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Remembering Renowned War Poet and Serviceman Rupert Brooke

Everyone knows that sailors go to sea. It’s what the Royal Navy does. Some sail on the waves, some go under the water in submarines, some fly over the water in the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines go by sea to deploy on land where they are most needed. 

In 1914, the Royal Navy was not short of regular servicemen or volunteers to join up for the First World War. However, the Army needed extra battalions to fight in Belgium. 

The Royal Naval Division was formed from Royal Navy and Royal Marine reservists and volunteers. They were an infantry division who fought in Belgium and then in the Dardanelles. The Prime Minister’s own son, Arthur Asquith, served in the Royal Naval Division. However, the RND officer whose name will be most familiar is that of Rupert Brooke, known now as a War Poet, but at the outbreak of war already a renowned poet.

War poet Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke was born on 3 August 1887. After leaving Cambridge University, where he became friends with many of those in the 'Bloomsbury Group', Brooke studied in Germany and travelled in Italy.

In 1909 he moved to the village of Grantchester, near Cambridge, which he celebrated in his poem, 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' (1912). His first collection of poems was published in 1911.

In 1913 Brooke was appointed a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, his old college. At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered for service and was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division. 

With Anson Battalion he took part in the disastrous Antwerp expedition in October 1914. Afterwards, he wrote a series of poems called “1914”, the most well-known of which is “The Soldier”. 

Rupert Brooke in uniform

Around Remembrance Day, many people quote lines from this poem:
If I should die, think only this of me: that there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.  

The poem was published in May 1915, by which time Brooke was himself lying in a corner of a foreign field.

In February 1915, he set sail for the Dardanelles with the RND’s Hood Battalion. On board ship he developed septicaemia from a mosquito bite. He died on 23 April 1915 on a hospital ship off the Greek island of Skyros and was buried in an olive grove on the island. 

Rupert Brooke caught the optimism of the opening months of the war with his wartime poems, published after his death, which expressed an idealism about war that contrasts strongly with poetry published later in the conflict.

The composer William Denis Browne, Brooke friend and fellow RND officer wrote:
I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.

A sad footnote is that Denis Browne himself fought in the Dardanelles and was wounded in May 1915. Although not fully fit, he rejoined his unit and on 4th June 1915 he took part in an attack on the Turkish trenches in the Third Battle of Krithia. He was wounded in the shoulder and the stomach. It was not possible to evacuate him for medical treatment, so he died there and his body was never recovered.  He lies in another corner of a foreign field that is forever England.

The service record cards of members of the Royal Naval Division and the Hood Battalion flag are held in the archive of the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

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