Sunday, 11 November 2018

Armistice 100: Poems From the Trenches

All over the world today people are standing in silence to commemorate the end of World War I. It’s an occasion for all of us to strive to create a future of peace and tolerance.

The war affected my own family in many ways. My grandmother’s first husband died serving as a nurse on the hospital ship Britannic in 1916. My grandfather was a stretcher-bearer at the Battle of the Somme where he received injuries. He later married the fiancĂ©e of his best friend who was killed there. My grandfather’s sister married a man who suffered serious post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life.

During many of the remembrance events poems will be read that were written during by people who saw first-hand the horrors of war. The names of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brook (all gay men) are well-known.

One lesser-known war poet who was present at the Somme at the same time as my grandfather was Capt. Fabian Strachan Woodley (1888-1957) of the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Although regarded as more of a Uranian poet Fabian wrote a few war poems at the front line. One was a tribute to his male lover. Fabian was part of the second movement of Uranian poetry. This specific genre concentrated on erotic sentiments towards young boys.

Fabian was born in Clifton in Bristol. His father was a wealthy solicitor and his mother came from a long-established gentry family. He was educated at Cheltenham College and Oxford University. He was a very athletic youth, being a member of Clifton Rugby Football Club.

World War I was declared less than a month after Fabian’s 26th birthday. He joined the army and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 8th Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, an Irish Regiment. The battalion was mobilised for war in December 1915 and they were sent straight to the Western Front to the frozen trenches at Loos.

Two months previously the British and German forces had clashed at the Battle of Loos. The British came out worst and criticism was made of the leadership of the British forces in the area. The Commander in Chief was replaced and Fabian’s 8th Battalion was one among many sent to reinforce the front line. Fighting continued throughout the winter. Fabian’s battalion sustained many casualties, the first being on Christmas Eve 1915, the week after arriving there.

In April 1916 the 8th Battalion moved to Hulluch a couple of miles from Loos and were engaged in battle. One soldier later wrote “I saw hundreds dying all around me. I was practically walking on dead bodies all the way. You take no notice of dead bodies out there.”

Fabian Woodley and the 8th Battalion moved back to Loos in June to clear the trenches and strengthen the parapets. German shells were firing at them all the time and there were more casualties. One of them, killed by a shell on 21st June, was Lt. Myles O’Donovan. He was 20 years old.

Lt. O’Donovan was a member of one of the old princely families of Ireland, his father being recognised as the clan chief. Myles and Fabian met before they were both commissioned into the 8th Battalion. In war close friendships develop quickly. No doubt both men were equally close to other battalion members, but Myles O’Donovan seems to have had a special relationship with Fabian Woodley.

Of the many men who were killed in his battalion Fabian wrote only one poem on the death of a specific officer, and that was Lt. Myles O’Donovan. The poem was titled “To Lieut, O’D”. Here it is :

See him standing at the corner,
Cynosure of friendly eyes,
Challenging their kindly sallies,
Combatting with swift replies.

Eyes alight with Life and Laughter,
Brown eyes full of mirth and fun;
Fresh face tanned by months of warfare,
Lithe limbs browned by summer sun.

Suddenly a shell comes screaming,
Through the blue vault overheard,
Strikes – His laughing lips are silent,
All his splendid youth lies dead.

Death! whose arrow countless thousands
And unerring aim have proved,
Could you not have aimed untruly,
Spared for me the boy I loved?

Another hint at the relationship between Fabian Woodley and Myles O’Donovan appears in a building on the O’Donovan estate in County Cork. It is named “Woodley”. It implies that the O’Donovan family recognised the friendship between the two, perhaps even their relationship. There’s no other connection to the name Woodley in the family or the area other than with Fabian. Did Fabian visit the O’Donovans regularly and became friends with Myles before the war?

At the beginning of September 1916 the 8th Battalion moved to the Somme area. With other Irish battalions the 8th attacked the German posts in the Battle of Guillemont in which 265 members were killed. For his part in the action Fabian Woodley was awarded the Military Cross.

In October 1916 the 8th Battalion moved up to Ypres. A month later it was amalgamated with the 1st Battalion because of the loss of troops.

Fabian Woodley left the war as a Captain, and his military legacy attracted attention as recently as May 2017. In that month his war medals came up for auction in Mayfair, London (pictured below). The estimate was £1,000 to £1,200. They sold for £3,400.
After the war Fabian Woodley became a teacher in several public boys schools. He continued to write occasional poetry and published a collection in 1921 called “A Crown of Friendship”. The poems were Uranian in tone, extolling the beauty of youth. Possibly one of the poems was written after a dream Fabian had in which Myles appeared to him. It is called “The Beautiful” (below) and has an air of a reminiscence of lost love. The second verse implies a heavenward journey made through death.

Long years ago there came to me in sleep
The vision of a boy divinely fair;
His eyes were moon-kissed seas, serene and deep,
Elysian blossoms crowned his golden hair;
Light flowed around him, gently fell his voice
Like a soft-singing shower of silver dew.
Long time he gazed, then smiling, spoke “Rejoice!
Seek only Me, for I alone am true!”

Straightaway he fled upborne within a maze
Of mighty wings and music wonderful,
Whilst all the air grew dizzy with the praise
Of voices crying loud, “The Beautiful.”
Heavenward he vanished – but his radiant face
Still haunts me – a pure spiritual joy,
And well I know he makes his dwelling-place
In the clear honest eyes of any boy.