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Duration 30:19

Adlestrop: railways, poetry and the myths of 1914

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas is one of the nation’s favourite poems. Written in the heat of battle by an officer who was doomed not to survive the war, Adlestrop idealises the stillness of a railway station in an English country village before the First World War. In this podcast Bruno Derrick considers the literary and military career of Edward Thomas, the impact of the railways on the English countryside at the start of the 20th century and whether or not 1914 really does represent the culmination of the ‘Long Edwardian Summer’.

You can also read Bruno Derrick’s blog, Adlestrop, by Edward Thomas.


I would like today to talk about the poem itself, about the poet, and the world he is creating in 1914. Edward Thomas, who had the given name of Philip Edward Thomas, poet and writer, was born in Lambeth in London in 1878. He died in 1917 at the Battle of Arras. Although he was killed in action – and his most famous poem Adlestrop celebrates the serenity of a railway station in an English country village in the months immediately before the outbreak of war in 1914 – most of his poems do not have a military theme. Still, he is commonly regarded as a war poet.

He was the eldest of six sons of Philip Henry Thomas, staff clerk for Light railways and tramways at the Board of Trade, and his wife Mary Elizabeth Townsend. The family, as well as being fairly prosperous, was mainly Welsh in origin. Thomas describes himself as 5/8 Welsh, adding that he had some Spanish blood and some blood from Wiltshire in his veins. But Edward Thomas’ poetic and literary gifts celebrated English traditions most of all, and in particular English rural traditions.

In this talk I wish to emphasise that Adlestrop, as well as being an evocative and perhaps deceptive recollection of a world apparently lost forever by the outbreak of war, was at the same time true to the essentially romantic view of English rural life celebrated by William Morris, and enhanced by such people as Cecil Sharp, who founded the English Folk Dance and Song Society, by the calligrapher Eric Gill, and by my great-grandfather Sir George Clausen, the painter, who celebrated rural life but drew attention also to the hardship of rural living. This ‘back to the land’ movement, for want of a better term, was at its height in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

I’ll also like to consider the state of Britain and [the] British railways in 1914. The train boarded by Thomas stopped unwontedly at Adlestrop but these were perhaps the golden years for railways in Britain. Lines criss-crossed the country, making remote towns and villages less remote, and paradoxically, making villages such as Adlestrop less peaceful and less bucolic then they had been before the coming of the trains, and less rustic then they would become, when, as happened in due course, remote stations and branch lines were closed down.

Edward Thomas, it should be noted, was a greater lover of trains.

Thomas was educated at Battersea Grammar School, and at St Paul’s School and also at Lincoln College, Oxford. Oxford made a deep impression on the young poet. Reflecting perhaps on a time when women were not admitted as undergraduates at Oxford, he wrote in his book called Oxford:

‘What a thing it is to be an undergraduate of the University of Oxford! Next to being a great poet or a financier, there is nothing so absolute open to a man. For several years, he is the nursling of a great tradition in a fair city, and the memory of it above all his chief joy. His follies are hallowed, his successes exalted, by the dispensation of the place.’

An exaggerated take on things perhaps. And in fact, Thomas’ father would have preferred it had he taken up a career in finance, but Thomas was set on becoming a poet and a man of letters, at that time a precarious choice of existence without the backing of a private income, made more precarious by Thomas having unusually been married while still an undergraduate.

A lifetime of insecurity followed, of cheap lodging houses, demanding landlords and book reviewing to pay for food. With a wife and child to support, he became increasingly dependent on accommodating editors and publishers who required the services of reviewers who could produce quick copy. At one stage he was reviewing 15 books a week.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 Thomas was 36 years old and a married man with children. Therefore, there was no requirement from him to enlist, but he did, perhaps partly because enlistment promised a regular income.

Now, Edward Thomas was a prolific poet, writer and essayist. Many of his poems and much of his prose dwells on the English countryside and on the Celtic past. Much of his prose has a poetic quality:

‘The wind was now strong in my face again. But it did not rain, and at moments the sun had the power to warm. There was not a moment when I had not a lark singing overhead. On the right hand slope, which is more gradual than to the left, men were rolling some grass fields, harrowing others; lower down they were ploughing. Men were beginning to work among the hop poles on the left. The oaks in the woods there were each individualised and had a smoky look which they would not have had in summer, autumn or winter.’

That’s from In Pursuit of Spring, by Edward Thomas.

Thomas and other turn of the century writers and poets such as Hilaire Belloc had a particular fondness for the southern counties of England, which appeared to retain rustic qualities apparently lost elsewhere, but which also were conveniently close to London, so they could go and see their publishers and their editors.

In The South Country in 1906, Thomas wrote:

‘The South is tender and will harbour anyone; her quiet people resent intrusion quietly, so that many do not notice the resentment. These are the “home” counties. A man can hide away in them. The people are not hospitable, but the land is.’

Belloc was also a great fan of Sussex. Of course he was who also wrote a poem called The South Country and he comes up with images of the region:

‘The great hills of the South Country
They stand along the sea;
And it’s there walking in the high woods
That I wish to be,
And the men that were boys when I was a boy
Walking along with me.’

But by 1915, with Thomas now in uniform, the poetry was more melancholic:
[From Roads by Edward Thomas]

‘Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.’

Edward Thomas is best remembered for Adlestrop, described as nebulously, intangibly beautiful by the poet Ivor Gurney. The poem evokes many images for different people.

I agree with Matthew Hollis’ assessment in his biography of Thomas. Apart from its poetic qualities, Adlestrop evokes the lazy heat-filled atmosphere of that last summer before the war. He wrote at the start of 1915 when British losses had already been considerable, and most observers realised that the war that should have ended by Christmas was going to be a protracted war.

This poem Adlestrop was a product of the war in that he wrote it after the start of hostilities and while he was in uniform, but on home leave, and laid up having badly sprained his ankle while out walking. He was going through a particularly productive time with his pen (at the time).

Adlestrop the poem recalls a train journey between Oxford and Worcester on 24 June 1914. The date is significant, four days later Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, thus setting in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the declaration of the European War in early August. The peace that most of Europe had enjoyed since 1815 was broken.

On the night of 23-24 June, Thomas stayed with his parents at the home in Balham, South London. He rose early and headed for Paddington on a baking hot June Wednesday. He caught the 10:20 train for Malvern at Paddington which arrived at Oxford at 11:44.

Thomas recorded his experiences in his field notebook written, you may assume, on the same day:

‘Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds’ songs at 12:45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel – looking out on grey dry stones between metals and shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass – one man clears his throat – and a great, greater rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till the signal is up.’

Now, as I say earlier on, later on Britain was very well covered by railways, and all the different railway companies had lines going all over the country. And this is an example of the great Western Railway timetable for the year 1914. [Shows image]. And I may be going slightly into the realms of pedantry here…however, a glance at the Great Western Railway timetables covering June 1914 suggests that Thomas may have been guilty of a minor and forgivable poetic licence.

The use of the word unwontedly is, in my opinion, highly significant. The train was about to pass through Adlestrop on its way to Worcester when it stopped suddenly, unexpectedly and without warning at Adlestrop itself. An unwanted and unplanned pause, and as any modern day traveller knows, unexpected and prolonged stoppages on railway journeys do occur and they’re more likely to occur between stations and not at stations. But the delay in June 1914 was by no means unpleasant as the poet indicates and for Thomas, this became a sudden stop which in retrospect caught a moment or two of peace and quiet before the ‘Guns of August’, to quote the expression, heralded four years of war.

Had the train been due to stop at Adlestrop the poem would have been very different. An anticipated stop is functional; any train traveller knows that trains stop at railway stations, by the by. A stop which is unanticipated prompts the thoughts: Why have we stopped? How long will the stop last for? And it could promote or prompt poetic reverie, especially in hindsight.

