, van Beek and his family were bombed from their rented home in Blackheath. Their son, Theodore M. van Beek had volunteered for service with the British Army and fought at the Battle of El Alamein and in the Italian campaign. In December of 1943, van Beek's son was reported “Missing in Action — believed Dead,” but escaped from a POW camp and walked over one-hundred miles through enemy-held territory to cross the front lines and rejoin the British Army. Throughout the uncertainties and challenges of life, van Beek continued to write poetry, and in 1986, it was collected by his son and published in the small volume The Day of Love. Van Beek died in 1958; his last poem in the collection published posthumously by his son is the poem “Epitaph”:

When the last clod is thrown into my grave
And I am sealed in the night, remember me
For nothing I achieved, but for my dreams—
Sparks in the darkness of Eternity.**
*From biographical foreword written by van Beek’s son Theodore for The Day of Love and Other Poems by Theo van Beek, Rock Press, 1986.
** Sincere thanks to Kate and Lucy van Beek and Stephanie Blaquiere for sharing family photos and memories of Theo van Beek.