Gallipoli Centenary and Sea Poetry from the Coastline

Imperial War Museum

The main Great War at Sea Poetry Project website now features a  Gallipoli Webpage

Decided to post two poems here which are about amphibious landing, from two poets who fought at Gallipoli.

John Still( 1880- 1941) served at Gallipoli with the 6th East Yorks (Pioneers) . He was captured at Suvla Bay on 9th August 1915,  and was a prisoner of war until 1st November 1918. He wrote poems and hid them in a hollow walking stick. On his release they were published as ‘Poems in Captivity’ (1919). An account of his time in a Turkish prison was published in 1920 as ‘A Prisoner In Turkey’.

( Biographical information taken from David Childs & Vivien Whelpton ‘British & Irish Poets of the Gallipoli Campaign, 1915, Heirs Of Achilles, Cecil Woolf Press, 2011).

John Still’s work  ranged from long Romantic epic poems, some quite tender pieces about realising that his baby daughter-born in his absence- had reached her first birthday, about having one’s own birthday and Christmas in prison.

John Still’s poem describes landing at Suvla Bay (extract).

THE BALLAD OF SUVLA BAY THE LANDING

A BELL rang in the engine-room,
And with the ceasing of the sound
Small noises sprang to life all round.
Across the water, in the gloom,
We saw the coast like a long low mound.
The water babbled along the hull,
The scent of thyme was in the air,
Borne from the shore just over there,
And in that momentary lull
To me the world seemed very fair.
The sweetly-scented starlit hills
Breathed of bees and summer flowers
Dreaming through the midnight hours,
While fate’s slow-grinding mills
Rolled their resistless powers.
Suddenly shots rang out, and flashes
Shattered the dark with stabbing stings,
And bullets borne on whistling wings
Rang on the hull, or made small splashes
Like living, eager, evil things…………….

John Still’s work can be read on line –

Poems in Captivity
A Prisoner in Turkey
Geoffrey Dearmer (1893- 1996), one of the last Gallipoli veterans, dying at the age of 103. Born three days after Wilfred Owen, Dearmer’s work fell from popular taste despite successful anthologies i-‘Poems’ (1918)  and ‘A Day’s Delight’ (1923). Virginia Woolf favourably reviewed Dearmer’s ‘Poems’ alongside Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Counter Attack’ in the Times Literary Supplement of 11th July 1918. Both men had brothers who died in the Gallipoli campaign; Dearmer’s brother Christopher, lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service, died of wounds on 6th October 1915.

After a seventy year hiatus a further anthology ‘A Pilgrim’s Song’ was published in 1993.  In between times, Dearmer had written prose, worked in the theatre, then for the BBC presenting children’s programmes.

A recent ‘Daily Telegraph’ article states that Dearmer was an officer serving with the 2/2nd battalion  London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) and arriving at Gallipoli on 13th October 1915. He was later to serve on the Western Front, leaving the army in 1920.

Both poems record the impressions of landing on a foreign coastline. The sea is not portrayed as some chaotic element that one finds in romantic poetry, but rather as ‘babbling’ or ‘slowly waking’. Still arrives by sea into the middle of the August Days, the last real chance that the Allies had of a Gallipoli breakthrough. By the time Dreamer reached Gallipoli, the campaign was waning.

From ‘W’ Beach

The Isle of Imbros, set in turquoise blue,
Lies to the westward; on the eastern side
The purple hills of Asia fade from view,
And rolling battleships at anchor ride.

White flocks of cloud float by, the sunset glows,
And dipping gulls fleck a slow-waking sea,
Where dim steel-shadowed forms with foaming bows
Wind up in the Narrows towards Gallipoli.

No colour breaks this tongue of barren land
Save where a group of huddled tents gleams white;
Before me ugly shapes like spectres stand,
And wooden crosses cleave the waning light.

Now the sky gardeners speed the hurrying day
And sow the plains of night with silver grain;
So shall this transient havoc fade away
And the proud cape be beautiful again.

Laden with figs and olives, or a freight
Of purple grapes, tanned singing men shall row,
Chanting wild songs of how Eternal Fate
Withstood that fierce invasion long ago.

Taken from All Poetry website

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