Friday, 13 January 2017

Jimmie Howcroft (1893 - 1936) – British airman poet

James (known as Jimmie) Howcroft Junior was born in Bolton, Lancashire, UK in 1893.  His parents were James Howcroft and his wife Margaret, nee Coop.  Jimmie’s brother Fred was born in 1892   Jimmie’s father taught at the Sunday school at Fern Street Wesleyan Chapel in Bolton.

Fred became a coal miner and Jimmie, who began work at the age of twelve, was apprenticed to an electrical engineer when he was fifteen.  He worked as an electrician in various factories and was a keen sportsman in his spare time.

After the death of the boys’ father, Margaret re-married. Her second husband was Richard Taylor and in 1901, the family lived at No. 10 Haynes Street in Bolton.  Richard and Margaret’s only child, a daughter, died in infancy.

During the First World War, Jimmie joined the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic and his brother Fred joined The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment – an infantry regiment - and was sent to the Western Front. 

Jimmie, who played football for his Squadron, became an observer, which meant he could accompany pilots in planes, and he, too, was posted to The Western Front.  A tricky landing during a reconnaissance mission over the Somme, resulted in Jimmie’s back being badly fractured and he was sent back to Britain for treatment.  The journey to London took three days.

For five years Jimmie lay in a hospital bed in The London Hospital, completely paralised and unable to move.   Jimmie’s poems are a testament to his courage.  As he could not move his arms or hands, he dictated the poems to his nurse, Phyllis Harding.  On 20th May 1921, Jimmy was finally able to leave hospital.   Jimmie’s first collection, “Looking on”, with a foreword by John Oxenham, was published in 1920 to critical acclaim.  In spite of the cover price of two shillings and six pence – half a crown, as the coin was called, which would be equivalent to the purchasing power of £25 in 2017 – sold extremely well, which demonstrates the popularity of poetry at that time.  With the proceeds from the sale, Jimmy was able to purchase a cottage in Hampshire – Little Forest Gate Cottage in Liphook.  So he was moved down to Liphook where his Mother, Margaret Taylor, and the nurse who had nursed him for his five-year stay in The London Hospital, looked after him.

Two poems written around that time are very revealing:
Homing (written on the last day in hospital, 20th May 1921) (page 32 of “Songs of a broken Airman”)

Homing, homing, homing,
Sweet instinct and divine –
Sweetest in the gloaming.
When thoughts will e’er entwine
Old faces and old places,
Old songs we used to sing!
Though far we stray at the close of day
Homing thoughts will homeward wing.

To Sister (page 32 of “Songs of a Broken Airman)

What understanding you express,
In your all-tending tenderness!
Your actions to my mind convey,
The things that words can never say.
When in the depths of dull despair,
Your ministry pursues me there,
To raise me up to things above,
Your sympathy commands my love.

Jimmie’s second collection, “The Songs of a Broken Airman”, with an introduction by John O’London, was published by Hodder & Stoughton, London in 1922 and with the proceeds of that book, Jimmie started a poultry farm at his cottage.   Jimmie lived on until 1936 when he died in September of that year.  He was buried in the cemetery at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Bramshott, Hampthsire.

“Songs of a Broken Airman” is dedicated to Miss Phyllis Harding, who I am guessing was Jimmie’s nurse.  His poems are extremely inspirational and as one reviewer commented in the media at the time of publishing: “There are no circumstances, however, adverse, which a courageous spirit may not surmount”

Sources:  Find my Past; Free BMD, The British Newspaper Archive, Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978)
and “The Songs of a Broken Airman” (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1922) The photograph of Jimmie Howcroft is from "Songs of a Broken Airman".

Poems by Jimmie Howcroft:

“Have Courage” from (“Songs of a Broken Airman”, page 7)
Man!  Break the shackles of your mind.
Desist from feeble groping,
Then light as air and free as wind
Go snatch the joy you’re hoping;
For life is love, and love is good,
And freedom’s for the making;
Then earn your freedom as you should,
Nor tarry in the taking.

“Armistice Day” (from “Songs of a Broken Airman”, page 8)

O ye who made the sacrifice
That we your kin might live,
Who fought and counted not the price
Too high a one to give –

O ye who gave your lives in love
That Britain might be free,
Look down and counsel from above
Our long infirmity.

Look down – stoop down – be wish us yet!
Brave souls we could not spare;
May courage we can ne’er forget
Direct us everywhere.

Man’s Mismanagement from “Songs of a Broken Airman” (page 26)

Then are we sane, that we should order life
To chaos, turmoil, and unending strife?
The world will change, all be wond’rous bright,
When we look upward and towards the light.

Quit ye like Men (from “Songs of a Broken Airman”, page 39)

Then what am I?
A stricken pawn in a mighty plan,
Yet striving still to be a man.

