- Jarrett, Hugh
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- March 2004 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
ON 25TH APRIL 1915, Lieutenant Rupert Brooke RNVR of the Royal Navy Division was buried in ‘Some Foreign Field’ on the Greek island of Skyros to the south-west of Gallipoli. In England, in his day, he enjoyed a popularity somewhat akin to that of a 21st Century pop-star. He was a greatly admired writer of poetry and was one of the leaders of the then current up-and-coming young scribes. There is little doubt that his most notable verse was ‘The Soldier’.
Strangely, he was denied the heroic death on a battlefield which may have held his thoughts – he was bitten by an unknown insect and died of blood-poisoning aboard a French hospital-ship anchored in the landlocked harbour of Skyros where his body was taken ashore for burial.
His friend, Dennis Browne, wrote – ‘He died at 4.46 with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea breeze blowing through the door and shaded windows. No-one could have wished a quieter or calmer end than in this lovely bay shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.‘
He was buried that evening in an olive grove above Trebuki Bay with Bernard Fryberg, Dennis Browne, Clegg Kelly, Charles Lister, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Arthur Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister) and Johnny Dodge as mourners.
Of this number of young men, Brown and Lister were destined to die on Gallipoli and Shaw-Stewart and Kelly in France.
Asquith never fully recovered from war wounds but Fryberg was to win the Victoria Cross and rise to command the New Zealand Army in World War II. He died in 1963 after having been Governor- General of New Zealand.
The Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in the Gallipoli Campaign, General Sir Ian Hamilton, was deeply moved by Brooke’s death and wrote:
Death grins at my elbow – I cannot get him out of my thoughts. He is fed up with the old and sick – only the flower of the flock will serve him now, for God has started a celestial spring-cleaning, and our star is to be scrubbed bright with the blood of our bravest and our best.
The island of Skyros is typical of those in the Aegean, with white marble rock formations and forbidding areas of thorny scrub adjacent to the seawater. The main animal life seems to be rather large turtles. Further inland the scenery changes and all at once one arrives in green grassy slopes dominated by verdant olive trees. It is here that Rupert Brooke’s grave stands. A perfect site – beautiful but lonely, a white marble grave-head with cast-iron fencing. It became the custom for Royal Navy ships visiting Skyros to tidy the area and paint the grave’s cast-iron metalwork. For an Australian visiting the area it was wonderful – three ships entering the anchorage in close formation and all anchoring at the same time on orders from the Leader, in which I served. At almost the same time each ship lowered its motorcutter and the three boats raced to the beach where men disembarked and rushed off into the dry scrub, quite clearly racing. The race was to be the first to get to Rupert Brooke’s grave and paint the metalwork. The winning ship proudly originated a general signal to the Mediterranean Fleet announcing that they had painted Rupert Brooke’s grave. How very British! One hopes this custom goes on forever.
Source: “Gallipoli”, by Robert Rhodes James
“The Soldier” by Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.