Posted by: michaeldaybath | April 9, 2017

2nd Lieutenant Philip Edward Thomas, Royal Garrison Artillery

Agny Military Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France

Grave of 2nd Lieut P. E. Thomas, R.G.A., Agny Military Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France

Edward Thomas, 1878 -1917

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:

From: “Roads,” Edward Thomas (22 January 1916) [1]

The name appeared in the casualty list of the Army and Navy Gazette of the 21 April 1917; listed under the “Royal Garrison Artillery” were the names of three officers, the second being: 2nd Lieutenant P. E. Thomas – killed. [2]. For those that would have known him, these rather stark details announced the death of the author and war poet Edward Thomas.

At the time of his death, Edward Thomas was 39 years old, and was thus – at the time he enlisted in July 1915 – old enough to have avoided conscription. He served first with the Artists Rifles, the 28th (County of London) Battalion of the London Regiment. From September 1915, Thomas was posted initially to training camps in Essex, first High Beech Camp near Loughton, then Hare Hall Training Camp near Romford. In August 1916, Thomas received a commission in the Royal Garrison Artillery. After further training, and a short period of leave around Christmas time, Thomas travelled to France with his battery on the 29 January 1917. He would never return to England. He was killed at 07:36 on the morning of the 9th April, the opening day of the Battle of Arras.

Edward Thomas memorial stone, Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Steep, Hampshire

Edward Thomas memorial stone, Shoulder of Mutton Hill, Steep, Hampshire

Edward Thomas had kept a pocket diary from the start of 1917 and this, together with his letters, provide an interesting insight into his experience of war. Excerpts from the diary have been published in anthologies [3], and a digitised version of the manuscript has been made available as part of the University of Oxford’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive [4]. Curiously, Thomas’s notebooks seem to concern topography and nature as much as they do war. If he had lived, I expect that they would have formed the basis of new poems or books. From February 1917, Thomas’s battery was based in the area south of Arras, where his daily tasks as a subaltern included the observation of artillery fire. One entry begins [5]:

March 11 Out at 8.30 to Ronville O.P. [observation post] and studied the ground from Beaurains N. Larks singing over No Man’s Land — trench mortars.

And later on the same day:

At 6.15 all quiet and heard blackbirds chinking. Scene peaceful, desolate like Dunwich moors except sprinkling of white chalk on the rough brown ground.

Birds feature a lot in Thomas’s front line experiences. On the 7th April, a couple of days before his death, he was up early to go to an observation post [6].

A cold day of continuous shelling N. Vitasse [Neuville-Vitasse] and Telegraph Hill. Infantry all over the place in open preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P.

War memorial in the Church of All Saints, Steep, Hampshire

War memorial in the Church of All Saints, Steep, Hampshire

Second Lieutenant Thomas died on the morning of the 9th April 1917, the opening day of the Battle of Arras. Many published accounts of his death suggest that he was killed by concussion. The familiar account (based on that originally told by Helen Thomas) has 2nd Lieutenant Thomas leaving a dugout near his observation post at Beaurains to fill a pipe when a shell passed so close that the blast stopped his heart. Thus it was often said that Thomas fell, “without a mark on his body” [7]. The reality may have been a little less idealised. Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s recent biography has dug out a letter by Captain (later Major) Franklin Lushington [8]:

A few moments after Zero Hour (about 7 0’clock in the morning I think it was) I was rung up on the telephone from the O.P. A voice said that Thomas had been killed. shot clean through the chest by a pip-squeak (a 77mm shell) the very moment the battle began.

