For centuries, the Armed Forces have used poetry and prose to describe the horrors of war. The celebrated First World War poets – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke – famously wrote powerful verses which still resonate today. But nowadays literary works about more modern conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Iraq or the Falklands, written by those involved are seldom seen. Now Kingston University aims to change all that, through a competition which has identified some of the best forces poets and authors.
Several hundred members of the Armed Forces, their families and friends submitted their poetry and prose as part of the Forces Stories and Poems competition. It was organised by the University to mark the 125th anniversary of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help.
The competition was the brainchild of Kingston University creative writing lecturer Siobhan Campbell. "We had around 300 entries, coming from all kinds of experience of service life from catering to medical corps to front-line soldiers," she said. "We had people currently serving in Afghanistan, ex-World War II and even Burma. I was particularly pleased that there was no shortage of women entrants – in fact there were as many women as men."
Among the commended entries was work by 42-year-old Major Hugo Willis who has served in the Army for more than 20 years in all corners of the globe. His entry, Letter from Afghanistan, was one of a series of letters written while he was on a tour of duty in summer 2009, serving as second in command of the Light Dragoons. "I wrote because I wanted to give my family and friends something different to what they might read in the newspapers," he said. "I wanted to give them a truly personal perspective, balanced against the challenge to not breach operational security."
Major Willis, who was inspired after being given a box of letters from the Crimean War by his father, believes war prose and poetry is still relevant and the words mean just as much today as they have done in previous conflicts. "I think it’s vital to get a first-hand account of what people see, think and hear. Otherwise we will only be left with what is in the history books," he added.
The entry which won top prize was a poem called Think Only This, a reference to a line in Rupert Brooke’s most famous poem, The Soldier.
It was written by 59-year-old Jill Sharp from Swindon, right. Her mother was a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and her father served as an RAF flight lieutenant during World War II.
"The inspiration behind my poem was the cemetery next door to my house in Swindon which contains 80 First World War graves," she said. "It’s poignant to stand there and see details of those who fought and died. The War Graves Commission looks after all those graves and every year a paper poppy is laid on every single one."
The last line of Jill’s poem shows how little things have changed since World War I. "For all they went through 100 years ago, here we still are, young people are still dying," she said.
The entry which took second prize, Losing Liz, was by 81-year-old Heather Stapley from Crowborough in Sussex. Heather wrote about the untimely death of her best friend Liz Gladstone when she was in the Wrens serving at HMS Gannet, a naval air station in Northern Ireland just after the Second World War.
"It’s a long time ago but those days have an aura about them, so I really felt I wanted to write about Liz, but I never expected to get a prize," she said. "I had just qualified as a Wren when Liz came along and we became best pals."
Just 18 months later Liz had the chance to fly in an Avenger aircraft to go home to Hatfield, Heather explained, but tragically the plane came down at Divis Mountain near Belfast and Liz was killed. "We always used to write little notes to each other – just silly little things. After she died I had contact from someone who had found her handbag, which contained a note from me saying something like ‘Bon voyage and see you tomorrow’. That really made her death sink in and I remember so clearly how sad I felt."
The winning works are being printed in a celebratory booklet which is published by Kingston University Press, the University’s commercial publishing arm, and all profits will go to SSAFA Forces Help.
To obtain a copy of the booklet Forces Stories and Poems can send a cheque made out to KUP Ltd for £5 to KUP Ltd, HH25, Kingston University, Penrhryn Rd, Kingston, KT1 2EE or go online to our distributor Legend Press at www.legendpress.co.uk
All profits go towards SSAFA Forces Help
The winning and commended entries, Kingston University Forces Stories and Poems Competition
Think Only This
Jill Sharp (Winner of first prize)
Halted on a hillside under trees facing the Cotswold ridge
they stand at ease,
silent in their ceremonial dress
displaying rank, initials, surname,
ribboned reminders of the greater good
in latin mottoes
they’d have understood,
one date – a number, month and year –
announcing, white on white, each man’s arrival here.
A few reveal their age, the brief sum
done, taking this day
from an unknown one,
years given hoping they would be
the last from men of twenty
but as their home town’s evening lights
spread further, unfamiliar,
from these heights
and ancient trees widen their net
of shadows, the roll-call lengthens
with new names, sharp-etched,
and every year they wear a paper poppy
and red kites circle in the quiet valley.
(Eighty men who fell in WWI lie in Kingshill cemetery, Swindon)
Heather Stapley (Winner of second prize)
I am going back in time to 1947 when, having completed my Met training course at R.N.A.D.C. Kete in Wales, I was posted to Eglinton in Northern Ireland. This was H.M.S Gannet, a naval air station where I was to join a happy band of ratings who were due for demob and were gradually being replaced by wrens.
The airfield was in the middle of nowhere and we wrens had our quarters some distance from the control tower, sharing a cabin with other watchkeepers who worked split shifts. This meant that we all needed transport to get to and from the airfield, which was provided by local drivers who manned a fleet of ’tilleys’. Then we heard that another two wrens were on their way, which meant that more of the men could be released and shortly after this news I met the first to arrive.
I had come off watch at midday and flung my handbag onto the top bunk in the corner. There was someone bent over the bunk below making up the bed. Naturally I offered my help and by the end of the afternoon we had talked so much that we had virtually exchanged life stories. This was Liz and we spent most of the afternoon laughing together unknowingly laying the foundation of what was to become a lasting friendship.
Over the next few months we spent a lot of time together, sometimes on watch, but in our own spare time, when free, we went for superb walks in the surrounding countryside. At other times using the rather ancient bikes available to us we reached even further afield. We even made our way across the border by the back roads crossing into Eire, usually making for Buncrana, just a dot on the map, which boasted a bar that did superb meals.
