Fragments of War: Quieter Voices

  •  By Stuart Hennigan, Communities Librarian, and Ross Horsley, Local and Family History Library

World War 1 is famous for its poetry. More than that of any other war in history, the poetry of World War 1 has determined our perception of the war itself. Most people have read, or at least heard of, such luminary war poets as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen but, by concentrating solely on the works deemed to have more ‘literary merit’, we are experiencing only part of the poetic response to the conflict. At our Fragments of War poetry event at Leeds Central Library last Friday, we sought to give voice to some of these lesser-known poets and their perspectives. This week at the Secret Library, we’ll bring together those with a more local connection: a Leeds soldier, a Leeds schoolgirl, and a woman whose gravestone stands in Lawnswood Cemetery in north Leeds.

Norman Woodcock (1897-1987) was 17 when the war broke out. Leaving behind his childhood home in Little Woodhouse, he began five years of gruelling service that took him from the Gallipoli Landings to the final days of the Western Front. Though scarred by the experience, he went on to an extremely successful postwar career in public administration, but it was not until much later that he was able to discuss some of the horrors he had endured. The medium he chose was poetry:

Thoughts on poetry by Norman Woodcock
Thoughts on poetry by Norman Woodcock

Norman’s granddaughter, Susan Burnett, combined his handwritten memoirs with her own historical research to create the book On That Day I Left My Boyhood Behind, which can be borrowed from Leeds Libraries. She also shared with us the following poem from his collection:

The First World War

A long time now since the Great War began
And we started to lose our schoolboy friends
For it was the young ones who rushed to join
It was a case with them of not knowing
They had not heard the machine gun rattle
They had only read of men in battle
And the writers had no experience
Of anything bigger than a skirmish
A generation of men disappeared
Many of them too young to understand
But can any country lose them like this
Without the feeling of a great abyss
But our winning that war was not the end
Our negotiators were a poor blend
So the misery had to start again
And take more of the lives of our young men

War is a great engineer of social change and, with so many of the men away fighting, the First World War brought along some seismic changes in terms of women’s rights in Britain. Women were needed to drive trams, perform agricultural labour and work in munitions factories in the absence of their male counterparts. This next poem was uncovered by our Heritage Volunteer, Maureen Jessop, who has been indexing the Local and Family History Library’s holdings of Leeds Girls’ High School Magazine. It was published in spring 1917 but, sadly, we’ve been unable to trace the name of its author.

After Many Days

The War had last for fourteen years,
And women and maids were all in tears.
Not a man was left on British earth
But those who were under ten years from their birth:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

The church, of course, must still be full,
But without a preacher it was so dull!
Till one day, in the parish of Neverstandstill,
A woman’s form did the pulpit fill:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

This example was followed throughout the land;
And women at last got the upper hand.
They governed the country and piled on the tax,
Till at length through the world rang out the word “Pax”:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

The men from far countries came rushing back,
Only to find, – alas! Alack!!
That all was now changed since the time when they left,
For men of their rights had at last been bereft:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

Not a man was left who could raise his hand,
And control any woman upon the land;
For in pulpit and parliament women now stood,
And in pulpit and parliament stand they e’er would:
This was the fruit of War, you know!

Leeds Girls' High School, 1906
Leeds Girls’ High School, 1908. Photo from Leodis

Predating both of these poems was a piece by a Leeds woman that achieved recognition across the western world but is largely forgotten today. Originally published in The Spectator in September 1915, Christ in Flanders went on to become a bestselling pamphlet, which stayed in print throughout the war and was quoted in church sermons across the country by, among others, the Bishop of London. Its theme may be considered sentimental but the comfort it offered a generation of soldiers and their families is undeniable and, for that reason, it remains one of the most emotive poems of its kind.

Christ in Flanders

We had forgotten You, or very nearly —
You did not seem to touch us very nearly —
Of course we thought about You now and then;
Especially in any time of trouble —
We knew that You were good in time of trouble — 
But we are very ordinary men.

And there were always other things to think of —
There’s lots of things a man has got to think of —
His work, his home, his pleasure, and his wife;
And so we only thought of You on Sunday —
Sometimes, perhaps, not even on a Sunday —
Because there’s always lots to fill one’s life.

And, all the while, in street or lane or byway —
In country lane, in city street, or byway —
You walked among us, and we did not see.
Your feet were bleeding as You walked our pavements —
How did we miss Your footprints on our pavements? —
Can there be other folk as blind as we?

Now we remember; over here in Flanders —
(It isn’t strange to think of You in Flanders) —
This hideous warfare seems to make things clear.
We never thought about You much in England —
But now that we are far away from England,
We have no doubts, we know that You are here.

You helped us pass the jest along the trenches —
Where, in cold blood, we waited in the trenches —
You touched its ribaldry and made it fine.
You stood beside us in our pain and weakness —
We’re glad to think You understand our weakness —
Somehow it seems to help us not to whine.

We think about You kneeling in the Garden —
Ah! God! the agony of that dread Garden —
We know You prayed for us upon the cross.
If anything could make us glad to bear it —
’Twould be the knowledge that You willed to bear it —
Pain — death — the uttermost of human loss.

Though we forgot You — You will not forget us —
We feel so sure that You will not forget us —
But stay with us until this dream is past.
And so we ask for courage, strength, and pardon —
Especially, I think, we ask for pardon —
And that You’ll stand beside us to the last.

Sadly, the poem’s author, Lucy Whitmell, a former President of the Leeds Astronomical Society, did not live to see the end of the First World War. She died from a long illness in May of 1917 and was buried at Lawnswood Cemetery, where her gravestone notes: She wrote “Christ in Flanders”.

12-War Memorial
The war memorial at Lawnswood Cemetery. Photograph courtesy of Andrea Hetherington

Check out our previous post A Leeds Schoolgirl Reflects on WW1 to read about another war poem from the pages of Leeds Girls’ High School Magazine.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Ann Burnett says:

    Wonderful poetry chosen with great echoes of the time and very apt for today. Very proud that you have used my grandfather’s war story and poetry in your event too. Your forthcoming talks sound interesting and I am sorry I am unable to come to them. I wish you well for your future commemorations.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Ann, and best wishes to you. We hope others will be as moved by these poems as we have been.

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