ARRAS PART 2
At the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth there is, until September 2017, a small exhibition where items from the Libraries Collections on Edward Thomas and Ellis Humphrey Evans known as Hedd Wyn are displayed.
Both were poets and both were killed in battle in 1917. Neither can be described as ‘war poets’ as they both sought inspiration in nature and the countryside. Very few of their works deal directly with their war experience. Hedd Wyn had written poetry for most of his life, but although a writer, Edward Thomas had only begun to write poetry in late 1914. In most other respects these men were very different and this edition of Brumration will reflect on Edward Thomas.
In a recent biography Thomas was described as ‘essentially Welsh’. His father was a civil service clerk, and like my father from Tredegar, a town at that time dominated by the coal mines. Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth, went to St Pauls School and Lincoln College Oxford. He took the ‘honourable course’ and married Helen Noble while still an undergraduate. His biographer wrote ‘Thomas made an honest woman of her and an unhappy man of himself’. They were to have three children, Merfyn, Bronwen and Myfanwy.
At Lincoln, Thomas was influenced by the Welsh scholar O.M. Edwards and became a close friend of the Welsh poet Gwili during his visits to Carmarthenshire. These gave Thomas a thirst to learn more about Wales and about her literature and legends which would later be reflected in his poetry.
Helen and Edward Thomas lived in the Hampshire countryside at Steep but he also spent a lot of time at the village of Dymock in Gloucestershire with other poets. It was the American writer Robert Frost who he met in 1913 that was to have the greatest influence on him. Thomas was filled with doubts about his own ability. He wrote ‘I get low, feel inadequate, useless ‘. Frost convinced him and Thomas wrote over 140 poems in two years. These were published under the name Edward Eastway;
In Memoriam (Easter 1915)
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will never do again.
Around the same time he jotted in his notebook while on one of his walks; “…. a sky of dark rough horizontal masses in the N.W. with a third moon bright and almost orange, low down and clear of cloud. I thought of men east-ward seeing it at the same moment. It seems foolish to have loved England up to now without knowing it. It could perhaps be ravaged and I could do nothing to prevent it”.
There was a plan for Thomas to join Frost in New Hampshire, but Frost sent him a draft of ‘A Road Not Taken’, which would become one of his most loved works. It was intended as a gentle mocking of his indecision on their walks. Frost had written, ‘No matter which road you take, you will always sigh and wish you’d taken another’. It would appear Thomas took it more seriously and personally and it was a factor in his decision to enlist.
Edward Thomas enlisted in the Artists Rifles in July 1915. As a mature married man with three children he could have avoided enlisting, but the evidence indicates he had been considering such a decision since the outbreak of war. He wrote, ‘Frankly I do not want to go, but hardly a day passes without my thinking I should’. He informed his friend Eleanor Farjeon that he was glad but he did not know why, but he was glad. His wife wrote, ‘I had known that the struggle going on in his spirit would end like this’.
He was promoted to Corporal, but in November 1916 he was commissioned into The Royal Garrison Artillery as a Second Lieutenant. He had been a map reading instructor and later requested a transfer from his role as Adjutant to duties at a Forward Observation Post for the 244th Siege Battery. Jonathan Nicholls in his book ‘Cheerful Sacrifice’ notes that a few rounds fell short and there was some uncut wire, but the ‘creeping barrage’ was a resounding success, especially when it is remembered that those unsung heroes , the forward observation officers, did not have access to any of the sophisticated equipment in use today.
Edward Thomas was warned of the inherent dangers of this move but he insisted. He was killed, aged 39, on Easter Monday 9th April 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras. ‘A man has to prove to himself, the man he wants to be’.
For many years it was believed that as reported to his wife he was killed by the concussive blast of a shell. A letter from his Commanding Officer written in 1936 and recently discovered by Jean Moorcroft Wilson during her research for a new Biography of Edward Thomas indicates he was shot clean through the chest. His wife suffered a breakdown on news of his death so one can only welcome any action that may, however slight, have lessened her pain. He is buried at the CWGC Cemetery at Agny.
The last letter sent to his wife and postmarked April 9th is in the current exhibition in Aberystwyth. His friend Eleanor Farjeon supported his wife and wrote the following;
Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.)
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter
And said,’ I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good –bye. And may I have a letter soon’.
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters you will not get.
Ted Hughes was a great admirer of the work of Edward Thomas describing him as ‘the father of us all ’. From the early conflicts with his father, it is clear all he had ever wanted to be was a writer, but we have to thank Robert Frost for persuading him to write poetry.
For all his complexities and frailties, and for whatever reason he chose to go to war, we still have his writing and his poetry still shines.