But in fact the train was due to stop, or so it appears. The Great Western Railway weekday passenger timetable for June 1914 records the Paddington to Kidderminster train via Oxford as being due to leave Paddington at 10:20am, arriving at Oxford at 11:44, leaving Oxford at 11:52, arriving at Kingham at 12:40 and arriving at Adlestrop at 12:48, three minutes after the time Thomas recorded in his field notebook.

So the stop was written into the timetable itself. That’s when it should have gone at, [shows image] and there you see the timetable covering London, Oxford, Worcester and Malvern. So the stop was anticipated and it was not an unwonted stop while the signal was up. And I also gather by the by that Thomas was travelling with his wife and was not travelling alone.

But a look at the timetables: you have the distinction those days between public timetables and working timetables. They weren’t necessarily the same thing. But in this case both of them record the train on weekdays in June 1914 as leaving Paddington at 10:20, getting to Oxford at 11:44, leaving Oxford at 11:52 and then getting to Adlestrop at 12:48.

So, allow a degree of poetic licence because he was capturing something which he thought represented something after the event. So he wrote the poem in 1915 and he was perhaps reinterpreting what happened beforehand as being more significant then it may have been at the time. But anyway…be that as it may, it looks at though the train was due to stop.

Although he was not a military man by inclination, Thomas did enlist at the start of war, as I mentioned earlier on. And by 1916 he was a commissioned second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, having served as a corporal in the Artist Rifles.

In time he became fairly enthusiastic about army life and the British war effort, unlike a lot of the other war poets of the First World War who tended to view things the other way. They started off quite enthusiastic and then became disillusioned. With Thomas, it appears to be largely the other way round. His serving record is kept in The National Archives. This provides basic details about his life, his parents, his father’s occupation, his schooling [and] his home address. He is described as an author by trade, and details for his two children are provided, Bronwyn and Myfanwy, who are both described as being not baptised, whatever that signifies.

His death on 9 April 1917 is recorded as a copy of a telegram sent to Mrs Thomas of Steep, Petersfield:

‘Deeply regret to inform you Second Lieutenant PE Thomas RGA was killed in action April 9th, the Army Council express their sympathy.’

The inventory of his possessions suit the passions of a literary man: one watch of celluloid case, one compass in leather case with sling, one diary containing a 50 centime note, one advanced book, one packet of correspondence, one purse containing four small keys, one cheque book, one book of common prayer, one work of Shakespeare, one sonnet of William Shakespeare, one Mountain Interval, which was a collection of poems by Robert Frost – who was friends with Edward Thomas, and with whom he had been discussing the morality of the war, during and after enlistment, I gather – and also at the end, one Annual of New Poetry.

A medal index card kept here at The National Archives shows Thomas’ medal entitlement to the British Royal Medal and the Victory Medal, deceased 9 April 1917. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, with a degree of licence as well I think, describes him as one of the war poets. Edward Thomas was killed in action at the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday 9 April 1917. The accounts of his death vary. However, it seems that he survived the battle itself, but died as a consequence of the concussive blast wave of one of the last enemy shells of the battle. He died as he stood up to light his pipe.

The telegraph boy waited to see if Mrs Thomas wanted to make a response. After a long pause, Mrs Thomas said, ‘No answer.’ But her husband’s death initiated a terrible depression which lasted many years, and a grief shared by many of his friends and fellow poets.

Killed in Action
(Edward Thomas)
By WH Davis

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature’s green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of others less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War with all its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, and many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.’

So was there indeed, as the poem seems to suggest, a golden period before the outbreak of the First World War?

