THE POETRY OF ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING AND ROBERT BROWNING


HE SHALL MASTER & SURPRISE
THE STEED OF DEATH
FOR HE IS STRONG

PRIVATE JOHN PERCIVAL OSMOND MM


During her lifetime the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning was more popular than her husband Robert Browning, but this hasn't been reflected in this headstone inscription project. Robert Browning is one of the most popular poets quoted whereas this is the first quotation from one of Elizabeth's poems that I've come across. It's a difficult poem too, and not a popular one. The poem is called A Drama of Exile. It recounts the events of Adam and Eve's first day in exile from the Garden of Eden, and their conversations with Gabriel, Lucifer, various angels, spirits, phantasms and Christ in a vision.
On the Day of Judgement, when the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised up, who will control Death, the pale horse of Revelation 6: 7-8? The second semichorus promise that, "A Tamer shall be found ... He shall master and surprise the steed of Death for He is strong ..." He, of course, will be Christ who will overcome death for, as it says in the bible, "as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" [I Corinthians 15:22]. This is the meaning of Osmond's inscription: there is no death.
John Percival Osmand was born and brought up in South Molton Devon where his father was a domestic groom and coachman. He served in the 2nd/4th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment and died of wounds in Aire, a hospital centre behind the lines. The battalion had been in action that day in the Neppe Forest Sector where their casualties, particularly from gas, had been very heavy but it's not possible to say if this was the day Osmond was wounded.


ONE WHO NEVER DREAMED
THOUGH RIGHT WERE WORSTED
WRONG WOULD TRIUMPH

LIEUTENANT FREDERICK CHARLESTON


Robert Browning's (1812-1889) Epilogue to Asolando, his final poem, was published on the day he died. The famous verse from which this inscription comes is generally considered to be Browning's description of himself:

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

The sentiments chimed with many families who chose various of the above lines for personal inscriptions, even changing the personal pronoun so as to be able to use them for a VAD.
Frederick Charleston's father, Thomas William Charleston, chose the inscription for his only son but gave no other family details to the War Graves Commission. However, in 2002, Dix Noonan Webb sold Frederick's medals and his memorial plaque in "mint perfect condition". Their research is always excellent and it is their website that describes how Charleston "died on July 7th 1915, at No. 12 Field Ambulance Dressing Station, of wounds received in action at Pilkem, near Ypres". Their information comes from The University College London Memorial Book, where Charleston had been an engineering student. The book describes how an officer with the Field Ambulance wrote to Charleston's father to tell him:

"Several of the men of his Company were wounded at the same time and brought in to us. I got the same tale from them all - of his gallantry and courage in the trenches. He was in charge of a machine-gun section, and stood to it until it was put out of action. The same shell that injured the men gave him his death wound."

Among the medals sold in 2002 was Charleston's 1914 Star. Out of the country when the war broke out, Charleston, who had been in the London University OTC, returned immediately and was gazetted Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. He disembarked in France on 24 October 1914, thus easily meeting the date criteria for this award, 5 August to 22 November 1914.
Charleston had two sisters, Susan Ellen and Irene Lavinia. In May 1960, forty-five years after her brother's death, Irene presented Guildford Cathedral with an exquisitely embroidered banner featuring a descending dove, two angels, one with a harp and one with a trumpet, and the badge of the Lancashire Fusiliers. The banner is Irene's work, which she dedicated:

AMDG in memory
of F Charleston
Ypres 7 July 1915.


I SHALL ARRIVE
WHAT TIME
WHAT CIRCUIT FIRST
I ASK NOT

MAJOR JAMES MILES LANGSTAFF


I see my way as birds their trackless way -
I shall arrive! what time, what circuit first,
I ask not: but unless God send His hail
Or blinding fire-balls, sleet, or stifling snow.
In some good time - His good time - I shall arrive:
He guides me and the bird. In His good time!

James Langstaff's inscription comes from Paracelsus, a long narrative poem by Robert Browning, 1812-1889. It was chosen for him by his widowed mother.

"Major J.M. Langstaff
Killed in action at Vimy Ridge, March 1st 1917. James Miles Langstaff, son of the late Dr James Langstaff, was born at Richmond Hill, Ontario, July 25th 1883. He had a brilliant intellect. Rarely has his career as a student been equalled. After passing the highest actuarial examinations, he entered law graduating at Osgoode Hall in 1912, with the Gold Medal and the Van Koughnet Scholarship. As a soldier at the Front - 75th Battalion, CE.F. - he rose rapidly in rank, was mentioned in despatches, and later was recommended for the Military Cross."
From Canadian Poets of the Great War. Edited by John Garvin 1918

War Shaped Destiny, one of the poems published in the above volume, was found with his effects after his death.

