The Story of a Poem #Armistice2018

Great Gran-Uncle Bill Collier

PLEASE NOTE:  All photos are copyright and may not be used without permission

Limerick in Spring, 1918

Seated quietly by the April fireside,
Lucy May Fitzell reads Rupert Brooke’s poems.
Joshua, whose first gift to her was a pair of gloves,
offers titbits of news: Ottoman gains in the East;
butter prices; rumours of a general strike.
He rises and riddles the failing embers.

In the Methodist Sunday morning
Lucy May’s hymnal is bookmarked
with a photograph of her brother Bill –
away with the Seaforths in Palestine.
Her gloved hand touches his sepia face.
She remembers picnics in Kilkee and sings
‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’.

Lucy May watches Royal Welch Fusiliers
playing with her children in the garden.
Mr. Sassoon has returned to the front; Mr. Graves
remains. Her affection lies with the parade of boys
who sprawl on the lawn, on scratchy rugs, firing bullets
of Manchester vowels and Welsh consonants.

She calls Eileen from the piano in the drawing room
and Amy from the flowerbed where worms are.
Private Davies lifts Louie high on his shoulder.
Captain Swales walks with bent knees as he
holds Joan’s hand. Lucy May shepherds them
in to the dining room where there is
honey still for tea.

I wrote about this poem in my  writer’s blog a few years ago – when it was first published in the Stony Thursday Book. (It’s also in my collection This Little World.) I had the joy of reading it in Limerick when the journal was launched; bringing the poem home, so to speak. When I began to research this poem about my family’s connection to the first World War, I didn’t realise I’d find Limerick connections to some of the most famous war poets of that era.

In autumn 2011, I was writing a series of poems about women on the edges, the margins, of history. I wanted to explore the Irish domestic experience of World War l.  I was able to do that through my great-grandmother, using stories my grandmother told me about that time:

Limerick was a garrison town. My great- grandmother used to give Sunday teas for some of the soldiers in the barracks. I suspect they met at Church. My granny remembered the soldiers marching through Limerick every Sunday, on their way to religious services.
Grannie had a box of photos of some of those visitors to the house. Over the years, I’d ask her to take out the photos and tell me about them. The soldiers mentioned in my poem are the men in those old photographs.

Did Sassoon and Graves come to tea?
Well, I took a bit of poetic licence – telescoping events.  In ‘Goodbye to All That’, Graves mentions being posted to Limerick at the end of the war. And, the Graves family had a long association with Limerick – Robert’s grandfather was a Bishop of Limerick. Though I think Graves had mixed feelings about his Irish ancestry! An email I have from the curator of the RWF Museum states that Graves was in Limerick from 1917 until he was demobbed in 1919.
Since writing the poem I’ve discovered that the poet and artist David Jones (‘In Parenthesis’) was also stationed in Limerick. He moved there from the Western Front after a severe bout of trench fever. There’s more of a chance that he  could have sat at Lucy May’s tea table.
As for Sassoon visiting my family? Well, I don’t think Sassoon was a ‘chapel’ sort of chap. While he wrote several poems during his stay in Limerick, there’s also an account of his going to a hunt in County Limerick. On that occasion, he got ‘high tea’ from a Mrs. McDonnell of Ballinacurra House. There would be a lovely symmetry to the episode, but I don’t think I’m related to her!

Sassoon was in Limerick with the Third Battalion for less than two months – early in 1918. Like Graves and Jones, he was in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I’m not a military historian, but the best way I can describe the Third Battalion is as a feeder unit, or a posting for soldiers as respite before going back to the Front. Sassoon wasn’t long out of Craiglockhart War Hospital when he was posted to Ireland. He was impatient to get back to the war.

There are seven, possibly eight, poems from his time in Limerick – including one called ‘In Barracks’. (Another interesting poem is from in July 1918 – ‘Letter to Robert Graves’.)
‘Remorse’, was written in Limerick on 4 February 1918, just four days before he left for Palestine. He was there until May 1918, when he returned to the Western Front.

REMORSE                                                                                                                                           Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,–each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
“Could anything be worse than this?”–he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees. . .
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs . . . “O hell!”
He thought–“there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.”

As for my great-granduncle, and the other soldiers who came to tea . . .

After I’d written the poem, my mother told me another story: my gran-aunts used to sing for the soldiers. Seemingly there was one song they hadn’t heard before, and one of the children copied it out for a soldier. His family later wrote to my great-grandmother;  he had been killed and the sheet of paper with the song on it was among his belongings when he died. One soldier wrote to Lucy May until the 1950s. We also have a Christmas card that was sent to her in December 1918. It’s printed in Welsh & English. I’ll post a copy of of it in December.

Bill survived, but he didn’t remain in Ireland. Family connections were lost, and I never met him although he died when I was a teenager. I believe he is buried in Cheltenham. So, there’s more research to be done.

A few years ago, I found Bill’s original WWI photos and digitised them with the help of a friend who’s a photographer. There are photos from Egypt, the Sudan, Palestine and, I think, Salonika.

How many of the pals in these photos came home?

© Karen J McDonnell
© Karen J McDonnell
© Karen J McDonnell

 

I started writing this post at dawn.  The sky-chill lifted gradually as the clouds pinkened from the east. There was rain during the night, but the sky is fairly clear now: the bare branches fan out against the increasing blue. The harbour is still. The tide is going out.

Impossible to imagine, truly, the last few hours before eleven o’ clock one hundred years ago.

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