After 1914, blackbirds continued to sing, country ramblers continued to enjoy willows and willowherb and grass and meadowsweet and hay crops dry. Throat clearing did not stop, but Thomas asks us to consider the particular poignancy of these images in the summer before the outbreak of war. A fragile thing, an epoch, was coming to an end. The world he was evoking was not really the raucous world of the Edwardian musical, but more a gentle and considered take on things. This poem I believe, rather suggests that blackbirds would never sing in quite the same way ever again.

But even allowing for poetic imagery, does the pre-1914 world really deserve to be treated in this way, if one can use such terminology? With or without the benefit of hindsight, was there really a long Edwardian summer? What was life like on the ground for the average citizen who was not a poet?

In 1911, the population of Britain including Ireland stood at some 45 million people, and on the outbreak of war in 1914, it was estimated to stand at some 46 million people.

Living conditions in Britain 1914 could be fairly good for people in certain parts of the country if they were in employment and if they perhaps lived in one of the new suburbs such as Hampstead Garden Suburb. With money, the better-off could travel more, join tennis clubs and operatic societies, and some of them had the time, leisure and facilities to take up causes.

The golden image conjured up of the pre-1914 world has some validity, even if this image was created with hindsight. Along with the growth of suburbia and longer life expectancies and other indicators of improved living standards, one should consider the reaching tentacles of the British Empire. The years 1901 to 1914, especially after the conclusion of the Boer War, marked the high watermark of Pax Britannica, although cracks were beginning to appear.

In later years, the summer of 1911 came to be remembered as a particularly golden summer, and not just because the weather was very hot. Juliet Nicolson in The Perfect Summer: Dancing into Shadow in 1911, speaks of the season from May to September 1911 as one of the huge sunlit meadows of English history. She adds, ‘It was a time when England – rich, happy, self-indulgent and at least slightly decadent – felt most contentedly itself.’

But most people did not set their diaries by the requirements of the season, and even the introduction of old age pensions in 1909 did not remove the fact that for many life was harsh, with many of the poor and unemployed living in neglected, disease-ridden slums with the threat of the workhouse hanging over them.

The Reverend Hewlett Johnson, later to become famous, or infamous, as the Red Dean of Canterbury, an apologist for Stalin, had a cure at Altrincham, then a fairly prosperous suburb of Manchester. But even Altrincham, Johnson noted, and this was in 1914. I have a quote here:

‘In each of the houses in Burgess Square last summer, a baby died and the doctor in attendance informed me that the death of the baby in the small house was caused by its food becoming contaminated by the flies from the two privies and manure heap near the house. I should particularly like to emphasise the indecency of Chapel Street in the matter of closets, and the Albert Street schools, the nuisance from the manure heap and the swarm of flies which this brings into the school. The manure heap is only some 15 feet or 18 feet from the cloakroom. The smell is very bad. The sanitary inspector’s attention has been called to the offensive smell on some occasions, but nothing has been done.’

So, living conditions can be very harsh for children and for older people as well.

But in addition to poor living standards Britain was plagued by industrial disputes in the years before 1914 – the long running strikes in the railways and in Britain’s docks in 1911. In 1914, hard-pressed tenants in Leeds organised a rent strike. There was a further strike of dock workers in London 1912, following on from the strike of 1911. The strikes started in May and were centred around the issues of pay conditions and the victimisation of trade unionists. Still reading on from early clashes with the Union, the port employers refused to concede to any of the dockers’ demands and the strikers were eventually defeated in late July.

There was in the years before 1914 an expanding trade union movement and more MPs were taking up seats as in parliament on behalf of the Labour Party led by Mr Kier Hardy. The Labour Party was a constitutional party advocating change by a democratic means and more Labour MPs were being elected to parliament.

But there was a threat, or a perceived threat, posed by foreign born anarchists who sometimes mixed political rhetoric with straightforward criminality. This culminated in the the siege of the City Street in 1911, when the demise of an anarchist gang who attempted to rob a jeweller’s shop in the East End of London and who had shot a number of policemen was witnessed by the home secretary Winston Churchill, who ordered in the Scots Guards. This incident served to heighten fears about the numbers of immigrants coming to Britain chiefly from Eastern Europe. In 1914 of course the war started. But before 1914, war was widely predicted. But the prediction was for civil war in Britain over the Irish question or rather civil war in Ireland spreading to mainland Britain.

