Sunday, March 3, 2013

A tale of two wars -- and two poets

Edward Thomas
Matthew Hollis begins his new biography of the poet Edward Thomas at the end. In a half-page account before the narrative begins, he describes Thomas’s death during a British offensive at Arras, France, on Easter Monday of 1916. It was an odd death, even by World War I standards, a clean death. Thomas was filling his pipe when “a shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart,” Hollis writes. “He fell without a mark on his body.”

People often ask how I became interested in the Civil War. The answer is more complicated than the one I usually give. The British poets of World War I played a role in it, but I seldom go into that. I think of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke and Thomas. They went to war and, through their poetry, attempted to capture its essence. I first encountered them when I was in my teens and read them hungrily when I was a soldier myself.

This reading led me to the prose of the war, which continues nearly a century later. There are so many good books: the memoirs of Graves (Goodbye to All That) and Vera Brittain (Testament of Youth; her diary, Chronicle of Youth, is equally poignant); the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker, which includes some of the poets as characters, as well as Barker’s more recent books, Life Class and Toby’s Room; and Paul Fussell’s stunning The Great War and Modern Memory, which, while capturing the horror of the war, also serves as a literary guide to it.

Because my wife Monique is a native Belgian, over the years I have been able to couple my reading interest with journeys to many of the major Western Front battlefields, monuments and cemeteries. She was my good soldier-companion on trips to Verdun and the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. We have been to the American cemetery at Belleau Woods and visited dozens of cathedrals and chapels where the war dead of French villages are remembered.

By now you’re probably asking: What does this have to do with the Civil War? On the simplest terms, the American Civil War and World War I are connected in many ways even though they occurred half a century apart. People expected both to end quickly, but both stretched on and on, taking on a life of their own and causing enormous carnage. Both spawned wonderful, honest writing in the service of truth.

In some ways the Civil War was a dress rehearsal for the trench warfare of World War I. I realized this years ago when I saw the remains of the trenches at Cold Harbor near Richmond. The idea was reinforced when I read the papers of Frank Butler, a New Hampshire officer on the 18th Corps staff, and the letters and diary of Capt. Oscar D. Robinson of the Ninth New Hampshire Volunteers. Their experiences during the siege of Petersburg are detailed in Our War. For soldiers in the trenches before that city in 1864-65, life was not so different from what soldiers bore in the muddy ground before no-man’s-land at Ypres 50 years later.

All wars share many characteristics, but these two seem especially linked to me.

Robert Frost
I must add that Owen, Sassoon and the other World War I poets ignited in me the embers of a love of poetry that Mim Houk, my high school English teacher, kindled during my youth. It is this love that brought me to Hollis’s new book, which I highly recommend to anyone with similar interests. It’s called Now All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas.

For a New Hampshire reader, All Roads has special significance: Thomas’s best friend in poetry was Robert Frost. Frost and his family sailed for England in 1912 after he sold their poultry farm in Derry. Without Frost’s prodding and encouragement, Thomas might never have turned to poetry after years of freelance reviewing and travel-writing. Hollis tells the story of the two poets’ friendship and recounts with delicious suspense Thomas’s discovery of his poetic gift.


  1. Fascinating post Mike. I have read Graves and Sassoon's books as well as many other related to the Great War. My mother was English and both of my Great Grandfathers as well as Great Uncles and cousins served in the British and Canadian forces. My Great Grand Uncle was killed at 3rd Ypres and is commemorated at the Menin gate Memorial. Another cousin, serving in a different regiment, was killed on the same day in the same advice. They were within a mile of one another.

    Dave M.

  2. Thanks so much for your kind comments on my blog, Mike. This is my first look at yours so just mentioning the Edward Thomas aspect. About Matthew Hollis's book - so much good in it but people who know about ET's life are cross with his position about Thomas's motivation in going to fight. The gamekeeper incident may have had about 2% influence but 'The Road Less Travelled' poem certainly did not! It was sheer patriotism that took him to war and killed him.
    'A Conscious Englishman' is based on fact and considered trustworthy. A new biography - full length not just the final years, will be published in 2014 by Jean Moorcroft-Wilson.

    All best wishes, it's lovely to see Edward Thomas being better known in America. I am sure if he had survived the war he would have joined Robert Frost in New Hampshire.

  3. Thank you, Margaret.

    Margaret's blog on her novel has plenty of good material on Thomas the poet and includes beautiful photographs of the countryside Thomas walked as a naturalist and travel writer. Here's the web address: