Fig. 1. Charles Hamitlon Sorely. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
A Poet Dies by Peter Crook.
As the centenary of the Battle of Loos approaches, and having recently written an article on the poet Robert Graves in that battle, I was reminded that Graves mentioned in his autobiography, ‘Goodbye to All That’, the names of three significant poets who were killed in the First World War.
Charles Hamilton Sorley was one of them.
Charles Hamilton Sorley was killed in the latter phase of the Battle of Loos on 13 October 1915.
The main British attacks in the Battle of Loos had come to an end on 27 September 1915.
Haig wrote in his diary on 28 September:
‘This morning I ordered all our positions to be consolidated and tired troops to be withdrawn.’
Haig’s diary entries for this day suggest that the battle is being wound down although there are to be attempts at localised advances.
One such attempt was made on 13 October - to capture the Hohenzollern Redoubt, the Quarries and a newly dug German trench running south of Hulluch.
The three attacks failed.
The ‘Official’ History of the War sums them up:
‘The fighting on the 13th–14th October had not improved the general situation in any way and had brought nothing but useless slaughter of infantry.’
The ‘Official’ History: ‘Military Operations France and Belgium, 1915: Battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert, and Loos’ J E Edmonds, 1928
12th (Eastern) Division, XI Corps, had attempted to recapture the Quarries by an attack from the south and west. No gas was released here to assist the attack. Furthermore, the British artillery had not completely shelled the area to be captured. The Official History suggests that this was because the gunners were not sure where the objectives of the attack were. A smoke screen laid down before Zero hour proved to be inadequate and the preparations and assault were clearly visible to the Germans on the higher ground at the Dump to the North West. A section of trench known as ‘The Hair-pin’ on the north-western corner of the Quarries was captured by 7th Suffolks. Elsewhere, the attack failed.
One of those who fell, and whose body was never recovered, was the poet Charles Hamilton Sorley.
Robert Graves described him as
‘... one of the three poets of importance killed during the war ...’
Robert Graves: ‘Goodbye to All That’, page 141 Penguin Modern Classics Edition pub. 1960
In Graves’ judgement the others were Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg.
I discovered Sorley’s father’s tribute to his son. Although his prose seems a little antique and the tone is restrained, nevertheless, in a manner which is difficult to analyse, William Ritchie Sorley’s love and respect for his brilliant lost young son shine through.
Sorley's father described his son's life as follows:
"He was born at Old Aberdeen on 19th May 1895. His father was then professor in the University of Aberdeen, and he was of Scottish descent on both sides. From 1900 onwards his home was in Cambridge. He was educated at Marlborough College, which he entered in September 1908 and left in December 1913 obtaining a scholarship at University College, Oxford. Owing to the war he never went into residence at the University. After leaving school he spent a little more than six months in Germany, first at Schwerin in Mecklenburg and afterwards, for the summer session, at the University of Jena. He was on a walking tour on the banks of the Moselle when the European war broke out. He was put in prison at Trier on the 2nd August, but released the same night with orders to leave the country. After some adventures he reached home on the 6th, and at once applied for a commission in the army. He was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the Seventh (Service) Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment before the end of the month, Lieutenant in November and Captain in the following August. He was sent to France with his battalion on 30th May 1915, and served for some time in the trenches round Ploegsteert (south of Ypres). Shortly after he had entered upon his life there, a suggestion was made to him about printing a slim volume of verse. But he put the suggestion aside as premature. 'Besides,' he added, 'this is no time for oliveyards and vineyards, more especially of the small-holdings type *. For three years or the duration of the war, let be.' Four months later his warfare was accomplished. His battalion was moved south to take part in the battle of Loos, and he fell 13th October 1915, in an attack in which the 'hair-pin' trench near Hulluch was captured by his company. 'Being made perfect in a little while, he fulfilled long years. "'
William Ritchie Sorley, March 1919, in ‘Marlborough and Other Poems’, Cambridge: University Press, 1919
*Was Sorley expressing some gentle criticism of the romantic style of poetry, here? His experiences would have already rendered that style’s focus on the rural ideal as no longer relevant and, indeed, hopelessly inappropriate for what had to be written, and he had to write, about the war.
Sorley’s poems, 37 of which were complete, were found in his kit following his death and ‘Marlborough and Other Poems’ was published posthumously in 1916, and went through four editions.
Sorley’s body was never found and he is commemorated on the Suffolk Regiment Panel (37 & 38) in the Loos Memorial to the Missing.
Sorley’s best known poem is ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’.
This is an extraordinarily powerful poem and easily holds its own amongst all the other powerful poetry written about the war and because of the war. It must amaze us that Sorley was barely twenty years old when he wrote it. It is a controlled description of horror and a fierce revelation of the infinite and irredeemable sadness of human loss.
This was the last poem Sorley wrote.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.' Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
Almost certainly less often read is:
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.
When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.
This sonnet, a powerful refusal to allocate blame, ‘reflects his feelings for a country which has nurtured him and is now designated the enemy. The breadth of perspective is astonishingly mature.’
Carol Rumens, writing in ‘The Guardian’ 14 November 2012.
Map (slightly amended): Webmatters.com
Hair-pin trench is approximately 2km WNW of the middle of Hulluch and immediately to the NW of the Quarries and can be seen on IWM Trench Map: Loos Sheet 36c NW, reproduced by GH Smith and Sons, Easingwold, York YO61 3AB.
Peter Crook August 2015
Also by Peter Crook: The Battle of Loos : A Poet's View (the poet being Robert Graves)