Anthem for Doomed Youth

Writers and Literature of The Great War, 1914-1918

Rupert Brooke's Obituary in The Times:

Rupert Brooke died on April 23 (coincidentally, the traditional observance of St. George's Day, and the birthday of Shakespeare), 1915. On Monday, April 26, 1915, his obituary appeared in The Times: "Death of Mr. Rupert Brooke. Sustroke at Lemnos. We regret to record the death, on April 23, Lemnos, from the effects of sunstroke, of Rupert Brooke, the poet, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division."

The obituary continues: "W.S.C." writes: -- "Rupert Brooke is dead . . . [his] life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime." W.S.C. was, of course, Winston Spencer Churchill. Churchill's portion of the obituary (a eulogy) takes up a little less than half of the total, and is sandwiched between the copy writer's general announcement and later biographical sketch of Brooke (the "copy writer" was probably Edward Marsh, the editor of Georgian Poetry , a close friend of Brooke's, and soon to become his literary exucutor). Although, on the surface, the Churchill obituary is a tribute to a promising young poet, it's impossible not to sense in the eulogy an underlying political agenda -- especially when considered in the historical context of the Dardenelles campaign which Churchill had helped to conceive and to which he had sent Brooke as part of his own Royal Naval Division (RND). The obituary of Rupert Brooke written by Winston Churchill follows:

Rupert Brooke is dead. A telegram from the Admiral at Lemnos tells us that this life has closed at the moment when it seemed to have reached its springtime. A voice had become audible, a note had been struck, more true, more thrilling, more able to do justice to the nobility of our youth in arms engaged in this present war, than any other more able to express their thoughts of self-surrender, and with a power to carry comfort to those who watch them so intently from afar. The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger.

During the last few months of his life, months of preparation in gallant comradeship and open air, the poet-soldier told with all the simple force of genius the sorrow of youth about to die, and the sure triumphant consolations of a sincere and valiant spirit. He expected to die: he was willing to die for the dear England whose beauty and majesty he knew: and he advanced towards the brink in perfect serenity, with absolute conviction of the rightness of his country's cause and a heart devoid of hate for fellow-men.

The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England's noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.

In September 1914, Churchill offered Brooke a commission in the RND, and within a month sublieutenant Brooke participated in the evacuation of Antwerp. Back in England over the Christmas holidays, Brooke wrote his famous "war sonnets" (particularly Brooke's sonnet "V. The Soldier," the sonnet that Dean Inge had read at the pulpit of St. Paul's on Easter Sunday). Churchill ends this paragraph: "The voice has been swiftly stilled. Only the echoes and the memory remain; but they will linger." Ironically, Churchill's eulogy would help establish and reinforce the Rupert Brooke myth. While Churchill's eulogy helped further the Brooke mystique, his superlatives worked both ways and likewise helped doom Brooke's reputation by overpraising his "war sonnets" and overvaluing his (supposed) selfless example and sacrifice.

In February, Brooke joined the Division's Hood Battalion in preparation for the landings at Gallipoli. Passing through Egypt on his way to Gallipoli, Brooke suffered sunstroke and dysentery. Off Lemnos he contracted blood poisoning from an insect bite on his lip and died two days before the landings. Churchill cabled his brother John "endeavour if your duties allow, to attend Rupert Brooke's funeral on my behalf. We shall not see his like again." With the Gallipoli landings taking place at the very moment he was writing Brooke's obituary, Churchill was also "comfort[ing] "those who watch[ed] so intently from afar" For one, Prime Minister Asquith whose son Arthur (Oc) was part of the RND. The Dardenelles campaign finally succumbed to inter-service quarreling and Turkish tenacity, and after a quarter-million casualties, the Allies evacuated the Gallipoli beaches in October of 1915. Churchill tendered his resignation on November 11, 1915 (Armistice Day minus three years). Perhaps the political connection in Churchill's eulogy of Rupert Brooke is merely coincidence . . . just as it's coincidence that a column appealing for more recruits follows immediately after it.