Soldier-Poets in Fovant
John William Streets
Will Streets was born in 1885 in Whitwell, Derbyshire into a mining family. He was bright at school, earning a scholarship to the local Grammar school which he decided to refuse, choosing rather to join his father down the mine. Every penny was needed for the upkeep of his eleven brothers and sisters.
He found “the miner’s laborious routine uncongenial” but he stuck at it for the sake of his family, continuing to educate himself at evening classes. He had an aptitude for languages gaining honours in a course he undertook in French. But his main interest was in Poetry. He had a keen interest in his fellow men, observing them and their reactions with discernment and kindness. His poems about mining and miners caught the attention of a Mr. Herbert Trench who was adjudicator for the Poetry Review and were published in their magazine and a London newspaper.
He volunteered for the army in the early days of the war and joined the 12th Yorks and Lancs infantry battalion where he was quickly promoted to Sergeant. As part of their training, the battalion came to the Hurdcott part of the Fovant Camps. Two of his poems incorporate the name of the camp in their title, Sunset: Hurdcott Camp and Hymn to Life: Hurdcott Camp. The second is a long philosophical, perhaps even metaphysical, poem which shows his deeply religious nature. He had, for many years, been a Sunday School teacher in Whitwell. Nocturne could also have been written at Hurdcott
‘…now in this hour ships from yon harbour go; yon southern port, bearing their human freight;…’
Not that he enjoyed his time in camp and described it in a letter to his mother in October 1915 as ‘a wilderness, a slough of despond’ mainly because of the mud, but also because of the distance from any village. Hurdcott is 5 miles from the nearest shops and, although Fovant was thriving in those days with many more shops than nowadays, it was still rather small in entertainment. He speaks warmly of the YMCA, its quiet corners and lively concerts. At this early stage of the war there was no electricity generator in the camp and lighting was with candles and lamps which made writing at night very difficult. He was also anxious about his brothers and friends who had also joined up, and the effect it was having on his parents, especially his father.
In December 1915 the battalion was sent to Egypt to protect the Suez Canal after the fiasco of Gallipoli. Here he wrote a poem commemorating that battle as he met the survivors who were shipped to Egypt for treatment and recuperation. However, the British Army was planning a large spring offensive which would, with the help of the French forces, push the Germans out of the land they had occupied for many months on either side of the River Somme. The Germans however did not obligingly wait for spring. In February they attacked the French lines and caused such havoc that the French were unable to play their part in the plan.
Will and his comrades arrived in France in March 1916 and were allocated the small town of Albert. ( Made in the Trenches and A Lark above the Trenches. ) The start of this bloody battle is well known and does not really need to be detailed here. It is reckoned that some 200,000 men were killed or wounded in the British Army alone.
Will’s platoon was in the second wave and met the merciless machine gunning almost immediately they came over the top. Will was wounded in the arm and began to walk back to the field casualty point when he saw one of his men fall. He went back to help him disappearing from the sight of his group as they advanced. His body was not found for ten months because the Germans were not pushed out and the area returned to being No Man’s Land. Eventually the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg line and the bodies were recovered. Will Streets is buried at Euston Road Cemetery, Colincamps
At the time he went missing his Company Officer wrote:
‘It is given to few men to win the confidence of their comrades as completely as did Sgt. Streets. In training, in Egypt, and in the trenches on the Somme he was always to be counted on both by his officers and the men under him. His fellow N.C.O.’s would be the first to endorse this opinion. Steady-eyed and rather stolid, he gave an impression of coolness even under extreme tension. The only time we ever saw him shaken was when he lost several of his section, with whom he had lived and trained for over eighteen months.
Yet he was not of those who ignore danger; rather, he faced it and found the cause more than sufficient compensation. At the time of writing, little hope remains of Sgt. Streets having survived July 1st. When he was reported missing, few of us who knew him had much hope of seeing him again. We knew that Streets was not the man easily to surrender. Perhaps he could have no better or more fitting epitaph.’
