Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke are well known names in the history of The Great War. Their powerful poetry has withstood the test of time and is still read and revered, mainly as a reflection of the horrors of war.
But you have probably not heard of A J Freeland, a doctor from Kibworth, whose poetic passion prompted him to write about the common soldier, and whose work is published in the January 29, 1918, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser.
Not only is it unusual to see poetry in a newspaper but Freeland’s work takes pride of place at the top of the front page, a position usually reserved in local papers of the early 20th century for advertisements.Freeland calls his composition Tommy, the affectionate slang term generally used for any serving British soldier, and also indicates it is a song – easy to observe in the rhythm of his wording.
Sassoon and Owen in particular are renowned for their dark imagery which Owen later described as ‘the pity of war’ but Freeland, certainly in the opening stanza, is in line with Brooke’s more nationalistic stance. He opens the song with the words:
You’re as brave and true as a man is made,
Tommy, my soldier splendid,
And your hand is firm and your head is staid,
For the feud that must be ended;
And I know you’ll fight in the cause of right,
Till the broken peace is mended.
It is as jingoistic as you can get in a small community that has lost literally hundreds of young men – and all their families will want to reinforce the view that their deaths were not in vain, that they died in a ‘cause of right’.The tempo of the chorus is smoothly converted into a pub chant and it is easy to conjure up scenes of soldiers on leave with sweethearts and mothers and fathers joining in as they build up to the climax with arms thrust into the air as they sing ‘So here’s to luck to one who faced the fun, Tommy the gentleman’.The second verse tempers the mood with references to what is forfeited by enlisting – ‘your books, your store, your desk and the lonely furrow’. And then comes the concern that every man and his loved ones feel when thinking about ‘the shell swept field and the battle’s roar’ and ‘the cold, damp, deadly burrow’.
The mood is broken as they sweep their worries into the corner and burst into the rousing chorus – much better to laugh than cry over a situation that cannot be changed by the lowly ‘Tommy’.However, the third verse evokes comparison with Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est when he describes a group of ‘marching’ soldiers who have been gassed:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Freeland would not have been influenced by Owen as Dulce Et Decorum Est was not published until two years after the war had ended but the first four lines of Tommy’s final stanza suggest a stark picture as rich in detail and horror as the more famous poem:
There’s a long red trail where your feet have trod,
There’s a count of wounds un-numbered;
And the souls of men have marched to God,
From the bed where their clay has slumbered,
This is a remarkable piece of work, not just because of its fine writing or the break with editorial tradition to position it so prominently in a newspaper with an almost 100 per cent community readership. It is also a fascinating insight into how society viewed the war and the sacrifice being made by every family in the town and district.
This is social commentary at its most stark: this is a world where everyone fears the horror but believes – or at least wants to believe – that they are fighting ‘the cause of right’.
One hundred years later we might view it differently – we might have known our grandfathers or great uncles but for this abomination of slaughter on an industrial scale. But in the heat of the time perhaps we, too, would have punched our arms in the air and raised a hat to Tommy Atkins.
- This column is published every Monday by John Dilley on the Newspapers and the Great War website and will continue until the 100th anniversary of the final armistice in November 2018.
- My fellow researcher and De Montfort University lecturer David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
- Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.