Desert Poets of the 51st Highland Division

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On the 75th anniversary of the death of John Jarmain, let us celebrate the immortal voices of two of our most cerebally gritty War Poets


O send me great opponents! Day by day
The precious hours like vacant windows passed,
The petty vision & the soft delay.
These bring defeat & rust the sword we bear,
Diminish each bright purpose, till at last
All’s wasted, & the heart’s too dull to care.
John Jarmain

On the 26th of this month it shall be seventy-five years exactly since the death of Major John Jarmain, killed-in-action in Normandy during the Allied reconquista of France. The major was a poet, & his death took place at Ste Honorine in Chardonnerette, a commune celebrated before the war as the most beautiful in the Calvados. His second-in-command at the time, John Paul Kaestlin, described the shared loss of one of English poetry’s succinctly sublime stars, at the tender age of 33.

I was awakened at 5 in the morning by his batman in a state of obvious agitation. The major had been hurt; he thought seriously. They had left together at 4 o’clock in his jeep. All was perfectly quiet as they drove over the crest & down the long incline to Honorine; but, as luck would have it, on arrival at the village they found the tanks still moving out into position. The noise had attracted the Hun & a mortar concentration had come over as they reached & were held up at the cross-roads. Jarmain, walking, had dived for a slit-trench by the roadside. He never got there. I got down to Honorine as fast as I could make it. By now, however, it was fully light, & I had to walk most of the way. When I got there he had been dead for some time, & there had evidently been no hope. A piece of shrapnel had entered the base of the skull & he had died, while being evacuated, without regaining consciousness.

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Jarmain was buried in the 6th Airborne Cemetery at Ranville. He has been remembered since as a leader, a hero & also a poet of the purest calibre. He left the world a desperately slender collection, among which stand poems that should rank alongside those of Owen & Sassoon among those memorials from the front-line that present an unmisted eyeglass into what it was like to actually fight in those terrible two World Wars of the early 20th Century. For the Great War Poets, especially after 1917, war poetry was all about recording the awful bloodshed & senseless loss of life; when death flew over a battlefield in a thousand & one ways to ravage & maim- the sonic boom of a shrapnel shell was one, turning insides to jelly just before they are pierced by hundred slices of jagged iron hurtling through them at 7000 miles an hour. Asphyxiation is another, gripped by the throat by the fierce hands of an enemy soldier whose bullets had all been spent, & whose bayonet had snapped. By Jarmain’s poetry, the blood and guts had been replaced by a pathos even more effective at touching the reader’s spirit.

Men prove their purpose, in the dangerous hour,
Their brief excelling brilliance is disclosed:
When threatened most the soul puts forth its flower
John Jarmain

Jarmain’s poetry flourished in the North African desert, distilling his experiences in the gaps between battle to the light of a doover’s candle. These magical lines were then sent back to England in numbered airmail letters to his wife. He served in the Eighth Army, with the 51st Highland Division, in whose ranks was a Scottish intelligence officer called Hamish Henderson. Jarmain would have attended Henderson’s lectures & briefings, but what they talked about together is unknown to us. We possess no Edward Trelawney here, jotting down the conversations of Byron & Shelley in Pisa, but what we do know is that Jarmain & Henderson are two supremely talented poets, whose works concerning the Desert War are priceless gems in the treasury of English poetry.

In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions
Professor Tim Kendall

John Jarmain

Poetically, one can really feel the Italian influence in the anima of Jarmain – he had visited the country many times & spoke near fluent Italian. He also produced one novel in his brief lifetime, Priddy Barrows, published by Collins in the year of his death. If novels are an oblique window into an author’s mind, then the following passage could tell us all we need to know about Jarmain’s personality.

I don’t think he could explain himself, in fact I’m sure he couldn’t. I don’t believe he knows himself why he does as he does. But I’m perfectly sure that once he’s said he’ll do a thing he’ll do it, & no one on earth will stop him. He’s queer.

The best way to appreciate Jarmain is through James Crowden’s 2012 book, Flowers in the Minefields, which places a delicious biograph alongside the poems, with the whole being perfectly embellished by photographs, commentaries & contemporaneous biographical material. The overall experience of the book is like finding the body of a dead soldier blown apart by a land-mine, & putting the pieces back together in the most human – well Frankenstinian – way possible.

Among Jarmain’s poetical offerings, twelve poems in particular stand out as a momentous record of the soldier’s experience. Henderson is different, he survived the war & lived a long life, but it is in his war poetry that his best writings lie. There are two streams flowing from Henderson’s craft; his ballads were on the lips of every soldiers’ singing, especially one composed for the Christmas celebrations in Cairo, 1942, a skit on the ruling house of Egypt & the corrupt British colonial administration that supported it. Sung to the national anthem of Egypt, the Allied soldiers picked it up with fervent enthusiasm, & despite the phraseology appearing wildly ridiculous (&unprintable) to we 21st centuryites, it retains for erudite posterity the vernacular of the time, of how the soldiers communicated with words. Another ballad was the indignantly brilliant ‘Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers,’ composed in response to a condescending remark by Lady Astor about troops on the Mediterranean front. In an insane speech, she had suggested that those soldiers who were bogged down by the mountain fighting in Italy were in some way avoiding the invasion of Normandy.

