When a wounded and shell-shocked young schoolmaster returned from the Somme to rural Surrey to convalesce in 1916, he was questioned by boys eager to learn all about the front.
He set down his thoughts in a poem that is one of almost 50 by the same author published for the first time this month after they were discovered in a notebook. He wished for those youngsters:
O be content to leave the matter so;
Thank God you do not know.
The words are from Canon John Stanley Purvis, who, academics say, ranks among the greatest British war poets even though only two of his works have been widely known — till now.
Researchers at the University of York, which holds Purvis’ notebook, said it was remarkable that a complete anthology by an outstanding Great War poet could be made public over a century after the conflict’s end.
Purvis was born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, on May 9, 1890. He was a schoolmaster at Cranleigh School near Guildford before serving as a junior officer on the Western Front with Alexandra, Princess of Wales’s Own Yorkshire Regiment — the Green Howards — from 1916. His father, pharmacist John Bowlt Purvis, and brother, George Bell Purvis, also served in France and Flanders.
John Stanley was wounded the first and only time he went “over the top”, in the Battle of the Somme, and was sent back to England suffering from what was then considered “shell shock”. He later returned to the Western Front and survived the war, going on to become a clergyman and the first director of the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York. He made an important modern English translation of the York Cycle of mystery plays.
Purvis is remembered today for his war poems Chance Memory and High Wood — the latter named after the notorious engagement in which he was injured and, prophetically, envisaging the battlefield as a postwar tourist attraction. In this, the tour-guide narrator says:
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs, you will find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Both poems were published during the war under the pen name of Philip Johns(t)on and only revealed to be by Purvis after his death in 1968. The poet’s sister, Hilda, claimed in a 1969 letter to the author Ernest Raymond that: “The words were sent without my brother’s knowledge to the Press by his friend, a Quaker doctor, serving with the Red Cross”.
The dozens of other war poems by Purvis, now published after they were uncovered in an archive of his papers at the Borthwick, reveal the breadth of his output. The poems were transcribed and edited by Sue Mendus, emeritus professor of political philosophy at the University of York, with support from the Sheldon Memorial Trust.
Gary Brannan, keeper of archives and research collections at the University of York, said: “They are incredibly accessible poems. If you read the volume from start to finish, it is a journey from idealistic views of war and honour in conflict to quite bitter, jaded views. It is that classic First World War journey of a soldier going to defend his nation’s honour, then realising it is mud and bullets and death and things that cannot be described to people back home.”
He added: “What we have here is quite a raw volume. If it had gone through publication in the 1920s or 30s, along with the other war poets, the poems would probably have been considered, at times, a bit too personal. We also have a work in progress. Where there’s deleted text or rewrites, we’ve noted it in the footnotes, so you can see the evolution of the work. Although this is the final volume, it’s not the polished volume you would have had in the 1920s.”
In one of these previously unseen poems, A Thought, Winter, 1915 — written in Surrey before his deployment overseas — Purvis describes his sense of foreboding.
That budded chestnut branch …
I may be dead,
Ere in the Spring its leaves are fully spread.
In the event, he survived the following spring but would nevertheless be back at Cranleigh suffering from physical and mental injuries within the year. At High Wood, where he saw action, several thousand men died in an appalling slaughter that has been blamed on the poor decisions of senior commanders. Purvis’ brother George also fought there and survived, but his luck did not hold.
The final poem in the anthology, In Memoriam, is dated July 1917 and reads:
I will not grieve him as untimely dead,
Nor yet upbraid
The Hand that took him; I can yet believe
He faced the instant peril, that his head
Bowed not, nor did the level of his eyes
Tremble or fall
Before the menace of Death’s fronting gaze
And best of all,
That as a fighter to the last he lies.
He might have lived, but that he did not choose
For that great day
To leave the men whose friend & leader he;
The better way
So gain is most when most he seems to lose.
In her introduction to the anthology, Versus and Fragments, Poems of the Great War, Mendus writes: “It is hard to resist the thought that the subject of this final poem is John Stanley’s brother, George Bell Purvis, who had been killed so very recently [on June 8, 1917] at Messines.”
A brigadier general wrote to the Purvis family of George: “I personally would have followed him anywhere and I know this was the feeling of the other officers and the men of the company.”
Mendus believes the impact of George’s death, aged 24, may explain his brother’s reticence. She writes: “[…] I do not think it fanciful to suppose that the poems in Verses and Fragments were simply too personal and too painful to be offered up for publication. Or, even, to be publicly acknowledged.”
When Hilda Purvis revealed that her late brother was the author of Chance Memory and High Wood, she told Ernest Raymond that she had “always wanted to uncover the anonymity of my noble brother.”
While she was successful in gaining some recognition for her sibling, Brannan believes that he has still not received his due. He hopes the anthology’s publication will change this.
He said: “He belongs rightly with poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.”
Verses and Fragments: Poems of the Great War by Canon John Stanley Purvis is available from the Borthwick Institute at the University of York at £8. The photograph at the top of the article shows British soldiers digging a communication trench in France, 1916. Photo: public domain, via Australian War Memorial