Poets of Passchendaele
The First World War saw many talented poets lose their lives and the war also inspired poems written in the trenches and elegies for the dead. The first day of the Battle of Passchendaele saw Francis Ledwidge an Irish poet and Hedd Wyn a Welsh poet killed; both are buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery. As the battle progressed, conditions became worse and by October the battle conditions led Sir Herbert Read of The Green Howards to write ‘Kneeshaw Goes to War’.
Francis Ledwidge (Lance Corporal) 10th (Irish) Division Inniskilling Fusiliers
Born 19 August 1887, Slane, County Meath. Died 31 July 1917, Flanders Fields
An Irish Nationalist, he joined the 10th (Irish) Division of the Inniskilling Fusiliers in October 1914, believing he was furthering the cause of Irish Independence. He also said that because Britain “stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilisation and I would not have her say she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”.
Ledwidge’s early poetry displayed innocence and simplicity, however his battlefield experience led to more striking poems with a harder edge. His later work included poems such as To One Dead, Soliloquy, A Soldier’s Grave and his last, To One Who Comes Now and Then, was dated just nine days before his death. His poetry includes a volume, Songs of Peace, published posthumously in 1917.
Ledwidge was repairing the road to Pilkem near the Le Carrefour de Roses (Roses Crossroad), Boezinge, northwest of Ypres on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele when he was killed by a stray bullet. He is buried near where he fell at Artillery Wood cemetery and close by a memorial to him was erected and inscribed with lines from a verse of his poem ‘Lament for Thomas MacDonagh’
‘He shall not hear
the bittern cry
In the wild sky
where he is lain’
The cottage where he was born, in County Meath, Ireland is now the Francis Ledwidge Museum.
Ellis Humphrey Evans - Hedd Wyn (Private) 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers
Born 13 January 1887, Trawsfynydd, Merioneth, Wales. Died 31 July 1917, Flanders Fields
Born Ellis Humphrey Evans, but known as Hedd Wyn, he was a Welsh language poet. He wrote several war poems following the outbreak of war on the Western Front. In June 1917, Hedd Wyn joined the 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers (part of the 38th (Welsh) Division). On 31st July, 1917 the 15th Battalion marched along the Pilkem Ridge on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele. During the action Hedd Wyn lost his life and he is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery, Boezinge, on the Pilkem Ridge where the Welsh National Memorial was unveiled in 2014. The 38th (Welsh) Division sustained a total of 2,922 casualties during the actions of 31st July and 2nd August.
The war inspired Hedd Wyn's work and produced some of his most noted poetry, including Rhyfel ("War"), which remains one of his most frequently quoted works. He began work on a new poem, Yr Arwr (The Hero) which was to be his submission for the forthcoming eisteddfod but left the uncompleted poem behind when he returned to France, rewriting it on his journey back, from where he posted his poem.
On 6 September 1917, the ceremony of Chairing of the Bard took place at the National Eisteddfod and the Archdruid announced the winner had been killed in action six weeks earlier. The empty chair was then draped in a black sheet. The chair was hand crafted by Flemish craftsman, Eugeen Vanfleteren, born in Mechelen, Belgium, who had fled to England on the outbreak of war and had settled in Birkenhead.
The poet's bardic chair remains on display at his family cottage, Yr Ysgwrn Farmhouse, Snowdonia National Park, Wales which has been preserved just as it was in 1917 by the poet's nephew, Gerald Williams and following a period of renovation reopened in Spring 2017.
'War' By Hedd Wynn Translated by Gillian Clarke
Bitter to live in times like these.
While God declines beyond the seas;
Instead, man, king or peasantry,
Raises his gross authority.
When he thinks God has gone away;
Man takes up his sword to slay
His brother; we can hear death's roar.
It shadows the hovels of the poor.
Like the old songs they left behind,
We hung our harps in the willows again.
Ballads of boys blow on the wind,
Their blood is mingled with the rain.
Sir Herbert Read (Company Commander) 7th Green Howards
Born 1893 Muscoates Grange, North Yorkshire. Died -1968 Malton, North Yorkshire
The poet and critic, was born in Yorkshire in 1893 served with the 7th Green Howards in France and Belgium. Read wrote two volumes of poetry based upon his war experiences: Songs of Chaos (1915) and Naked Warriors, published in 1919, along with two volumes of autobiography: In Retreat (1925) and Ambush (1930).
In October 1917, Read’s men held the right support position in the Line near Zillebeke Lake, which was fiercely bombarded. Read wrote ‘We have had a terrible time, the worst I have experienced and I’m getting quite an old soldier now. Life has never been quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated’. An incident during this five days of hell inspired him to write Kneeshaw Goes to War, in which a man sinks in the mud, cries for help and despite the efforts of his comrades to dig him out sinks in deeper and deeper, terror stricken.
During his service during the First World War, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Military Cross He was knighted in 1953 by Churchill for services to literature. On 11 November 1985, Read was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner.
From ‘Kneeshaw Goes to War’
The earth was scarr'd and broken
By torrents of plunging shells;
Then wash'd and sodden with autumnal rains.
A man who was marching by Kneeshaw's side
Hesitated in the middle of the mud,
And slowly sank, weighted down by equipment and arms.’
He cried for help;’