- Publisher: Cecil Woolf Publishers
- Available in: Paperback
- ISBN: 978-1-897967-96-6
- Published: 1 November 2009
F.W. Harvey Society Choice, 2009
Frederick William ‘Will’ Harvey is a Great War poet of lasting interest and one of the war’s best-sellers. His is a dramatic story. Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and a commission for bravery in battle, Harvey was taken prisoner in a daring solo trench raid. A member of the awkward squad, he was shunted around no less than seven German prisoner-of-war camps whose commandants ranged from the hail-fellow-well-met to the hellish. Harvey’s first book of poems appeared just after his capture, to be followed by a second collection that one camp commandant permitted to be sent to England for publication.
COMRADES of risk and rigour long ago
Who have done battle under honour’s name,
Hoped (living or shot down) some meed of fame,
And wooed bright Danger for a thrilling kiss, –
Laugh, oh laugh well, that we have come to this!
Laugh, oh laugh loud, all ye who long ago
Adventure found in gallant company!
Safe in Stagnation, laugh, laugh bitterly,
While on this filthiest backwater of Time’s flow
Drift we and rot, till something set us free!
Laugh like old men with senses atrophied,
Heeding no present, to the Future dead,
Nodding quite foolish by the warm fireside
And seeing no flame, but only in the red
And flickering embers, pictures of the past: –
Like a cinder fading black at last.
F. W. Harvey
© Eileen Griffiths, 2009
It was past two in the afternoon that August day, and the trench grew quiet. As if by mutual consent, now and for the next three hours or so the troops and their German enemies about 300 yards away could snatch some sleep. Quietly, a subaltern slipped over the parapet and, alone, began to crawl through the rank grass and in the shadow of a hedge that ran through the British lines to where both petered out just short of the German first line.
Earlier in the day, the subaltern, Frederick William (Will) Harvey of the 1/5th Gloucesters, had briefly met a friend, Ivor Gurney, now a private in the 2/5th. The two had been and companions on prewar rambles around the hills and woods of Severnside. Will and Ivor had also messed about in a small sailing-boat. This may not have been as idyllic as it sounds, for the Severn is not a river to be trifled with and Gurney, who was tall, strong and ungainly, was also given to manic capering once the pair had cast off. Harvey, an accomplished baritone, shared a love of music with Gurney, who until he enlisted had been studying composition at The Royal College of Music. Both were aspiring, if unpublished poets.
Before parting today, 17 August 1916 at Fauquissart, near Laventie, Harvey had loaned Gurney his copy of The Spirit of Man. This was the new best-seller, an anthology of prose and verse edited by the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, whom younger poets regarded as the supreme craftsman of English verse. The war had so mortified Bridges that he had been struck dumb as a poet, and so embarrassing was the silence of a Laureate in the time of the nation’s trial that the matter was raised in the Commons. By contrast, it was through the war that Harvey and Gurney, two young unknowns, were to find their voices as poets – Gurney the composer because you can’t have a piano in a trench, Harvey because the poet in him found a ready audience among his comrades first in the barracks and then in the trenches though their trench newspaper, the 5th Gloucester Gazette.
It was during Harvey’s siesta, later that day, that the idea of going out on a ‘lone patrol’ had taken hold. Had he flicked through his Spirit of Man one last time before lending it to Gurney, Harvey might have come across some lines of foreboding from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:
Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread
Now, having run out of hedge and long grass a few yards short of the German first line, Harvey resolved to lie up and listen for about ten minutes before deciding whether to break cover or to hedge-hug it back to his own trenches. He could hear no talking, digging or firing ahead. In the grass on either side of him, no evidence of listening-posts. Although alone, Harvey was armed. He had brought with him an automatic pistol, although not his now-celebrated bludgeon, a peasant’s hardwood threshing-flail he had picked up somewhere. Harvey had felled at least one man with this on a previous patrol, but on that occasion Harvey had not been alone.
Had another man been with him today, both would have turned back at this point, their mission accomplished. That night, Harvey was to lead a patrol over this very same ground that night. The men detailed, however, were just out from England. They were also tired out. It was only their second day in this position south of Laventie, and they had spent the night consolidating the trench. Harvey, the company’s surviving patrol specialist, resolved to reconnoître the ground before he lead his new boys over it. With the corroboration of a second man, Harvey could have returned to his own lines, able to reassure the detail that their night’s duty need not be their last.
But there was no other man.
Harvey’s ten minutes were up. Should he slip into the German first-line trench, evidently-unoccupied, pocket a cap, rifle or some other some souvenir as proof that he had paid a call, and then begin the long crawl home?
A year before to the very month, Lance-Corporal Harvey had taken part in another night patrol near Hébuterne, which resulted in his being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and a commission. Led by his friend, Corporal Raymond Knight, Harvey and six other men had set off to investigate a clump of bushes suspected of harbouring an enemy listening-post.
About 350 yards out, the two Non-Commissioned Officers heard coughing to their right. They were only paces away from a listening-post, cover for a working party further off.
There was the click of a rifle bolt, and a German soldier came out to investigate. Knight shot him. Knight and Harvey then rushed the post, shooting two more of the enemy. As the rest of the patrol came up, the surviving Germans fled, pursued by Harvey who, his revolver empty, felled one man with the hardwood bludgeon, and would have dragged him in, had not the enemy now opened fire and Knight called Harvey back.
Knight had also been awarded the DCM and a commission. But he was not with Harvey at Fauquissart. He had died of wounds at Ovillers on the Somme a month earlier, and now rests at Bapaume Post Military Cemetery. Harvey’s ten minutes up, perhaps recalling Knight’s devil-may-care spirit on that night at Hébuterne, he decided to risk it. Noting a gap in the German wire, Harvey wriggled through and crept over the parapet. His first unwelcome surprise was how far down it was to the floor of the trench, which was much deeper than his own. A second and even less-welcome shock quickly followed. Barely had the interloper reached the next bay when behind him he heard the clatter of approaching boots…
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