Though hopeless seems the race to be
Yet breast it bravely, thou shalt see,
Like mist before the sun,
Thy troubles die, and fade away,
And joy be at the close of day
If thou hast nobly run.

I Flew! (from “Songs of a Broken Airman”, page 42)

I flew!
Upward climbing to the engine’s roar
The clay is dead, but still the soul can soar
Imprisoned here, as by some earthy chain,
In higher life, my soul shall soar again.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The War Poets Association

The War Poets Association promotes interest in the work, life and historical context of poets whose subject is the experience of war.  To find out more, visit the Association's website:

Saturday, 24 December 2016

John Still (1880 – 1941) – British archaeologist and writer

John Still was born in Lambeth in 1880. His father, also called John Still, was an Anglican priest and his mother was Anna Elizabeth Still, nee Nutrill.  Educated at Winchester College, Still went to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) as a tea planter in 1879.   John married Winifred Mary Evans.
He served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the East Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War and was taken prisoner of war during the Gallipoli Campaign.

In the Foreword to his First World War poetry collection “Poems in Captivity”, which he dedicated to his wife, John explains how he came to write poetry during the three years he spent in captivity in Turkey:
“… each one of us was driven to seek inside himself some alleviation of the daily dullness, many of us there found things we had not suspected to exist. For, to find distraction, we were thrown back more upon our own creative powers, and were helped less by our surroundings than ever is the case in normal life.

Some found the wit to write plays, and others the talent to play them. Some discovered the power to draw ; and one at least found much music in his mental storehouse. Some developed into expert carpenters, and others, less profitably, into hardly less expert splitters of hairs ! Some found in others a depth of kindness more durable I think than the depths of hate this war has generated. I found these verses …”

 In 1939, John went to live in Africa and he died in South Africa in 1941.

 John Still’s poem “Christmas Day” is on page 66 of the collection:

 "CHRISTMAS DAY", written on Christmas Day 1916 

YEARS ago. Years ago.
Three years ago on Christmas day,
Out in a forest far away,
The monkeys watched me down below,
And saw me hide in the waving grass
While the elephant herd went trampling past.
Oh, the great wild herd that Christmas day !
And I as wild and free as they,
As free as the winds that blow.

Christmas day. Christmas day.
Across the yard with footsteps slow
The sentries pace the mud below ;
The wind is cold, the sky is grey ;
Christmas day in a prison camp,
With freedom dead as a burnt-out lamp.
The lions eat and the lions rage,
Three steps and a turn in a narrow cage,
And I am as free as they.

Rich and poor. Rich and poor.
Poor as a sparrow or rich as a king,
This world can offer but one good thing,
And my heart is sick to be free once more.
For the sun may shine in a sapphire sky,
But give me freedom or let me die :
Free and fresh is the forest breeze
Whose spirit rides on the tossing trees,
And the waves break free on the shore.

 AFION KARA HISSAR, 25.xii.i9i6.

“Poems in Captivity” was published by John Lane, The Bodley Head, London in 1919.  This is now available on Archive as a free down-load

John Still also wrote “A prisoner in Turkey” which was also published by The Bodley Head, as well as a book about his life in Ceylon and "Jungle Tide" about his discoveries in Ceylon.

Sources:  Find my Past, Catherine W. Reilly "English Poetry of the First World War A Bibliography" published by St. Martin's Press, New York, 1978  (p. 305), Wikipedia and Archive.

Friday, 23 December 2016

List Update

With thanks to someone called 'In the Know' who kindly pointed out to me that Hilary Douglas Clark Pepler is not a female but a male poet.  The name of course in English can be either masculine or feminine - I have a cousin Hilary, a cousin Elliott both female and a neighbour called Cameron who, unlike Cameron Diaz, is male.

Harry Douglas Clark Pepler was born in Eastbourne. During WW1 he worked for London County Council.

Under the pen-name H.D.C.P., Hilary published the following WW1 poetry collections:

"God and the dragon: rhymes" (Douglas Pepler, Ditchling, 1917) and

"Pertinent and impertinent: an assortment of verse" (St. Dominic's P., Ditchling, 1926).

Source:  Catherine W. Reilly "English Poetry of the First World War A Bibliogaphy" (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1978)

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894 – 1916) – British Poet

Geoffrey was born in Staffordshire on 18th October 1894. He attended King Edward’s School,
Birmingham at the same time as J.R.R. Tolkien, where they founded the literary “Tea Cup and Barovian Society”.
Geoffrey was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the 19th (Service) Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers.  Wounded by shrapnel on 29th November 1916, Geoffrey died on 3rd December 1916 and was buried in Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery, Saulty, France.  

