“If I should die think only this of me": the death of Rupert Brooke

Posted on centenarynews.com on 23 April 2015
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The English poet Rupert Brooke died on April 23rd 1915 en route to Gallipoli. Peter Biles has written this feature about his death for Centenary News. His grandfather, Harry Biles, was part of the group that went ashore to bury Brooke.

For the men of the Royal Naval Division, the departure for the Dardanelles in early 1915 was a hurried affair. In the space of 10 days, the British cabinet agreed to send forces to the Mediterranean, a mobilisation order was issued and the Royal Naval Division, in training at Blandford in Dorset, underwent a detailed inspection by the King and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

On the afternoon of Sunday February 28, officers and men were boarding the troop ships at Avonmouth Docks in Bristol. There was too a celebrity in their midst. The young, acclaimed poet, Rupert Brooke, had secured a commission and was a Sub-Lieutenant in the Hood Battalion. The previous year, he had served in the defence of Antwerp, shortly after the outbreak of war.

“His five ‘war’ sonnets of 1914, upon which his reputation as a war poet rests, reflect accepted attitudes at the outbreak of war - patriotism, idealism, sacrifice, romantic death - ideas abandoned by many later poets in the face of the realities of the trench warfare that Brooke never experienced.”(1)

Brooke’s coterie of friends in the Hood Battalion included Arthur ‘Oc’ Asquith, the Prime Minister’s son; Denis Browne, the musician; F.S. ‘Clegg’ Kelly, a composer and Olympic rower; Patrick Shaw Stewart; Charles Lister; and Bernard Freyberg.

Brooke and his companions were to sail on a Union Castle steamer, the ‘SS Grantully Castle’. Also on board was this writer’s grandfather, Harry Biles, Assistant Paymaster of the 2nd Naval Brigade’s HQ Staff. Around 5 pm, they left Avonmouth, with the Grantully Castle picking up her escort of two destroyers beyond Portishead

There was a mood of optimism as the ships headed for Lemnos in the Eastern Mediterranean. In his history of the Royal Naval Division, Douglas Jerrold highlighted Rupert Brooke’s enthusiasm.  “I had not imagined that fate could be so benign…I am filled with confident and glorious hopes”, Brooke had written.

“He was not alone in his excitement”, according to Jerrold. “The sea was brilliant like a jewel, and sunset and dawn divine blazes of colour.….the spirit of adventure was in the air of spring, and no jarring note intruded on the Eastern scene as the transports worked up the Mediterranean from Malta and weighed anchor in Mudros harbour (Lemnos)”(2).

There was an expectation that the Allies would open the narrow Dardanelles strait and move on to take Constantinople.

Towards the end of March 1915, Brooke and the Royal Naval Division relocated to Port Said in Egypt to continue the preparations for the land invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula. Brooke was able to visit Cairo and see the Pyramids but he was also suffering from sunstroke and dysentery. (3)

In the week before the Gallipoli Landings, the Royal Naval Division anchored in Trebuki Bay on the Greek island of Skyros. As the battalions underwent field training exercises, Rupert Brooke could do little more than watch in a condition of fatigue. His upper lip had become heavily swollen, probably an infection from a mosquito bite, and he was seriously ill.

On April 22, Brooke slipped in and out of a coma. As his condition deteriorated further, he was transferred to the French hospital ship, the Duguay Trouin. The next day however, St George’s Day, the 27 year old Englishman was dead. Harry Biles’ diary records that Brooke died at 4.20 pm from septic pneumonia.

Rupert Brooke’s death coincided with final orders to sail for the Dardanelles the following morning, so his friends hastily arranged the funeral that same evening (April 23). They also decided to bury him on the island of Skyros, rather than at sea.

Harry Biles’ diary entry notes that he and the funeral party went ashore at 8.30 pm and buried Brooke in an olive grove an hour before midnight. It was, said Biles, “a very impressive scene”.

Brooke’s fellow officers, Bernard Freyberg, Denis Browne and Charles Lister had chosen the olive grove in the valley north of Trebuki Bay, as it had been a place where Brooke had enjoyed resting a few days earlier during the field exercises. The coffin was borne by 12 Australian petty officers.

“The coffin was lowered into a grave with sprigs of olive and sage flowers. Colonel Quilter (Hood Battalion) threw in a wreath made of olive.  A short service by the grave followed by three volleys then took place.” (4)  The Last Post was sounded by an 18 year old bugler.

Rupert Brooke had died on the eve of battle. A few hours after his burial, the Allied fleet left Skyros, and headed for Gallipoli.

Winston Churchill paid a personal tribute in The Times: “Rupert Brooke is dead. A telegram from the Admiral at Lemnos tells us that his life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime.”(5)

Rupert Brooke is best remembered for these words from ‘The Soldier’, written in 1914:

"If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England."

Peter Biles’ grandfather, Ass. Paymaster Harry Biles, was killed in action in July 1915, and is buried at Skew Bridge Cemetery, Gallipoli.

For further reading: “Gallipoli Dispatches - Harry Biles’ War Diary”


Notes:

(1)  http://www.cwgc.org/news-events/press-releases/cwgc-marks-centenary-of-poet%27s-death.aspx

(2) Douglas Jerrold, The Royal Naval Division, Naval & Military Press, p67

(3) http://www.rupertbrookeonskyros.com/Intro.htm

(4) http://www.1914-18.co.uk

(5) The Times, 26 April 1915

Copyright: Author and Centenary News