I never thought that strange romantic War
Would shape my life and plan my destiny;
Though in my childhood's dreams I've seen his car
And grisly steeds flash grimly thwart the sky.
Yet now behold a vaster, mightier strife
Than echoed on the plains of sounding Troy,
Defeats and triumphs, death, wounds, laughter, life,
All mingled in a strange complex alloy.
I view the panorama in a trance
Of awe, yet coloured with a secret joy,
For I have breathed in epic and romance,
Have lived the dreams that thrilled me as a boy.
How sound the ancients saying is, forsooth,
How weak is Fancy's gloss of Fact's stern truth.

Much of this information is copied from the Canadian Virtual Memorial site.


PROSPICE

LIEUTENANT COLONEL PERCY WILFRID MACHELL, CMG, DSO


This isn't the whole of Colonel Machell's inscription but we'll come to that later. One of the reasons I've chosen to include Percy Machell is to show that not everyone killed on 1 July was a young junior officer or an inexperienced soldier; Machell was 54 and a Lieutenant Colonel. And this is where the rest of his inscription comes in. It exceeds the War Graves Commission's limit of sixty-six letters by forty, and with the link could well have exceeded Twitter's 140 character limit, so I omitted for it for Twitter and have included it here. The inscription relates his military career:

56 Regt. 1882 Egyptian Army 1886
C.O. XII Sudanese 1891-1895
Adviser Ministry of Interior
Egyptian Government 1898-1908
Prospice

The information in the cemetery register gives even more detail.

Machell retired in 1905 and married in 1906. However, when Lord Lonsdale decided to raise a battalion in the border regions, the 11th (Service) Battalion Border Regiment, afterwards known as The Lonsdales, he asked his friend Percy Machell to train and command it. This Machell was prepared to do with his usual commitment and thoroughness, if also with his usual brusqueness and bluntness.
On 23 November 1915 the battalion sailed for France and in the middle of December had its first taste of the trenches. You can see the sort of man he was in this extract from his diary of 14 December:

I had a talk yesterday on the futility of grousing and the necessity of making the best of the worst of everything.

The battalion, like so many of these New Army battalions, was being trained for the 'Big Push' that was to come on the Somme on 1 July 1916. Machell did his best to leave no stone unturned in the preparations, as his obviously hurried final note to his Company Commanders makes clear:

All not hit MUST push on. MUST do our job. If all goes well, I stay proper place; if goes badly, I come up and see it through.

A commanding officer's 'proper place' was behind the lines, as far as possible out of danger so that he could 'command'. Unfortunately all did not go well with the Lonsdale's attack with the result that Machell rushed to the front line, mounted the parapet to urge his men on and was immediately shot and killed.
One hundred and eighty men from the Lonsdale Battalion were killed on 1 July. The bodies of the majority of them, ninety-eight, were never recovered and they are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, but sixty of them are buried in Lonsdale Cemetery. I find it rather sad that Machell is not among them. Perhaps attempts were made to save him and he was sent to a Field Ambulance Station, where he died and where he is the only member of his battalion to be buried.
His wife chose his inscription. Lady Valda Machell had been born Lady Valda Gleichen, the daughter of Prince Victor of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, the son of Queen Victoria's half sister. The inscription finishes with the single word 'Prospice', the title of a poem by Robert Browning. I'll only quote a few lines of what is not in fact a very long poem, all of which seems very appropriate.

I was ever a fighter, so one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.

Note: Much of the information on Percy Machell came from The Border Regiment on This Day and this excellent site, dedicated to the Lonsdale Battalion and maintained by Kev Johnstone, great grandson of Private John Farrer, killed in action 1 July 1916.


MAN IS FOREVER

CAPTAIN CHARLES KENNETH MCKERROW


This seemed such a strange inscription, even after I discovered that it was a quotation from Robert Browning's poem 'A Grammarian's Funeral' it still made little sense:

Others mistrust and say, "But time escapes:
Live now or never!"
He said, "What's time? Leave Now for dogs and apes!
Man has forever."

The capital letter for 'Now' gives a little hint: leave 'now' i.e. the present, to dogs and apes, man has forever to fulfil his destiny. It's an idea that appeared in more than one of Browning's poems:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
('Andrea del Sarto')

And in 'Rabbi Ben Ezra':

Shall life succeed in that it seems to fail:
What I aspired to be,
And was not, comforts me:

Matron Jessie Jaggard's husband used an extract from this last quotation for the inscription on her headstone in Gallipoli. Charles McKerrow's widow was therfore not the only relation to find comfort in the idea that regardless of our fate on earth, mankind has an immortal destiny that will be found in the world to come.
McKerrow was a GP in Ayrshire, with a First Class degree from Cambridge, before he took a commission in the RAMC in June 1915 and, attached to the 10th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, crossed with them to France in August 1915. In January 1915 he had married Jean Craik and that November they had a son. His letters in December 1916 look forward to the leave he was hoping to get in late January 1917. But on 21 December Mrs McKerrow received a telegram telling her that her husband had been dangerously wounded in the abdomen by a shell. In fact he was already dead.
The Imperial War Museum has a large collection of McKerrow's papers covering the period from August 1915 to his death in December 1916. Dr Emily Mayhew has used them to write about McKerrow in this blog post for the Surgeon's Hall Museum, and in her book 'Wounded: the long journey home from the Great War'2014.