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy –
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome – among the yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy…

Naple and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there – we went there for the ride.
Anzio and Sango were just names
We only went there to look for dames –
The artful D Day-Dodgers, way out in Italy

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Henderson’s ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica,’ begun fragmentedly in Autumn 1942 & published in 1947, was his tribute to the war in North Africa. Composed in gluts within such recollective moments as when pole-axed by dysentery, the Eelgies are full of compassion for the victimisation of ordinary soldiers, constantly bubbling with an unvisceral, yet emotional truth. When the Elegies are lain beside Jarmain’s poetry, the comblended whole forms a concise reflection of what it was truly like to fight in the desert, a colourful diaspora of experiences to colour in the gaps on those grainy black & white cinereels from the 1940s. By cherry-picking the best of these – sometimes in passages, sometimes whole poems – & laying them by Jarmain’s sublime dozen, we may create the most valuable of poetical testaments to war, composed by the last of those to experience men murdering men on an industrial scale.

I’ve walked this brazen clanging path
In flesh’s brittle arrogance
To chance the simple hazard, death,
Regretting only this, my rash
Ambitious wish in verse to write
A true & valued testament.
Hamish Henderson

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Among Henderson’s Elegies, his 7th, Seven Good Germans discusses the backgrounds of enemy soldiers, those ‘seven poor bastards,‘ buried in the desert. The title bounces with deepest irony off the shadowy barrack-proverb, ‘the only good German is a dead one,‘ & Henderson yanks the humanity out of the indifferences of slaughter with such awesome poetry as;

The third had been a farm-hand in the March of Silesia
& had come to the desert as fresh fodder for machine guns
His dates are inscribed on the files, & on the cross-piece

Henderson had found it hard to get this particular poem published in the stuffy literary environs of the ‘Cairo Cage’ & the Salamander Oasis magazine. ‘My Elegy for the German Dead,’ he wrote in a letter to John Spiers, Spring 1943, ‘has been turned down by the Cairo censor – so I hear – from the editors of Orientations, because such morbid writings have a depressing effect on troops! What a laugh. However, it may be more expedient in every way to publish it after the war.’ That Henderson was kept out of the magazines shows how much his work really matters – for the truth suppressed is the greatest truth of all. Of his refusal to bend to the literary conventions of the day, Henderson scribbled a cutting paragraph is his personal copy of Orientations for May 1942.

When I gave them poetry that was neither Audenry nor Spenderish but coarse, sensual, numinous & song-like, acknowledging as influences Lorca, Heine, Clare, Dunbar & Burns & drawing much vigour from my association with Scots & Irish working class people, they squealed & scooted

Middle: General Sir Benard Montgomery – ‘Monty’

Towards the end of the summer of 1942, General Bernard Montgomery arrived in North Africa to take command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox,’ had been running rampant all over the desert, but would be finally stopped in late October by the British & Commonwealth troops in a furious, world-hinging battle named after an obscure train station 40 miles from Cairo – El Alamein. The 51st Highland Division fought in the battle, & it is in the terrifying white heat of its slaughter that the English poet Jarmain & the Scottish makar Henderson became, one would say, true poets of war.

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
Hamish Henderson

Jarmain was certainly ready to compose war poetry, for he had gone to school in Shrewsbury  Owenlike Wilfred twenty years before him. A deep part of Jarmain’s spirit was aware of both his ability & sensibility to match that genius-bard of the Great War. Time, it seemed, had randomly chosen the period of his poetry’s burgeoning in which to enact a new great slaughter. Time had called him to be a witness poet, whose moral responsibility to speak for the dead would transpose into words, with articulate beauty, the brutality & discordance of war. He – & Hamish Henderson of course – now had a dual duty; to fight for the country & to sing for its dead!

I have read the poems with real interest & mounting admiration
Professor Jon Stallworthy

“If I must die, forget these hands of mine / That touched your body into tiny flames,” were two staggeringly authentic lines composed by Jarmain to his second wife, Beryl, in early 1939. In them we have this poet’s encapsulation – he would wear the tradition (Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’) of the art, while carving his own beauties in the rock.

Let us now look focus on one moment in the historiography of the two poets; at certain poems, passages of poems & the odd bit of prose which tell a small sliver of the story of that famous battle at Alamein, fought in furnace heat, which prevented the Nazi flag being draped over the pyramids.


