Rupert Brooke’s five sonnet work 1914 – The Soldier is the most famous poem of World War One – That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. Brooke’s all too brief life story begins at Rugby School, including playing football on The Close – an experience he put down in prose…
On its own Brooke’s poem stands singularly as a lasting tribute to the generation of young men that fell far away from home in WW1.
As British writer Arthur Mee put in 1939:
“It was a time when all hearts were heavy with the thought of countless thousands laid in foreign graves, and Rupert Brooke spoke for them all.”
The Soldier is made doubly poignant when you come to learn that in April 1915, the 27 year old Brooke was himself laid to rest in a grave on a Greek Island. His sad and untimely demise though was not that of a vainglorious Homeric battle fall.
Stirred with the sense of high adventure shared with many other young men, Brooke had joined the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the war, serving in the disastrous Antwerp Expedition in October 1914.
En route by ship to the Dardanelles (and what would become the Gallipoli landings) he was bitten by a mosquito and developed blood poisoning (septiceamia). Despite treatment on a French hospital ship, his body was overwhelmed and he died. With the convoy under orders to continue on, Brooke was hastily buried on nearby Skyros Island at 11 o’clock at night.
Rupert Brooke was born at Rugby on August 3rd, 1887. His father, William Parker Brooke, was a master at Rugby School, where in due course the young Rupert was enrolled.
Texts from the 1920s recounting Brooke’s life note his rise in academic study in the early 1900s and the emergence of his first verses and poems, while also recording the possession of a mild sporting streak:
“As a youth, Brooke was keenly interested in all forms of athletics; playing cricket, football, tennis”, “he played games enthusiastically, and helped us to become Cock House in football and in cricket”, and “in time could participate creditably enough in cricket and football, playing on the School Cricket Eleven and the Football Fifteen.”
A newspaper journalist in 1922 reflected that in youth and early adulthood Brooke was:
“A man of extraordinary physical beauty and of unstudied but irresistible personal charm, as ebullient on the playing field as he was resplendent in University, literary, and advanced political activities.”
Rugby School’s magazine, The Meteor, records the football team’s captain view of Brooke that “He tackles too high.”
Suggesting perhaps that Brooke did not immediately take to playing football at Rugby School, are his own reflections on the experience in 1904’s From a New Boy:
When first I played I nearly died.
The Bitter Memory still rankles –
They formed a scrum with me inside!
Some kicked the ball and some my ankles.
I did not like the game at all,
Yet, after all the harm they’d done me,
Whenever I came near the ball
They knocked me down and stood upon me.
A contemporary of Brooke’s at Rugby School was Ronald Poulton – two years younger than Brooke, he would go on to be England Rugby captain in the last Home Nations series prior to the outbreak of the war.
Amassing 17 caps for England, Poulton (aka Ronald Poulton Palmer) was an immensely popular centre three-quarter, playing for Oxford University, Harlequins and the Barbarian FC. It was written a decade later that:
“Our leading papers said that lovers of the game had come to feel there was no more thrilling sight on any football ground, than a tricky run by Ronnie Poulton, finished off by an unselfish reverse pass and a colleague’s score.”
Poulton enlisted at the outbreak of the war, joining the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Just two weeks after Brooke’s death, Poulton was shot dead by a sniper while serving at Ploegsteert Wood at Flanders in Belgium.
The collective loss of both men, and with them their future contributions, was a devastating blow to the morale of the nation and the military.
At Rugby School a joint memorial service was held in the school chapel.
© Sean Fagan
IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.