Rupert Brooke’s War

Map of Europe showing Rupert Brooke’s travels between September 1914 and his death on Skyros April 1915

On Sunday 27th September 1914, Brooke joined his battalion, camped on the coast of Kent. Only a week later, on 4th October, they marched to Dover, and embarked to defend Antwerp from the German advance.

In the next five days, Antwerp fell. Brooke and his company had to march twenty-five miles in the retreat, through a landscape wasted by shelling and by pools of burning petrol from a bombed fuel depot. Round them, the carcasses of horses and cattle sizzled, and wagons of dead, wounded and refugees filled the roads. Brooke wrote:

“. . . I saw what was a truer Hell. Thousands of refugees, their goods on barrows and hand-carts and perambulators and wagons, moving with infinite slowness out into the night, two unending lines of them, the old men mostly weeping, the women with hard drawn faces, the children playing or crying or sleeping. . . . The eyes grow clearer, and the heart. But it’s a bloody thing, half the youth of Europe, blown through pain to nothingness in the incessant mechanical slaughter of these modern battles”.

By the 8th October, they reached the troop train which carried them to Bruges. All the company’s luggage, together with several of Brooke’s manuscripts, had been destroyed. Early on Friday 9th October, they arrived back at Dover.

The company was re-equipped at Chatham amidst uncertainty of what was to come next. To stay with his friends, Brooke arranged a move to the Hood Battalion. On Monday 30th November, he joined them at their camp near Blandford in Dorset. The next three months’ training was interrupted only by influenza, by respiratory complaints arising from the use of coke stoves, and by drunkenness amongst the men. Brooke himself spent much of February ill in bed in London at 10 Downing Street, the home of his friends the Asquiths.

By mid-February, he was back in Blandford, and on Saturday 27th February 1915 his ship departed from Avonmouth Docks for the Dardanelles. Two days later, on 1st March, they were in open sea off the Bay of Biscay, and he was sea-sick. Early on Monday 8th March, they put in to Malta, where Brooke dined and went to the opera to see Tosca. The next day they departed for Lemnos in the Eastern Mediterranean, arriving there three days later.

On Thursday 18th March, Brooke’s ship sailed for Turkish waters. Early the following morning, they entered the Dardanelles. But after several hours of inactivity, they were withdrawn: losses from mines during the coastal bombardment the previous day had made a landing impractical, and they returned to Lemnos.

On Wednesday 24th March, they left Lemnos for Egypt. Sailing via Patmos and Rhodes, they arrived in Port Said on Sunday 28th March. Brooke and two friends spent two days in Cairo, visiting the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and touring the moonlit streets by donkey. There then followed exercises and route marches. By 2nd April, Brooke was ill with sunstroke and dysentery. He spent the next week in the Casino Palace hotel with a fellow officer who had been similarly afflicted.

On Thursday 8th April, orders came to sail again for Lemnos. By this time, Brooke’s potential as a poet, politician and academic was becoming recognised, and many did not want England to lose him. Brooke’s Colonel suggested he spend more time recovering in Egypt, and Brooke’s Commander in Chief suggested he take a staff job. However, Brooke refused both of these offers: as his Commander in Chief reported: “Rupert Brooke very naturally would like to see this first adventure through with his own men . . . I should have answered the same in his case . . .”