R. E. J. MOORE,
Capt. 13th York and Lancaster
His Company Commander later wrote to the editors of the book of Streets’ poems The Undying Splendour which was being published:
‘Firness Hospital for Officers
7th April, 1917.
I understand you are publishing a book of the verses of Sgt. J. W. Streets. If his verses are as good as his reputation as a soldier you may rest assured that the book will be a great success.
Streets was a member of my Company since the commencement of the War, and his reputation as a thoroughly reliable NCO, gained in England and in Egypt, was enhanced when we were transferred to France.
He was conspicuous amongst a battalion of brave men who formed the left wing battalion of the great Allied advance on the 1st. July. He fell along with the remainder of his comrades, and died as he had lived–a MAN.
Need I say more?
It was a privilege to command such men.
But his book was not a success and he became one of the forgotten poets of the Great War. Perhaps because, as he wrote in an accompanying letter with a batch of poems sent to the Poetry Review…
‘They were inspired while I was in the trenches, where I have been so busy I have had little time to polish them. I have tried to picture some thoughts that pass through a man’s brain when he dies. I may not see the end of the poems, but hope to live to do so. We try to convey something of what we feel in this great conflict to those who think of us, and sometimes, alas! mourn our loss. We desire to let them know that in the midst of our keenest sadness for the joy of life we leave behind, we go to meet death grim-lipped, clear eyed, and resolute-hearted.’
Donald Drummond Clarkson was a second generation Australian. His grandfather had emigrated from Yorkshire to Western Australia in 1829 when that colony was founded. Donald was educated at home, as were many children in isolated farms and outback stations. From early boyhood he working on the large family property with his father and brothers. Even though he was a keen sportsman he developed a love for literature, especially poetry, and wrote verses of his own.
In 1900 his father, Barnard, began the division of the farms between his three sons and Donald named his portion ‘Toodyay’. He fell in love with Helen, daughter of an English couple who had emigrated a few years before. Both were hospitable and loved socialising attending and giving many parties and occasions of various sorts. As keen sports people many of their events included tennis, swimming and walking and were very popular amongst the young ‘flappers’ of the area.
They had three sons, the last of whom was born after Donald embarked on the troopship SS Ormonde for England with the 22nd Reinforcements for the 28th Battalion. He felt that he must go and fight for his homeland as so many Australians then considered England to be.
He arrived in Fovant 15th May 1918 and was immediately admitted to hospital after falling victim to the epidemic of measles and mumps that was sweeping the camp. For a 36 year old man this was serious. Was his doctor Dr RCC Clay, GP to Fovant village, who was in charge of 120 medical beds? Or perhaps George Goodfellow, a young lad who was filling in time till he was old enough to join up himself. Donald doesn’t say in his letters to his wife.
Letter dated 25.5.18
‘My luck is out and I am in hospital with above all things, mumps, and rather a bad attack of them….About three parts of our unit are laid off with mumps and measles … I am not able to give you any of my impressions of England as we have been practically shut up ever since we got here so have not been able to see much… The Thomsons and Baxter and I went for a walk last Sunday afternoon just over the hill from our camp and it was one of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen.
There was a wood there of about 40 acres, and in the centre a hollow that was just one mass of blue hyacinths and a pink flower – I don’t know the name of it. They were so thick you could hardly walk through them and were a wonderful sight.
The men in the ward here with me, about twenty altogether, are nearly all fellows that have been in it for a long time. A lot of them were in Gallipoli and have been going ever since… In all the hospitals here there are no nurses only orderlies. I think they only have nurses where the wounded are, but the orderlies are all chaps who have been in the AMC for a long time and are just as good as nurses.’
A month later he seemed to be up and about again, beginning serious training and joining in the life of Fovant Camp.
Letter dated 12.6.18
‘I went to a picture show last night. They run pictures at the camp here. It’s the first entertainment I have been to since leaving Australia. It was half sort of comedy business, singing and acting and the second half picture. The first part was rather good, there was one girl singing very nicely and a chap played the violin beautifully … the hall was crammed, must have been a couple of thousand soldiers there, hundreds of them wounded men recovering and a tremendous lot of them fellows who have been gassed.’
