Thursday, 13 February 2020

Sarojini Naidu (1879 – 1949) – Indian poet known as “The Nightingale of India”

Sarojini featured in the very first exhibition of Female Poets of the First World War held i n November 2012 at The Wilfred Owen Story Museum, Wirral, UK

Sarojini Chattopadhyay was born in Hyderabad on 13th February 1879.  She was the eldest of a large family and learnt English when she was small.  When Sarojini was twelve years old, she passed the Matriculation Examination for Madras University.

Sarojini wanted to Marry Dr. Govindurajulu Naidu, who though from a well-established and esteemed family, was not from the same Caste as Sarojini’s family.  In the hopes that she would forget about him, her family send Sarojini to England to continue her studies.

In 1895 Sarojini went to study at King’s College, London and later to Girton College, Cambridge.  She stayed in England for three years, except for a brief trip to Italy.  During her stay, she met the Gosse family (Edmund Gosse was a poet), the poet and critic Arthur Symons (who persuaded her to publish her poems) and Siegfried Sassoon.

In “The Weald of Youth”, Siegfried Sassoon described meeting Sarojini “a charming Indian poetess” at a party given during the early part of the 20th Century by the poet Edmund Gosse at his London home in Hannover Terrace.  The Gosse family and the Sassoon family were close friends.

“The Weald of Youth” by Siegfried Sassoon, published by Faber & Faber, London, in 1942 (p. 177).

In December 1898, Sarojini c aused scandal when she married Dr. Naidu, thus breaking through the bonds of the Caste system.  In 1916, she met Mahatma Ghandi and from then on devoted herself to the cause of independence.  She was also a feminist and travelled from State to State urging women to leave the kitchen and campaign for women’s rights.  In 1928, Sarojini travelled to the United States of America.

After Independence was granted in 1947, Sarojini became Governor of Uttar Pradesh.  She was the first woman to become President of the Indian National Congress.

Sarojini died on 2nd March 1949.

India was emerging as a modern nation when in 1914, they answered the call Britain put out to her Empire.  Military and financial aid was sent to help the cause.

Indian soldiers fought in the First Battle of Ypres on the Western Front and Indian soldiers fought in most of the other theatres of war - Gallipoli, North Africa and East Africa.

According to "The Times" newspaper at the time, "The Indian Empire has overwhelmed the British nation by the completeness and unanimity of its enthusiastic aid."

Indian Cavalry of the Deccan Horse - Battle of Bazentin Ridge,
14th July 1916

 “The Gift of India”

Is there aught you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom.

Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.

Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro' my heart's despair,
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of Victory?

When the terror and tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones
Remember the blood of thy martyred sons!

Sarojini Naidu, August 1915

From Sarojini Naidu’s WW1 collection “The Broken Wing Songs of Love, Death and Destiny 1915-1916” with an introduction by Edmund Gosse (William Heinemann, London, 1917) which is available as a download on Archive

With thanks to Phil Dawes for telling me about this poem.

The 1947 Indian Independence Act partitioned British India into the two new independent dominions of India and Pakistan. It received royal assent on 18th July 1947.

Map of the British Empire in the 1920s

Indian Cavalry of the Deccan Horse - Battle of Bazentin Ridge 14th July 1916 - WW1 Buffs

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Lucy Whitmell (1869 - 1917) – British poet

With thanks to Kate, one of the founder members of the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery with an interest in the Victorian history of Leeds, who reminded me that I had not yet researched Lucy Whitmell.  Kate also supplied the photographs of Lucy’s grave.

Lucy Foster was born in Hardingham, Norfolk in 1869. Her parents were Sir William Foster, Bart., a Justice of the Peace and Magistrate, and his wife Harriet, nee Wills.  Lucy was baptised on 27th April 1869.

On 26th May 1903, Lucy married Charles Thomas Whitmell (10 July 1849 – 10 December 1919) an English astronomer, mathematician and educationalist.  The couple met during a British Astronomical Association (BAA) expedition to Navalmoral in Spain to observe the total solar eclipse of 28 May 1900.  Lucy’s father, Sir William Foster, Bart.,  was also a member of the expedition.

Lucy shared not only her husband’s interest in astronomy but also his love of poetry. During the First World War, Lucy Whitmell became famous when her poem “Christ in Flanders” was published in “The Spectator” magazine on 11th September 1915. The poem was very popular witht the troops and went on to be published in thirteen WW1 anthologies.

Lucy, who was a former President of Leeds Astronomical Society, died after a protracted illness on 7th May 1917 and Charles Thomas Whitmell died unexpectedly, after a very brief bout of pneumonia, on 10th December 1919. They are buried together at Lawnswood Cemetery in north Leeds.

“Christ in Flanders”

We had forgotten You, or very nearly -
You did not seem to touch us very nearly -
Of course we thought about You now and then ;
Especially in any time of trouble -
We knew that You were good in time of trouble -
But we are very ordinary men.

And there were always other things to think of -
There's lots of things a man has got to think of -
His work, his home, his pleasure, and his wife ;
And so we only thought of You on Sunday -
Sometimes, perhaps, not even on a Sunday -
Because there's always lots to fill one's life.

And, all the while, in street or lane or byway -
In country lane, in city street, or byway -
You walked among us, and we did not see.
Your feet were bleeding as You walked our pavements -
How did we miss Your footprints on our pavements ?
Can there be other folk as blind as we ?

Now we remember; over here in Flanders -
(It isn't strange to think of You in Flanders) -
This hideous warfare seems to make things clear.
We never thought about You much in England -
But now that we are far away from England,
We have no doubts, we know that You are here.