INTERLUDE

Opening of an Offensive

(a) the waiting

Armour has foregathered, snuffling
through tourbillions of fine dust.
The crews don’t speak much. They’ve had
last brew-up before battle. The tawny
deadland lies in silence
not yet smashed by salvoes.
No sound reaches us
from the African constellations.
The low ridge is too quiet.
But no fear we’re sleeping,
no need to remind us
that the nervous fingers of the searchlights
are nearly meeting & time is flickering
& this I think in a few minutes
while the whole power crouches for the spring.
X-20 in thirty seconds. Then begin

(b) the barrage

Henderson describes the intense bombardment of the German lines which marked the opening of the battle, an epic moment in which minute details would embed themselves into his receptive psyche. For Henderson, the sight of two searchlights crossing in the skies at the start of the battle evoked the saltire of Saint Andrew, & gave the 51st an almost hallowed role in the battle. Henderson would actually be wounded, leaping into a slit trench to avoid a stuka attack, a momentary dashing which damaged ligaments & vertebrae to plague him through the rest of his life. Another Scottish poet was also wounded at Alamein, Sorley Maclean, blown 30 feet through the air by a landmine going off in his vicinity. He was wounded in the leg and broke several bones in his feet, but would survive to become one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century poets.

Whatever his desire of mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.
Sorley MacLean

A bombadier during the battle, F.E. Hughes, submitted the following piece to a title called ‘Poems from the Desert,’ a World War II anthology of Eighth Army poems of which Monty introduced as compsed, ‘at the very time that the Desert Army was wholly engaged in hitting Rommel & all his forces “Right out of Africa for Six.”

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There’s a Devil in the dawn –
Horrific spawn of last night’s hideous moon,
That hung above the gun’s inferno
And smiled on men who died too soon.

There’s a Devil in the dawn –
See him fawn on those who served him well,
Who, blinded, deafened, breathed the cordite reek,
Fed the ravening guns, and swore that it was hell.

The Devil will demand his pay
In blood to-day; but those who pass in sunlight will
not see the Moon
Serenely light a desert hell for men who live
And smile on those who die too soon.

The next brief masterpiece of a poem, ‘At a War Grave,’ was composed by Jarmain towards the very end of the battle, after visiting the grave of his good friend Ebenezer Ell, slain by an 88 shell.

No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.

An even greater friend of Ebenezer Lee was Harry Garrett, a sergeant in the 51st Highland Division, who experienced the horror of seeing Ebenezer blown to bits beside during the battle. This near-miss was one of many which earned him the nickname, ‘Lucky Harry,’ among whose charming, grounded verses we may read;

I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.

I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But – God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.

Help me, O God, when Death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall – if fall I must –
My soul may triumph in the Dust.

Harry Garrett

From the general wastings of life through war, the emotional explosions of Jarmain & Henderson have flown from the desert into eternity. Among them stands Jarmain’s rightfully widely-anthologized poem, El Alamein. It was composed 5 months after the events described, during a different battle, the mauling at Mareth in Tunisia. In an essay contained in Crowden’s book, by a battery captian called Joe Dean, we can see the poem being composed;

I remember an evening during the battle of Mareth when by the light of his parrafin lamp he was struggling with a poem on the battle of Alamein

One expects that the shock of Alamein had subsided, leaving fresh memories encrusting in his creative storehouses. It would only take the sounds of battle to shake them from their beds.


El Alamein

There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.

So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.

It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.

But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.

So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.


I shall leave this essay with one final poem, which blew anonymously into a slit trench at El Afhelia during a heavy bombardment. It was only a couple of weeks after El Alamein, the Desert Fox & his Afrika Korps were still visciously snarling like a freshly wounded lion. It appeared as the closing piece in the ‘Poems from the Desert’ anthology.

A Soldier—His Prayer

Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
The night is cold: my little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long;
Be with me God, and make me strong.

I love a game; I love a fight.
I hate the dark; I love the light.
I love my child; I love my wife.
I am no coward. I love Life,

Life with its change of mood and shade.
I want to live. I’m not afraid,
But me and mine are hard to part;
Oh, unknown God, lift up my heart.

You stilled the waters at Dunkirk
And saved Your servants. All Your work
Is wonderful, dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.

We were alone, and hope had fled;
We loved our country and our dead.
And could not shame them; so we stayed
The course and were not much afraid.

Dear God that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there—we were men.
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn.

I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.

I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But—God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.

Help me, O God, when Death is near
to mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall—if fall I must—
My soul may triumph in the Dust.

John Jarmaine & Hamish Henderson are two blooms of the same plant, a sweet-smelling desert asphodel whose wafting fragrance touches the souls of all who near it. Away from the sands, Henderson lived a long & fruitful life, reinigorating the Scottish folk music tradition & embellishing his nation’s striving for independence with his poetical insight. Jarmaine was not so lucky, but it in his posthomous life that still speaks to us all. In 2013, a cache of 150 letters written by Jarmain to Beryl hwas discovered in a family bureau. In them we see the originals of his poems, & also his voice as a man, who described his situation in the desert as being one with, “everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all?” These letters can only serve to give the future a much wider insight to the one that we have to hand. James Crowden’s book is an excellent start, but I am sure as the decades & centuries flow by, that every word written by Jarmain’s hand will take on some form of quasi-religious status as we look back on one of the last true poets of the ‘archaic’ human dispensity for mass, murderous warfare.


BUY THE BOOKS

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Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
Hamish Henderson

Flowers in the Minefields
James Crowden

 

 

 

 

 

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