The Home Rule Bill passed in 1914 anticipated a Home Rule parliament or a self-governing parliament for the whole of Ireland. Since the 1880s, unionists and Protestant interests in Ireland, but chiefly centred on North East of Ireland, had vowed to oppose any form of Home Rule for any part of Ireland. Their leader was Sir Edward Carson, and their motto was ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’.

The Ulster Covenant signed in 1912 by Carson and by thousands of others vowed to oppose Home Rule in its entirety and this it may be argued exacerbated tensions in the rest of Ireland, where some Home Rulers now started to advocate for independence, an Irish Republic.

Guns were smuggled in to Ulster so that loyalists could be armed and ready if the Home Rule Bill ever got off the statue books, and guns were smuggled into the rest of Ireland to meet this threat and increasingly a militantly republican agenda. The Curragh Incident in 1914, when British officers stationed at the Curragh Camp in Ireland threatened to resign their commissions if they were ordered to implement Home Rule in the north of Ireland, highlighted the problems the whole of the United Kingdom would face if things got out of hand in Ireland.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called Ulster in 1912 which became a rallying call for the Irish Unionist although it was also widely derided as doggerel.

Ulster, by Rudyard Kipling

‘We know the war prepared
On every peaceful home,
We know the hells declared
For such as serve not Rome –
The terror, threats, and dread
In market, hearth, and field –
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.

Believe, we dare not boast,
Believe, we do not fear —
We stand to pay the cost
In all that men hold dear.
What answer from the North?
One Law, one Land, one Throne.
If England drive us forth
We shall not fall alone!’

The other big issue of the pre-war period of course was the suffragette movement, or the campaign to obtain votes for women, which was perhaps, not at its peak in 1914. But the Edwardian period had been marked by campaigns of civil disobedience, marches, petitions, and occasional acts of violence. There are no fatalities save for Emily Wilding Davison, crushed underneath a King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. And even Miss Davison may not have intended her demise; she had brought a return train ticket, after all.

On the theme of trains and suffragettes, the Home Secretary Winston Churchill was attacked by an angry suffragette at Temple Mead station in Bristol in 1909, who shouted ‘Take that in the name of the insulted women of England.’ Of course, Churchill had opposed votes for women. She got six months in prison for doing that.

Campaigners were routinely arrested and force fed. When they elected to go on hunger strike, Herbert Asquith’s government passed the Cat and Mouse Act, which had allowed for the release of prisoners dangerously ill on account of going on hunger strike, but also allowed capriciously for their re-arrest once they’d had a square meal and a few days in bed. Emily Wilding Davison who actually on the 1911 census is described as being of independent means, so as I said earlier on if you had money you could take up various causes and that possibly explains why often the better off were involved in movements like the votes for women, at the top end anyway.

The doctor reports in hospital, ‘I fed this prisoner as usual by the nasal oesophageal tube this morning. This afternoon she professed willingly to take food and she has in fact has consumed a very substantial tea. In conversation she admitted freely that her refusal of food was not due to any want of appetite but was intended as a protest against the denial of writing facilities. The prisoner has been transferred to the convicted hospital and I anticipate that in a very short time she will be fit to be sent into the prison.’

But she got out of prison very soon, and about a year later threw herself under the King’s horse. Not that this necessarily engendered much sympathy. The Daily Chronicle for 6 June 1913: ‘The Derby outrage – injured jockey’s story: police and suffragette’. So, the emphasis was on the jockey, who was presumably slightly injured and not on Miss Davison who actually had was dying at the time, but hadn’t died when they wrote the story:

‘Miss Emily Davison, the suffragette, who was badly injured in the mad attempt to stop the King’s horse Anmer as it rounded Tattenham Corner in the Derby, was still unconscious late last night.’