You helped us pass the jest along the trenches -
Where, in cold blood, we waited in the trenches -
You touched its ribaldry and made it fine.
You stood beside us in our pain and weakness -
We're glad to think You understand our weakness -
Somehow it seems to help us not to whine.

We think about You kneeling in the Garden -
Ah ! God ! the agony of that dread Garden -
We know You prayed for us upon the cross.
If anything could make us glad to bear it -
'Twould be the knowledge that You willed to bear it -
Pain — death — the uttermost of human loss.

Though we forgot You — You will not forget us -
We feel so sure that You will not forget us -
But stay with us until this dream is past.
And so we ask for courage, strength, and pardon -
Especially, I think, we ask for pardon -
And that You'll stand beside us to the last.

Was Lucy thinking about HonorĂ© de Balzac’s short story “Christ in Flanders”, written in 1831, when she wrote her poem?   Balzac tells the story of the miracle for which the Convent of Mercy was built in Ostend - about passengers on a boat when a mighty storm blows up. The rich and powerful gather together to deny a seat to a stranger late to board; the poor make room for him. When the boat capsizes, the poor are saved and the others are drowned by the weight of their sins.

The “Spectator” published a poem entitled “To the Writer of ‘Christ in Flanders”:

On the battlefields of Flanders men have blessed you in their pain:
For you told us Who was with us, and your words were not in vain.
All you said was very gentle, but we felt you knew our ways;
And we tried to find the Footprints we had missed in other days.
When we found Those blood-stained Footsteps, we have followed to the End;
For we know that only Death can show the features of our Friend.
In the Mansions of the Master, He will make the meaning plain
Of the battlefields of Flanders, of the Crucifix of Pain.


Another mystery - who was E.M.V?

Find my past and Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) p. 336
and with grateful thankst to Kate of the Friends of Lawnswood Cemetery

Seeking information regarding Amanda Bebbington (1880 - 1927) of Widnes who wrote a poem in memory of Thomas Mottershead, VC, DCM

Can anyone help please?  I am trying to find out more about Amanda Bebbington (1880 - 1927) from Widnes who wrote the poem below.

On Wednesday, 11th April 1917, the Mayor of Widnes held a concert in the Premier Picture House for the "Memorial Fund to the late Sergeant Thomas Mottershead V.C, D.C.M",

The flyer for that concert included a 'TRIBUTE TO "A VERY GALLANT SOLDIER"', by Amanda Bebbington, also published in the "Weekly News" on 16 February 1917.


If I strove to tell this story as such story should be told,
I should write in jewel letters on a leaf of shining gold;
With a diamond pen to shrine each word as crystal as a tear,
And a blood-red fire of rubies to flash the record clear.

Oh! I cannot tell this story, for the flame is in my heart,
And my soul's afire with a vision of the mighty hero-part;
And I spill the diamonds, in tears, that blind my mortal eyes
As I dream the horror of that flight through the unpitying skies.

Oh! A nation's heart beats quicker with a proud exultant glow;
For such deeds as these can thrill her through her agony of woe.
And the England that doth render him her amplest meed of fame
Counts richest jewel in her crown her brave son's honoured name.

I leave the story all untold - too feeble are my words.
The ocean's diapason and the storm wind's thundering chords,
The very stars that strew the heavens, the suns that ceaseless roll
Shall sing and blaze the brighter since they keep that hero-soul.

Written by Amanda Bebbington and published in the "Weekly News", 16th February 1917.

The 1911 Census lists an Amanda Bebbington married to Joseph Henry Bebbington and living in Belvoir Road Widnes, Widnes, Lancashire & Cheshire, England.  They had a daughter called Stella who was born in 1911.  Research from Debbie Cameron regarding Amanda found this: she was born Harriet Elizabeth Amanda Gittings in 1880 in Wednesbury, Staffordshire. She married Joseph Henry Bebbington, an engineer, in 1902. They had at least one child, Stella, who was born in 1911. Amanda died in 1927.

Thomas Mottershead, VC, DCM (1892 – 1917) – British WW1 aviator hero

On 7th January 1917, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium, Thomas was on patrol in FE-2d (serial number A39) with observer Lieutenant W E Gower, when he was engaged in combat by two Albatros D.III of Jasta 8. Lieutenant Gower managed to hit one plane and put it out of the action, but the
second Albatros, which was flown by German 'ace' Lieutenant Walter Göttsch (who had 20 victories to his name), hit the British aircraft, piercing the petrol tank and setting the aircraft on fire.

Enveloped in flames which his observer was unable to extinguish with a handheld fire extinguisher, Thomas was badly burned but nevertheless managed to take his aircraft back to the Allied lines and make a successful forced landing. The undercarriage collapsed on touching down however,
throwing the observer clear but pinning Thomas in his cockpit. He was subsequently rescued but died of his burns five days later.  Thomas was buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Bailleul, France.

Sergeant Thomas Mottershead was awarded the only Victoria Cross (V.C.) ever awarded to a non-commissioned RFC officer during the Great War. Thomas’s medal was presented to his widow by King George V in a ceremony in Hyde Park, London on 2nd June 1917.

A sum of nearly £1,000 was raised when an appeal was launched in 1917 – yet neither widow or son received a penny of the money collected. It was over 50 years later that a civil servant found the records of the fund and the money. It was then used to endow the Mottershead Scholarship at Widnes Technical College.

There is a memorial to the memory of Thomas Mottershead, VC in Victoria Park, Widnes, which was unveiled in April 2018.