As rationing was still in force in the UK we would usually return with goodies that were unobtainable from our part of the world. Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon we would catch a bus into Londonderry (as it was known then) where, after a round of shopping, we would repair to Fosters, a tearoom, for one of their savoury omelettes with freshly baked soda bread accompanied by a pot of good strong tea. In no time at all we were bosom buddies having discovered that we shared the same tastes in books, films, music and even men!
Recalling the time we spent together it is the laughter that I remember. We had many serious discussions it is true but everything was against a background of laughter.
I can’t remember when we started leaving notes to each other, like any habit it grew over time and we attempted to outdo each other with our ‘Thought for the Day’, usually something we had forgotten to say, perhaps a joke or a remark was in some other way worthy of note. I looked forward to finding a note on my pillow when I came off watch.
Eighteen months or so after Liz had arrived the number of wrens in the Met office had grown to five, our having bidden a fond farewell to the boys now demobbed. Liz is pictured at HMS Gannet with colleagues in 1948.
One day Jack Weightman, one of the Met officers, discovered that there was an Avenger aircraft leaving for Hatfield the following day to collect some equipment. The two pilots were anticipating a stay of several hours, returning in late afternoon or evening. Knowing that Liz came from Hatfield, Jack asked if she would like to make the trip and she said yes, very excited and planning to surprise her mother. ‘See you tonight,’ she said, turning to wave as she left the cabin early next morning.
When I came off watch at six o’clock half expecting that Liz might have returned, the weather was deteriorating, heavy rain having set in accompanied by a steadily-strengthening wind. Two of the girls who had been manning the switchboard came off watch with the news that the R.A.F station at Aldergrove had been in touch saying that they had learned that the Avenger, having taken off from Hatfield, was apparently on its way back but their air traffic control had lost contact. There were about twenty of us in the cabin at this point and we all began to feel concerned, some getting very upset and fearing the worst. When the duty officer came in to say "Lights out" at ten o’clock no one felt able to sleep and conversation went on in sombre tones for a long time until eventually everyone slept.
Conditions were somewhat improved in the morning and with the dawning of a new day our spirits lifted. However after breakfast we trooped back from the dining hall and then came the news we had all been dreading. Search parties had found the Avenger, which had crashed on Divis Mountain outside Belfast during the night and there were no survivors. Even now long after the event, I can still remember the pain and with it my refusal to
believe that Liz was gone. How could someone so alive one day be dead the next?
Naturally life goes on and of course it did.
A few weeks after Liz had been buried in the Parish Churchyard in Eglinton, her coffin draped in the Union Jack, I received a letter with an enclosure. The letter, written by an officer who had been with the recovery team and whose name was not known to me, wrote to say that the enclosed note had been found in Liz’s handbag. Expressing his sympathy he said he thought that I might like to have it back. So many years have passed that I can’t remember my message to Liz on that day so long ago, but I’m sure that I must have wished her a good journey and that I looked forward to her return. I remember that I cried.
‘Once I whispered that I would cherish my grief for ever but time passes and I forget’ Rabindranath Tagore
Letter from Afghanistan
Hugo Willis (Commended)
Tonight we hold a memorial service for five people who have recently paid the ultimate price. In a corner of our Forward Operating Base in Helmand is a concrete plinth on which the Engineers have built a small cairn out of rocks, surmounted by a simple wooden cross.
All those who can be spared from duties form a hollow square (Army speak for a square with only three sides) in front of the memorial. Berets, long since consigned to the bottom of rucksacks are pulled out, the dust banged off as people smarten themselves up as best as possible. The air cools a little as the sun dips below the hard brown horizon and the numerous house martins that nest in the buildings come out as usual to catch insects, wheeling and diving over our heads. In the distance, the sound of a mullah, calling the faithful to prayer carries over the still evening sky. He competes with the sound of a rock crushing machine by the banks of the river, busily making aggregate.
The parade is called to attention and we listen to the eulogies of those who have died; some from our Battle Group, others from elsewhere, but all of them brothers in arms, nonetheless. The eulogies, written by commanders or friends, recall the character of the people, telling us something of what they were like, their nicknames, hobbies, sports, quirks and, tellingly, their families. Poignantly, the last name is an Afghan, an interpreter. One of us steps forward and speaks of the man’s love of football, his sense of humour and his daily courage. He is just as much our brother as any of the fallen.
The Regimental Sergeant Major recites the words of the fourth stanza of the poem, For The Fallen, written by Lawrence Binyon in 1914 for another conflict in another time and place but eternally pertinent. "They shall not grow old as we grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them."
The notes of the Last Post ring out from the trumpeter and are followed by a minute’s silence. The mullah is quiet, the rock crushing machine ceases its pounding and peace descends. Even the house martins cease their flight as we stand, each with his or her own thoughts. The silence ends with the trumpet call Reveille, the dancing notes designed to rouse sleepy headed soldiers from their beds in days gone by. The call acts as a simple reminder that after night there is day, after death there is life; above all, there is hope. The Collects of the different regiments are read out and together we say the Lord’s Prayer, turn to the right, salute and walk past the memorial as we return to our duties. There is another memorial, also far from England, in Kohima, marking the place where the Allies stopped the Japanese invasion of India in 1944.
It also features a cross below which is inscribed on a bronze plaque: "When you go home, tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, we gave our today."
I have yet to go home, but when I do I shall honour that inscription and the lives of those we have commemorated tonight.