The suffragette movement, like the Irish question, dominated pre-1914 British politics, and like the Irish question the matter was prorogued, or seemingly so, by the outbreak of war in 1914. Emily Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, is one of the great figures of the Edwardian age.

Going on to the arms race between Britain and Germany, in 1914 Britain remained the world’s preeminent naval power, but industrially and economically she was being outstripped by both the United States and Germany. British industry was changing to meet the requirements of the new age, a burgeoning motor car industry for example.

But the failures of Captain Scott and the disastrous maiden voyage of the Titanic, both events happened in 1912, could be seen, I’ll argue, as in part representing respectively a reluctance to adapt to changed circumstances. Amundsen used dogs, and then more dogs, and got to the pole first. And Scott over relied, it could be argued, on untested motorised equipment. And there was perhaps an overconfidence in British technical expertise that we saw in the sinking of the Titanic.

But the navy, the Senior Service, reigned supreme in this country. And Germany, most notably the German Kaiser, observed the strengths of the Royal Navy and sought to emulate it or outstrip it, as Germany sought to equal Britain as a colonial power in Africa and elsewhere. A naval arms race ensued, adding to the tensions between the two countries, even while relations were still officially good. The Kaiser was, for example, well received when he visited London for the unveiling of the Queen Victoria statue outside Buckingham Palace in 1911. The Royal Navy placed their confidence in the Dreadnought class of battleships, famous for their all-big-gun armament scheme and steam turbine compulsion.

Admiral Lord Fisher presided over British naval preparation for war which was in the event primarily fought on land and not at sea. The public cry, egged on by the popular press was ‘We want eight and we won’t wait!’, or eight dreadnoughts to counter the threats posed by the German service fleet.

So I’ve brought together Edward Thomas’ view of the world in 1914, or rather his view of the world in 1915 looking back on the world immediately before the outbreak of war, and also considered what actually was going on in the world at that time. Of course many things were going on in the world at that time. A man like Edward Thomas would have been fully aware of the news events at the time of what was going on in the world. Edward Thomas was fully aware of what was going in the world, as all the other poets and writers were. So the decision to concentrate on aspects of peasant tradition or folk wisdom or whatever it was, the perceived romanticisation of the British past was in fact that conscious decision to, I would say, to react against what was going on around them, they could see that certain issues were at stake, and that many things were happening in the outside world.

So was the Edwardian era, to use a clichéd and exaggerated image, one long golden summer of gilded young men and women shading themselves under expensive parasols while they recited poetry or celebrated their rediscovery of folklore and peasant wisdom? Was it, as Edward Thomas seemed to remember it, the calm before the storm, when blackbirds sang oblivious to the forthcoming carnage? Or was it a time of strikes and disputes and poverty and poor sanitation and suffragettes and agonising over affairs of Ireland, while at the same time Britain and Germany rearmed and prepared for war?

I believe it was all of these things and none of these things. An epoch or an era only becomes an epoch or an era with hindsight. Most people just get on with their everyday lives.

The word inevitable should be avoided, but all the same, I do not believe that the outbreak of war in 1914 was inevitable. Certain events came together at the right time or if you like, at the wrong time. Certainly, Britain did not enjoy much domestic tranquillity before autumn 1914 if one considers the events dominating the news. And significant and perhaps unpalatable events do not become more palatable when they are overshadowed by something much larger.

Edward Thomas’ marvellous poem is one man’s nostalgic recollection of a world at peace about to become a world at war, as such, it helped to create the myth of the long Edwardian summer, and the perpetuation of the myth has helped to obscure those very events which in part helped to undermine the fragile peace of the world known by our Edwardian forebears.

Transcribed by Monica Fong, as part of a volunteer project, May 2015