The WW1 poetry collection of Geoffrey Bache Smith – “A Spring Harvesst” – was published in 1918 by Erskine Macdonald, London.  One of his poems was included in “The Valiant Muse:  an anthology of poems by poets killed in the World War”, edited by Frederic W. Ziv and published in 1936 by Putnam, New York.  You can read more of Geoffrey’s poems on Project Gutenberg


_  Afterwards, when
The old Gods' hate
On the riven earth
No more is poured:

When weapons of war
Are all outworn
What shall become
Of the race of men?
One shall go forth
In the likeness of a child:
Under sere skies
Of a grey dawning: 

One shall go forth
In the likeness of a child,
And desolate places
Shall spring and blossom:

One shall go forth
In the likeness of a child:
And men shall sing
And greatly rejoice:

All men shall sing
For the love that is in them,
And he shall behold it
And sing also.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Sydney Hale (1891 – 1915) - British

I am very grateful indeed to all the wonderful people who help me with my commemorative exhibition project about the First World War.  The following comes from Maria and is about her Great Uncle, Sydney.  Maria does not as yet have a photograph of Sydney but has a photo of one of his brothers - Harold - which is reproduced here by kind permission of Maria.  
The following information about Sydney Hale has been
researched by Maria Coates who is Sydney Hale's Great Niece and  co- written by Maria Coates and Carol Switzer of the Facebook Group

Sydney Hale was born on 12th January 1891 in Stockbridge, Hampshire England. He was the fourth born son of Stafford Henry Hale, a plumber and his wife Elizabeth Hale, nee Baverstock, who lived at Prospect Place.   Sydney had the following siblings:  Frederick, Alick, Elsie, Ethel, Percy, Harold and Annie Ada.  He attended St Peter’s Church, High Street, Stockbridge, where both his Parents and Grandparents were married.  In 1911 the Census states that he was employed as a Footman living in Chelsea London.   Sydney wrote a poem for his sister Annie in her autograph album:

 A Diplomatic Dialogue

 What are you looking for, my pretty maid?
I’m seeking the suffrage, sir, she said.

What is your following, my pretty maid?
Something like yours, kind sir, she said.

Are you a Radical, my pretty maid?
Not by a long shot, sir, she said.

Then I cannot help you, my pretty maid.
Wait till I axes you, sir, she said.

A clever parody on an English folk song.  Parodies were a popular form of verse in the early 1900s when most people wrote poetry and/or recited it at family gatherings, etc.  There was no radio or television back then and ordinary folk made their own entertainment.

Right:  Annie Ada Hale, one of Sydney's sisters, for whom he wrote the verse.   Annie Ada was Maria's Grandmother.

When war broke out, Sydney, aged 23 years, enlisted in the Army at Southwark, Surrey, England. Rifleman Sydney Hale 7297 joined the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade (C Company), which became part of the 41st Brigade 14th Light Division. The Battalion formed at Winchester in September 1914 and trained at both Aldershot and Grayshot in Hampshire.

From the 29th June 1915 the Battalion were in the front line trenches in the Hooge area of the Western Front. Two companies took over trenches at Railway wood, the other two at the GHQ line. Nine days in the frontline resulted in high casualties for them by the time they were relieved on the 8th July 1915.

For the next two weeks the Battalion performed various duties in and around Ypres until the evening of the 29th July 1915, when they were ordered to take over the Hooge frontline trenches once more. In a few short hours the lives of so many men would tragically change forever as the Battle of Hooge was about to commence.

We do not know with absolute certainty exactly where Rifleman Sydney Hale, of C Company, was located at 03.15am on the 30th July 1915.  We do know that his Company was split into three platoons. Two Platoons were located in trenches G4 and G5 which were in the centre of the frontline and only a few metres from the German lines. The third platoon was located in trench G7, a few short metres to the rear of G5. We also know that this was the exact time when the Germans first turned on their Flamethrowers and that these trenches were subjected to intense bombardment.

The fighting became confused and machine guns were soon out of action. Despite gallant fighting from both A and C companies of the Battalion the Germans had managed to push through the centre of the frontline, resulting in C Company being totally overrun by the advancing German troops. After unsuccessful counter attacks the remaining Battalion managed to hold on to the communication trenches and frontline of Zouave wood, until being relieved in the early hours of 31st July 1915. The Battalion had fought valiantly throughout the day and night without water or rations. Casualties were extremely high and costly and consequently C Company of the 8th Rifle Brigade ceased to exist.

Sydney is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in France, as well as in his hometown on Stockbridge's War Memorial and at St Peters Church. He is also commemorated in Winchester where the Battalion was first formed, in an Encased Book of Remembrance inside Winchester Cathedral. 


Sunday, 20 November 2016

Walter Butler Palmer (1868 - 1932) - American

A poem posted on a WW1 commemorative Facebook Page sent me off on a search for the writer. "Dear Ancestor" was written by American poet Walter Butler Palmer (1868 - 1932).

During the First World War, Palmer bred horses for the U.S. Cavalry and was based at Spartanburg, SC. His poetry collection "Heart Throbs and Hoofbeats" was published in California in 1922 and is available to read here

Find out more and read the poem "Dear Ancestor"