William Murray Kilburn was born in Avla, Clackmananshire in 1887. By 1911 the family had moved to Bellshill, Lanarkshire.
Kilburn lost his sight as a child, and during the Great War talked to returning soldiers at Belshill Station and began writing poetry which was later published in ‘The North East Lanark Gazette’. He died in 1942.
His niece Mae McClymont arranged for the publication of his work in an anthology titled ‘A Service Rendered’ and this poem is reproduced here
with her kind permission. mailto:email@example.com
H M Troopship Royal Edward
By the port of Alexandria the Royal Ed-
Her great decks lined with gallant troops
on whom the sunlight gleaned,
Like silver shone the bayonets, hoarse rang
the rousing cheer
Before them lay the Dardanelles, behind
them lay the pier.
The wind caught up the loud hurrah and
wafted back the song,
As like a queen the mighty ship ploughed steadily along;
Straight as a bird she held her course
across the summer sea
Oh! that bounteous hand of heaven
that changed her destiny.
Down in the restless Aegean wallowed the
grey sea hog,
Fierce as an Indian tiger, keen as a hunt-
Devised of evil, manned by Huns, the
foul craft sought a mark,
And soon the fatal periscope betrayed
our royal barque
A shaft sped from the submarine ,her
masters did not quail,
The foam that flecked the water was the
fell torpedo’s trail;
There came a sound of bursting steel, the
troopship swayed, and then
Into the awful depths she plunged with
twice five hundred men.
A thousand soldiers girt for war, out
manhood and our pride,
They need not sword no rifle now, nor
trampling horse to ride;
Not theirs to strive on scarlet plains
scorched by the cannon’s breath,
but theirs to stand serene and grand in
face of certain death.
Fair English vales and border dales shall know
the brave no more,
Under the Aegean they rest hard by a
Gone unto death’s dark billet at the last
With the mournful breeze low sighing
where the waves wash over all.
I hear the roll of muffled drums, I hear
the old church bell,
Is this fit requiem for those beneath the
salt sea swell?
Nay! tell the tale in trumpet tone, and
tell it far and free,
And bless their names for evermore. They
died for you and me.
Travelling by sea during the Great War was of course dangerous: The risk of mines and U Boats besides the standard hazards of any voyage.
The English Channel crossing to France saw few ships torpedoed compared with the amount that made the journey.
Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘The Troopship’ concentrates on the sheer discomfort of the voyage rather than danger. Rosenberg had safely made the journey from Cape Town to London in March 1915 so perhaps was less concerned by a crossing to the Western Front.
Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
But cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to doze,
Wind’s fumble or men’s feet
Is on your face.
One of Rupert Brooke’s last poems, usually known as ‘Fragment’ written on board ship in the Mediterranean during the month he died, April 1915 also mentions a Troop Ship: At first there is no particular sense of threatened danger from the sea, more a sense of foreboding at arriving at the battlefield.
The narrator I is almost like a ghost, displaced from where he is meant to be, already outside, isolated from his card-playing friends, nobody sees him, almost as it they weren’t even expecting him to be there. Certainly quite a haunting poem, as if the poet had already left this world.
I strayed about the deck, an hour to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.
I would have thought of them
-Heedless, within a week of battle-in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machines of splendour ‘Id soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered…..
I could but see them-against the lamplight-pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorous out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts- soon to die
To other ghosts-this one, or that, or I.
UPDATE January 10th 2015
Another Troopship poem is Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s ‘Troopship Mid-Atlantic :
Dark waters into crystalline brilliance break
About the keel, as through the moonless night
The dark ship moves in its own moving lake
Of phosphorescent cold moon-coloured light;
And to the clear horizon, all around
Drift pools of fiery beryl flashing bright
As though, still flashing, quenchless, cold and white,
A million moons in the dark green waters drowned.
And staring at the magic with eyes adream,
That never till now have looked upon the sea,
Boys from the Middle-West lounge listlessly
In the unlanterned darkness, boys who go
Beckoned by some unchallengeable gleam
To unknown lands to fight an unknown foe
My pal Sea Jane from the Great War Forum kindly directed me to this poem : Wilfred Wilson Gibson was born in Hexham in 1878, and had several poetry collections published in his life, dying in 1962. This poem is from an anthology A miscellany of poetry – 1919 edited by W. Kean Seymour with decorations by Doris Palmer (London: Cecil Palmer and Hayward, 1919).
Have published some thoughts on Wilfred Wilson Gibson are on the Blog
UPDATED: Andrew Palmer from University of Kent, Canterbury, has pointed out that there is small section on a troopship featured in David Jones’ epic prose poem ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937).
Since writing this piece have looked at Santanu Das ‘Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature’ (2008) . Doctor Das points out that Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Troopship’ poem was written in a letter from the front by Rosenberg and sent to a ‘Mr. Trevelyan’. Also observes that Rosenberg as a private is very much amongst the soldiers on the troopship, whilst officer Brooke is writing from a position of detachment . To a point, though Rosenberg was crossing over to France, Brooke was undertaking a longer voyage as part of the Gallipoli campaign so conditions could well have been different.