Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

Poppies and poems

August 5th, 2017

009POETS’ CORNER in Westminster Abbey commemorates sixteen First World War poets whose names are inscribed on a slab of Westmoreland slate. With one exception they are English.

But the war produced a wealth of poetry by Scottish poets who saw action, written in Scottish vernacular – their mither tongue. A hundred years on little of it is read or even known. It deserves better.

In its day Joseph Lee’s war poetry was ranked alongside that of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. He wrote little after the war ended, his reputation faded and, so far as he was remembered, it was as Dundee’s forgotten war poet. But there is welcome renewed interest in his work, initiated by Dundee University.

He must have known the worth and quality of his poetry and it may have provided a respite at the time from the horror, misery and fear he experienced in the trenches. Like so many who survived the war perhaps he couldn’t bear to revive these memories and continuing to write poetry took him back to dark places.

In Ballads of Battle, published in 1916, in a brief four lines entitled The Bullet, he conveys the guilt and conflict between humanity and self-preservation experienced by many combatants – Every bullet has a billet; / Many bullets more than one: / God! Perhaps I killed a mother / When I killed a mother’s son. (By kind permission of University of Dundee Archive Services)

Symbolism
Arbroath-born JB Salmond, who was commissioned into 7th Black Watch, returned to Dundee after the war and was for many years editor of the Scots Magazine. He wrote poetry throughout the war and in the two stark verses of “Poppies” he salutes his fallen comrades.

No great triumphal march / For lads like you; / No pasteboard victory arch, / No grand review. / In working raiment brown / You gave your best; / Then laid you weary down, / And took your rest. / But the great kindly earth, / That hid your face, / Gave all your triumph birth / Beside your resting-place. / The poppy armies blaze / Red in the holy loam, / And the lark’s music plays / The victors home.

The poppy symbol was important to him. His poem, Haig, An Amateur Soldier’s Tribute, written as a tribute to Field Marshall Haig, begins – A stir in the field of poppies, / Like the voice of a morning breeze …

And in Twenty Years Ago, written in 1934 – There’s a thin rain of music comes across the poppied corn, / Across the poppied corn and the sun-splashed sea … as he recalls the lost youth of twenty years earlier who did not return from the war.

Violet Jacob was a Courier country poet who married a soldier and knew the grief of losing their only son at the Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916. Four war poems appear in her collection, More Songs of Angus, published in 1918.

The living death of the mother losing her son in The Bullet is expressed in the first verse of her poem, Glory – I canna’ see you lad, I canna’ see ye, / For a’ yon glory that’s aboot yer heid, / Yon licht that haps ye, an’ the hosts that’s wi’ ye, / Aye, but ye live, an’ it’s mysel’ that’s deid!

Family archive
Our grandson Fergus spent a long weekend with us and unearthed boxes of family papers which have lain unopened for decades. By strange coincidence, one of the treasures that came to light was a photograph album dated August 1920 of a Belgian holiday my father spent with his parents. I hadn’t seen the album before and my father never mentioned the trip.

Watching the Passchendaele memorial service at Ypres last Sunday evening we were riveted to see images of the near total destruction of the Cloth Hall in the town centre. Two years after war ended my grandfather recorded similar black and white images.

Belgium still hadn’t recovered from the trauma of war. The town centre was still a ruined shell. A field gun stands in the square, left where it had been at the cessation of hostilities.

Nearby, St Martin’s Cathedral was similarly destroyed and both were, over time, painstakingly rebuilt in keeping with their historical past.

Nature has a great capacity for recovery but my grandfather’s photos show a countryside still utterly devastated by the intense bombardment which was unleashed by both sides. Two years on the bare poles of shattered trees intensify the scene of naked desolation.

The obituary of Miss Margaret Shiress Whitson, youngest daughter of William Whitson of Brechin, was tucked into the album. She served in France as matron of a war hospital. Her hospital was bombed and she was gassed and she was twice decorated by King George V.

And we should never have known any of this if our self-appointed family archivist hadn’t decided to have a rummage in some old, dusty boxes.

Written on Saturday, August 5th, 2017 at 5:49 pm for Weekly.