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 fiancée
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
Combatting with swift
Eyes alight with Life and
Brown eyes full of mirth
Fresh face tanned by
months of warfare,
Lithe limbs browned by
Suddenly a shell comes
Through the blue vault
Strikes – His laughing
lips are silent,
All his splendid youth
Death! whose arrow
And unerring aim have
Could you not have aimed
Spared for me the boy I
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
Long years ago there came
to me in sleep
The vision of a boy
His eyes were moon-kissed
seas, serene and deep,
Elysian blossoms crowned his
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
Straightaway he fled
upborne within a maze
Of mighty wings and music
Whilst all the air grew
dizzy with the praise
Of voices crying loud,
Heavenward he vanished –
but his radiant face
Still haunts me – a pure
And well I know he makes
In the clear honest eyes
of any boy.