I WAS EVER A FIGHTER
SO ONE FIGHT MORE
THE BEST AND THE LAST

LIEUTENANT COLONEL JOHN HENRY MORRIS ARDEN


Lieutenant Colonel Arden's inscription is a quotation from Robert Browning's poem 'Prospice' in which the poet expresses a bold determination not to hide from death but to meet it head on.
John Henry Morris Arden was a professional soldier who served throughout the South African War and the Sudan Campaign and retired from the army in 1912. He rejoined immediately war broke out and went to France with the Expeditionary Force. He was awarded the DSO at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, was badly wounded in July 1915 and then again on 1 July 1916. What exactly happened next is unclear.
According to Flight magazine, 15 August 1918, "After his recovery he was given a Staff appointment and was made commandant of an RFC Cadet Wing. Having been asked to undertake an important work of military organisation in the Near East, he is reported to have died at Cairo shortly after his arrival in Egypt."
The Roll of Honour for Cambridgeshire tells a slightly different story. Arden "Died 22/7/1918 at Aboukir, Egypt, aged 44, from self-inflicted wounds, while serving with No. 3 Cadet Wing RAF."
If this is true it casts a different light on his inscription, which was chosen by his brother-in-law, Edward Hilliard, Bursar of Balliol College, Oxford. In fact the inscription and the whole poem now read less like someone who was not afraid of death and more like someone who was keen to meet it.

Fear death? - to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
I am nearing the place,
The power of the night, the press of the storm,
The post of the foe;
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained.
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle's to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.
I was ever a fighter, so - one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged my eyes, and forebore,
And bade me creep past.
No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers,
The heroes of old,
Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life's arrears
Of pain, darkness and cold.
For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave,
The black minute's at end,
And the elements' rage, the fiend-voices that rave,
Shall dwindle, shall blend,
Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain,
Then a light, then thy breast,
O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
And with God be the rest!


ONE WHO NEVER
TURNED HIS BACK
BUT MARCHED BREAST FORWARD

PRIVATE LEONARD EVERARD MAYNE


Private Mayne's inscription comes from the third verse of Robert Browning's Epilogue:

One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
Never doubted clouds would break,
Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
Sleep to wake.

Leonard Everard Mayne was born in Plymouth in 1893 where his father, Henry W Mayne was a dental surgeon. He enlisted in Valcartier, Quebec on 23 September 1914, giving his occupation as a bank clerk. His mother was by this time a widow living in Bexhill on Sea.


"LOVE IS ALL
AND DEATH IS NOUGHT"
BROWNING

CAPTAIN CHRISTOPHER WILLIAM BRODRICK BIRDWOOD


This epitaph comes from the final line of Robert Browning's 'Fifine at the Fair':
'I end with "Love is all and death is naught" quoth She'.
It was chosen by Captain Birdwood's wife Helen, the mother of his two children. Christopher Birdwood was fatally wounded on 4 June 1915 in an attack on Achi Baba. He died in a Casualty Clearing Station three days later.
Birdwood was one of the five children of William Spiller Birdwood, formerly of the Indian Army, all three of whose sons died before him: George was 22 when he died in 1910 following an operation; Gordon was 19 when he was killed in action on 19 September 1914 and Christopher, 33, when he died of wounds in Gallipoli in 1915. Their sister Gladys died in 1918, which left one surviving child, Elinor.
William Spiller Birdwood's brother was Herbert Birdwood whose son, Field Marshal Sir William Birdwood, was the commander of the ANZAC forces on Gallipoli when his cousin Christopher was killed.


OH SOLDIER SAINT
WHO PUT HIS BREAST
BETWEEN THE SPEARS AND ME

PRIVATE MAXWELL GREEN


Maxwell Green's parents have adapted a passage from Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book. During his lifetime this was Browning's best selling publication, a verse poem running to 21,000 lines. The subject of the poem is a seventeenth-century Roman murder case in which a husband is accused of killing his wife and her parents because he suspects she's been having an affair. The lines from which the inscription is taken read:

The heart and its immeasurable love
Of my one friend, my only, all my own,
Who put his breast between the spears and me.
Ever with Caponsacchi! ...
The day-star stopped its task that makes night morn!
O lover of my life, O soldier saint,
No work begun shall ever pause for death!

The murdered wife is Pompilia and the man who is accused of being her lover, Caponsacchi, did indeed love and worship her but as one might love and worship the Virgin Mary. Caponsacchi is Browning's idea of heroic manhood - passionate, earnest and good hearted.
Maxwell Green was scarecely more than a school boy. He was educated at Haberdashers' Aske. The records say that he enlisted in August 1914 and further information relates that had attended the University of London and worked in insurance. As he was only 19 when he was killed I think it's more likely that he had a place at university but joined up instead and that the reference to insurance was to his father whose business if definitely was.