John Masefield was the Poet Laureate from 1930 until his death in 1967 and yet at the start of the First World War he was already an established and well respected poet and writer.
Early in the Summer of 1914, Masefield, his wife Constance and their two children had been enjoying London life in Hampstead but decided to move their country retreat from Great Hampden in Buckinghamshire to Lollingdon Farm in Berkshire. Maybe Masefield was seeking a unique ‘writers retreat’ to inspire and focus his mind? Surrounded by the sheer beauty and romance of the countryside, it captured all of their hearts. 'Lollingdon' was very well connected to London via the Great Western Railway link from Cholsey to Paddington and the Masefields had good friends (Robert and Ethel Moon) who lived close by in the parish of Aston Tirrold. Lollingdon Farm and its substantial acreage was owned by The Cross family from Aston Tirrold at this time who rented it out to tennants.
Lollingdon Farm 2014.
“In the first week of July, 1914, I was in an old house in Berkshire, a house built eight centuries ago before by the monks as a place of rest and contemplation and beauty. I had never seen England so beautiful as then, and a little company of lovely friends was there. Rupert Brooke was one of them, and we read poems in that old haunt of beauty, and wandered on the Downs. I remember saying that the Austro-Serbian business might cause a European War, in which we might be involved, but the others did not think this likely; they laughed.”
Masefield wrote his only war poem August 1914 from Lollingdon Farm (he wrote other sonnets during the war years). It was first published in September 1914 in The English Review. It’s a powerful, long and moving poem that connects seamlessly between the beauty of life in the Berkshire landscape and the sadness and tragedy of life in the trenches.
Jan (as he was known to his wife) was keen to ‘do his bit’ for the war He was an anxious man who became more despairing as the war progressed and was initially, medically rejected from the army but was accepted for the Reserves in the RAMC by December 1914. Around February 1915 he was assigned to go out to France with the Red Cross for six weeks as an orderly. It was here that he was confronted with the brutality and destruction of the war.
John Masefields name (bottom right) on First World War Muster Roll in St Michaels Church, Aston Tirrold.
On his return to Lollingdon, Masefield, having witnessed the poor conditions in the French hospitals, campaigned hard to develop a sort of ’travelling field hospital’ which could move close to the front line and help soldiers get treated more quickly. He wrote to many of his friends and acquaintances for support and for funds but underestimated the French bureaucracy. Eventually, he was summonsed to tour the French hospitals to research what was needed. His two week trip confirmed what he had thought, that the French authorities would not accept additional foreign units.
A determined man, he was asked to divert his attentions to Gallipoli. He used his funds (£3000) for organising a motorboat/ambulance service and this was the start of his famous Dardanelles (Turkey) campaign.
On the strength of his book Gallipoli (published in 1916) and as a result of his lectures in America (which ignited much speculation that he was being used as an instrument of propaganda), Sir Douglas Haig asked Masefield to ‘chronicle the Somme’. Masefield was sent to France in February 1917 to visit the battlefields and become familiar with the geography of the land. The Somme Chronicle eventually appeared as two volumes: The Old Front Line and The Battle of the Somme. It is from these writings that he drew on direct links between the landscapes of Northen France and the Berkshire Downland.
“It is said, that these remblais or lynchets, which may be seen in English chalk countries, as in the Dunstable Downs, in the Chiltern Hills, and in many parts of Berkshire and Wiltshire, are made in each instance, in a short time, by the plowing away from the top and bottom of any difficult slope. ”
The similarity of both landscapes.
If you study the photos above you can see how similar the chalk downland is. The flora, fauna, sounds and smells would have brought a sense of comfort and familiarity to anyone involved in the conflict of The Somme Battles.
Lollingdon continued to inspire him and he wrote his series of many sonnets and poems titled Lollingdon Downs in 1917
It was around the time that Masefield went to France (Spring 1917) that he decided to move his family away from Lollingdon Farm, a move they deeply regretted but one that came from practical necessity. His wife Constance was finding the remoteness of Lollindgon a little lonely and the house was damp with a leaking roof which was playing havoc with their son Lewis’ health.
They moved to Boars Hill near Oxford where they could still see, and visit, the Berkshire Downs. The Old Front Line was published in December 1917 which promoted more tours of America at the beginning of 1918. He was awarded honorary doctorates by both Yale and Harvard and gained much academic recognition for his public speaking. On Armistice Day he was back in London and wrote to his wife.
“...we have peace, thank God, and may know no more war as long as we live... ”