Friday, July 1, 2016

British poets, composers & politicians in the Battle of the Somme

The Battle of the Somme began one hundred years ago (July 1, 1916) and ended about four-and-a-half months later (Nov. 18) with approximately 1.3 million German, French, and British-Empire casualties. The British forces suffered 419 654 casualties at the Somme, approximately 133 000 of whom were killed. The British ranks at the Somme included both the author and illustrator of Winnie the Pooh, the author of Lord of the Rings, a future Prime Minister and several sitting or former Members of Parliament, as well as many poets, novelists, and composers.

On just the first day of the battle, 18 783 British-Empire troops were killed. The dead included the composers William B. Manson and George Jerrard Wilkinson together with the poets John William Streets, Gilbert Waterhouse, W. N. Hodgson, and Alexander Robertson (who was a Lecturer in History at Sheffield University).

One of J. R. R. Tolkien's closest friends, Robert Quilter Gilson, was also killed in action on July 1, 1916.

(In what follows, a '+' indicates that the individual was killed during the Somme battle.)

Among the British novelists and poets at the battle were Edmund Blunden, Leslie Coulson+, A. A. Milne, H. H. Munro (Saki)+, J. B. Priestley, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Tennant+,and  J. R. R. Tolkien.

Ford Madox Ford (aka Ford Madox Hueffer) was at the Somme. Of Ford, H. G. Wells wrote:
In the 1914-18 war he was a bad case of shell-shock from which he never recovered. The pre-war F.M.H. was torturous but understandable. The post-war F.M.H. was incurably crazy.
On July 20, 1916, Robert Graves was injured by shrapnel at the Somme. He was reported dead but was hospitalized the next day. He later suffered from shell shock.

Painter and poet David Jones was injured at the Somme (at some time in July).

Along with Milne, Winnie the Pooh's illustrator, E. H. Shepard, was there.

The American poet Alan Seeger+, Pete Seeger's uncle and the author of one of JFK's favourite poems, was there as a member of the French Foreign Legion.

Supermac, aka Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was injured at the Somme. He self-administered morphine and read Aeschylus while lying injured in a shell hole.

Member of Parliament, Charles Duncombe+, was killed at the Somme. So was MP Gerald Arbuthnot+. So was MP (and member of the family behind Barings Bank) Guy Baring+. Several MPs from British-Empire nations were killed in WWI. How many active politicians are nowadays sent to the front lines?

Prime Minister Asquith's eldest son, Raymond Asquith+, was killed at the Somme.

Irish poet, economist, and MP Thomas Michael Kettle+ fought at the Somme, as did B. H. Liddell-Hart.

Here are some British musicians who served at the Somme: Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth+ (shot in the head by a sniper on Aug. 5, 1916), Francis Purcell Warren+ (reported missing on July 3, 1916), Arthur Bliss, and Ivor Gurney. Gurney was also a poet; he was shot and gassed in later battles. Gurney suffered a nervous breakdown and died in 1937 in a London mental hospital.

Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly+ was shot in the head on Nov. 13, 1916.

Here is more information about the many composers who served at the Somme.

Historian R. H. Tawney was at the Somme and later wrote about it. Here are some other writings about the battle.

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