Edward Thomas's name on the war memorial at Steep, Hampshire

Edward Thomas’s name on the war memorial at Steep, Hampshire

Second Lieutenant Thomas is buried in Agny Military Cemetery, which is not that far away from the site of the observation post where he was killed. Thomas’s name also features on several war memorials in the UK, including those at Steep in Hampshire, where he and and his family lived for many years, and at Lincoln College, Oxford (a memorial that also contains the name of W. B. Algeo, a Captain in the 1st Battalion, Dorsetshire Regiment). Personal memorials include a sarsen memorial on the Shoulder of Mutton Hill, near Steep, and engraved glass windows by Laurence Whistler in the Church of All Saints, Steep, and the Church of St James the Greater, Eastbury, Berkshire (which is where Helen and two of their children are buried). There are also plaques fixed to various houses where Edward Thomas lived in Lambeth, Oxford, and Steep.

Edward and Helen Thomas memorial window, Eastbury, Berkshire

Edward and Helen Thomas memorial window, Church of St James the Greater, Eastbury, Berkshire

There is no room here to explore Edward Thomas’s life, or his career as a writer, critic and poet. While Thomas had always been a prolific writer, he only started producing poetry in the last two-and-a-half years of his life. Matthew Hollis’s book on the final five-years of Thomas’s life gives a good overview of the creative process when Thomas finally turned to writing poems in November 1914 [9]. Some of the poems (‘Adlestrop,’ ‘Lob,’ ‘Aspens,’ ‘Roads,’ ‘This is No Case of Petty Wright or Wrong,’ ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’) are reasonably well-known, but while they were all written before Thomas went to France, many of them reflect the experience of war, even if only obliquely. With its subtle references to Thomas Hardy’s “In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations'” (1915), Thomas’s poem ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ considers some of the contingencies brought about by war. The poem ends with a conversation with a ploughman, reflecting on a fallen elm tree [10]:

The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away?’
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began —
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out?’ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want
to, perhaps?’
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost?’ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

 

What else is there to say?

References:

[1] Edward Thomas, Selected poems and prose, ed. David Wright (London: Penguin Books, 2013), pp. 217-219.

[2] Army and Navy Gazette, 21 April 1917, p. 255; via British Newspaper Archive.

[3] Thomas, Selected poems and prose, p. 249-258.

[4] “Edward Thomas: War Diary,” First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 4, 2017, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/db/object/ww1/1367

[5] Thomas, Selected poems and prose, p. 251.

[6] Ibid., p. 257.

[7] Matthew Hollis, Now all roads lead to France: the last years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p. xvii.

[8] Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Edward Thomas: from Adlestrop to Arras: a biography (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 413.

[9] Matthew Hollis, Now all roads lead to France: the last years of Edward Thomas (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), pp. 183 ff.

[10] Thomas, Selected poems and prose, pp. 234-235.

Further reading:

The British Library has made several Edward Thomas collection items available online:

MSS:

Brtish Library, Add MS 44990 f010v: Poems of Philip Edward Thomas. 86 images available from Digitised Manuscripts site: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_44990

Image of ‘Adelstrop’ available at: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/poems-of-philip-edward-Thomas

British Library, Add MS 89029_1_52: Letter from Eleanor Farjeon to Maitland Radford, 29 August 1914. Available: http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/letter-from-eleanor-farjeon-to-maitland-radford

Printed books:

Six poems, by Edward Eastaway [i.e. Edward Thomas] (Flansham: Pear Tree Press, 1916). Available: http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100022547992.0x000002?bt=europeanaapi

Last Poems by Edward Thomas (London: Selwyn and Blount, 1918). Available: http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100014502214.0x000002?bt=europeanaapi

Collected Poems by Edward Thomas, with a foreword by Walter de la Mare (London: Selwyn and Blount, 1920). Available: http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100000039024.0x000002?bt=europeanaapi

The National Library of Wales:

The National Library of Wales also has a blog on what that library is doing to mark the centenary of Edward Thomas’s death: https://www.llgc.org.uk/blog/?p=14873

 

 

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Responses

  1. […] Corps. The poet Edward Thomas, serving with 244th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, was killed on the opening day of the offensive. The Battle of Arras, however, continued through several other phases before its official end on […]


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