His training continued
Letter dated 6.8.18.
‘We are on a high hill – the one with the signs on it that I sent the postcards of, just opposite the camp and have to prevent anyone coming over the hill while the fellows are shooting. …..all around here are the remains of old earth works that the Romans made at the time of the invasion by Julius Caesar, and I am sitting on an old earth wall – part of a big entrenchment scheme – to write this.
‘There are about 20 acres all enclosed by the wall and a moat about 8 feet deep has been dug on the outside which I expect used to be filled with water, and I should think it must have been impregnable against the arms they had in those days. Even now, after all the centuries it has been here it would offer a lot of advantages against an ordinary attack as it commands a view of all the country for miles around.’ (Unfortunately, the soldiers had been misled. Chiselbury Camp is an Iron Age construction and was probably only used to hold livestock safe.)
Is this when he wrote ‘Hope’?
Another that we know he wrote at Fovant is The Signpost at Salisbury .
After several months of training he set out for France on 30th August 1918. Two months later, on 3rd November, even as Armistice talks began, he was killed in action near Beaurevoir. In one of the poems he wrote at Fovant named At Dawn , are these lines
‘For the fire and the strength of the life you gave
shall live in the souls of your future race.’
I imagine he would have been very proud of his three sons, growing to fight in the next war, the eldest of whom collected and published his letters and poems in a book called A Very Man (Access Press, Bassendean, West Australia) and who kindly gave me permission to quote from it.
Robert William John Madden
A very fragile and tattered folded paper was found amongst the artefacts in the Pembroke Arms Public House WW1 Collection during a refurbishment in the spring of 2005. Cellotape had been used to try and mend it at one time leaving marked discoloration and holes. When it was opened and deciphered, it turned out to be a poem written as part of a memorial event for the fallen of the 10th Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces. It was printed by Wessex Publishing Co. (1917) Tisbury and Yeovil.
Robert William John Madden was born in Geelong, Victoria, Australia in 1883. He enlisted in February 1917 and arrived in Fovant with the 6th Machine gun Co. of the 15th Reinforcements on 6th January 1918.
He fought in France and returned to England (Codford) for demobilisation, returning to Australia in September 1919. He did not publish any more poetry.
If anyone knows more about this man after his return to civilian life please contact us.
‘The Boys of the Tenth Brigade’
By Gunner R.W.Madden. printed by Wessex Publishing Co. (1917) Ltd., Tisbury and Yeovil.
‘Now your………………over and your laurels
There’s many a………………your hand and say to you
You’ll be proud to feel you’ve done your bit and given
a helping hand,
But you’ll think of those who lie beneath the soil of
‘No Man’s Land’,
You can tell your friends when you get home of the history
they have made,
For braver lads ne’er fought a fight than the
“Boys of the Tenth Brigade”.
— <> —
At Mesines Bridge and the Somme that’s where
they made their name
Australia’s proud of the feats they’ve done the world
rings out their fame,
Their country’s honour they’ve preserved, they fought
to keep her free,
To save her from the oppressor….ls, and
shape her destiny,
Through shot and shell they fought their way, of death
they weren’t afraid,
They’ve done their part and nobly too, those
“Boys of the Tenth Brigade”
— <> —
And when at last you’re s………….ongst your
kith and kin,
You’ll tell them of the hardships,…….battles you’ve…
Your face will glow with pride though your heart
will saddened be,
As you tell them of the comrades left behind, across
How they fought and won and died, great courage
They’ve done their share and gone before those
“Boys of the Tenth Brigade”.
— <> —
Those of us who are left behind should keep their
For had they not fought for freedom where would
we have been
No land could we have called our own once the Kaiser
held the sway,
And the liberties we all enjoy, like the mists, would
Remember, men of Australia, the price those lads
They gave their all for you and me those
“Boys of the Tenth Brigade”.’
Content last updated
14 July 2011