Robert Pike is an admirer and collector of the poetry of the Gallipoli campaign, and of the wider conflict of The Great War, and has compiled a Bibliography of Gallipoli Poetry. Robert has kindly provided us with his own story of his family connection with The Great War, together with his personal journey of discovery of the wealth of poetry about that singular event in world history.
IN GREAT BATTALIONS BY THE SHORE
As a child I lived in the same house as my maternal grandfather. On the mantelpiece were the cases of two brass shells, and a small ‘goblet’ made of different-sized bullets; they fascinated me, but I never asked where they came from. After my grandfather died two medals came my way and for years sat in my drawer, unnoticed.
At school I loved English and inevitably Owen and Sassoon came into my cosmos, then the epiphany occurred. My parents, on holiday, bought me the diary of an officer in the Somerset Light Infantry, Geoffrey Prideaux, which I devoured. Next year meandering in France we decided to find where he was buried and after much difficulty found Hem Farm with the added interest of two VCs, and so the obsession stirred and stretched. If Prideaux, why not Owen and next summer we went to Ors; no reassuring CWGC signs showed us to the Communal Cemetery, so we went to the Mairie to ask where the famous ‘poète anglais’ was buried. ‘Qui?’ was the response; they were unaware of who they had, not so today!
Then fate took control I had to give up my job; became an apron-decked house-husband, but found when the children were at school, what to do? I looked at the town war memorial and its 159 names, a research project, easy, I thought. Ten years later I found the 159th, Walter Hill, lying unmarked, forgotten in the town cemetery and the task, except for the small matter of a book, was complete. Meanwhile Grandad’s medals were framed, a Dead Man’s Penny discovered, a Military Cross like Owen’s was bought and the never-ending pilgrimage began.
I was intrigued by who had died in the Great War; the effect on individuals, relatives, society, suddenly the men who had lived in my town were comrades in sacrifice with Test cricketers, sons of lords and politicians, actors, poets, scions of industry, society and simply the brave.
Once this plethora of potential research emerged the future was inevitable – the Pike caravanserai inexorably explored Flanders, Asiago, Salonika, Germany, Malta, Israel and Gallipoli – Oh Gallipoli, once seen, a part of one’s soul forever, the sea, the flowers, the tragedy.
Visiting these places was enhanced by the books, the poems, but throughout it all there was an underlying sense that there but for the grace of … I looked at my two sons and thanked God they were born when they were.
It had always seemed to me that there was a dearth of poetry connected with the Gallipoli campaign; some Great War anthologies contain none at all and those that do, stick to Dearmer, Lawson, Oxland, perhaps, Shaw-Stewart. I wondered why that was — the only explanation I have found was in ‘Poems of the First World War. Never Such Innocence’ by Martin Stephen.
Poetry about Gallipoli…is less distinctive than that written about the Western Front … similar to some World War Two poetry. A more jokey, off-hand manner creeps into much of it, as if heat, sand, flies were in some vague way not quite so offensive as mud, rain and lice. Perhaps the British and their soldiers had been used to sweating it out in sandy deserts for so long that the experience was not quite so much of a shock … the treatment of the wounded and prisoners by the Turks was infinitely worse … Sheer boredom comes through as a strong element in much of this poetry … another feature … expressed (is) that of the ‘forgotten army.
After my first visit to the Peninsula, I decided to investigate whether this so-called paucity of verse was true by compiling a Bibliography of Gallipoli poetry. It was apparent immediately that Stephen’s explanation is obviously true, but also it seemed to me that one of the main reasons was the relative brevity of the campaign, less than nine months, and, more significantly perhaps, the sheer physical difficulty of writing poetry. There were no rest areas, no ‘behind the lines’ on the Peninsula; what was written tends to be composed on the way to Gallipoli, or on places like Lemnos, or even in hospital recovering from wounds.
However it seemed to me that not only poetry written by the participants, but that of modern poets, like Chris Wallace-Crabbe who grew up ‘listening to memories of those more directly involved in the campaign,’ should qualify.
It was also suggested that, for example, all of “The Anzac Book” and all Leon Gellert’s poetry, should be included, because all the poems are based on the Gallipoli experience and therefore to that extent are Gallipoli poetry. Although I feel this is undoubtedly true, the task was specifically to include poetry that directly mentions Gallipoli, so I resisted that temptation.
As to the initial surmise that Gallipoli poetry was rather scarce, I think the Bibliography thoroughly dispels this myth, containing nearly five hundred and seventy poems that mention Gallipoli.
Finally, it became apparent that the poetry ‘about’ or inspired by Gallipoli can be divided into ‘two distinct periods of publishing activity – 1915 to 1921, when most of the poetry appeared,’ and from early 1970’s when new writers, primarily Antipodean, retrospectively examined the myth and the reality.
I would like to conclude with two poems, one from each ‘distinct period’; the first written by the finest Australian poet of the Great War, Leon Gellert who eighteen days after the outbreak of the Great War, ‘dancing and singing’, enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In his troop-ship in the Aegean he diverted himself by writing verse. As a lance sergeant with the 10th Battalion, he landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Wounded by shrapnel, and suffering from septicaemia and dysentery, he was evacuated to Malta in July and thence to London. He was diagnosed as having epilepsy, repatriated and discharged medically unfit on 30 June 1916. In November he re-enlisted in Adelaide, only to be discharged almost immediately.
THE LAST TO LEAVE
The guns were silent, and the silent hills
Had bowed their grasses to a gentle breeze.
I gazed upon the vales and on the rills,
And whispered, ‘What of these?’ and, ‘What of these?
These long-forgotten dead with sunken graves,
Some crossless, with unwritten memories;
Their only mourners are the moaning waves;
Their only minstrels are the singing trees.’
And thus I mused and sorrowed wistfully.
I watched the place where they had scaled the height,
That height whereon they bled so bitterly
Throughout each day and through each blistered night.
I sat there long, and listened – all things listened too.
I heard the epics of a thousand trees;
A thousand waves I heard, and then I knew
The waves were very old, the trees were wise:
The dead would be remembered evermore –
The valiant dead that gazed upon the skies,
And slept in great battalions by the shore.
The second poem is by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell who was born in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, in 1925. His mother, a Cook Islander, married his father, Jock, a third-generation New Zealander of Scottish descent who sought refuge from the trauma of his Great War injuries and experiences at Gallipoli and in France by making a new life as a South Pacific island trader ,
It was magical when flowers appeared on the upper reaches – not that we saw much of the upper reaches. But when we did, we were reminded of home when spring clothed the hills with flowers.
The dead lying among them seemed to be asleep. I can never forget the early mornings, before the killings started up, when the sea was like a mirror under little wisps of cloud breathing on its surface, so dazzling it hurt the eye. and the ships, so many of them, they darkened the sea. But the evenings too were magical, with such hues in the sky over Macedonia, so many colours, gold bars, green, red, and yellow. We noticed these things, when the firing stopped and we had respite. It was good to feel, during such moments, that we were human beings once more.
For me it will always be the Great War; a war not of strategy, statistics, battles, but particularly through the poetry, about people; and that is to undertake a voyage into the human suffering the War embedded in the fabric of every participant country. For those who lost a loved one, a light had been extinguished, never to be rekindled. For many of those who did return they had physical and psychological scars. These could not fade away — they were the legacy of a war that ended only with their deaths or the deaths of those who loved them. “What can the world hold afterwards worthy of laughter or tears? ”
I leave the last words to another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, “Have you forgotten yet? … Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget—.”