Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Sibyl Bristowe (1870 - 1954) – British poet and writer

With thanks to Paul Whitehead for sending me a poem by Sibyl that made me decide to reserch her and to Phil Dawes for additional information about her brother’s death in WW1.

Sibyl Isabelle Bristowe was born on 30th July 1870. Her parents were John Syer Bristowe, MD, FRS, LL.D, a physician, and his wife, Miriam Isabella, nee Stearns.  The family lived in London and Sibyl had the following siblings: Leonard S., b. 1858, Maude E., b. 1859, Evelyn L., b.1861, Flora M., b.1863, Hubert C., b. 1864, Beatrice M., b.1866, Clarence C., b.1868, Everard S., b.1873 and Vivian Ernest John, b. 1875.  

Sibyl’s brother Vivian served during the First World War in the South African Medical Corps in Tanzania.   He died on 14th April 1917 and was buried in Morogoro Cemetery, Grave Reference:  IV. B. 2.  

At the outbreak of the First World War Tanzania was the core of German East Africa. From the invasion of April 1915, Commonwealth forces fought a protracted and difficult campaign against a relatively small but highly skilled German force under the command of General von Lettow-Vorbeck. When the Germans finally surrendered on 23 November 1918, twelve days after the European armistice, their numbers had been reduced to 155 European and 1,168 African troops.

Morogoro was occupied by Commonwealth forces on 26th August 1916 and the German civil cemetery was taken over for Commonwealth war burials. Between the beginning of September 1916 and January 1919, 177 burials were carried out by the five medical units which were posted in the town and which were, at the outset, assisted by German medical personnel and civilians.

In 1939, Sibyl was living in Maida Vale, London, with her siblings Maude, Evelyn and Evarard.  Sibyl never married and died on 15th October 1954. 

“Provocations” was the title of Sibyl Bristowe’s WW1 collection, which was published with an Introduction by G.K. Chesterton by Erskine Macdonald Ltd., London in 1918.  She also had a poem published in “The Lyceum book of war verse” Edited by Alys Eyre Macklin (Erskine Macdonald, London, 1918).  Here are some of her poems:

“The Great War”

Into His colour store God dipped His hand

And drew it forth

Full of strange hues forgotten, contraband

Of War and Wrath.

Time wove the pattern of the years, that so

The quick and dead

Might knit their bleeding crosses in. And lo!

A patch of red!

“Over the Top”

Ten more minutes! – Say yer prayers,

Read yer Bibles, pass the rum!

Ten more minutes! Strike me dumb,

'Ow they creeps on unawares,

Those blooming minutes. Nine. It's queer,

I'm sorter stunned. It ain't with fear!

Eight. It's like as if a frog

Waddled round in your inside,

Cold as ice-blocks, straddle wide,

Tired o' waiting. Where's the grog?

Seven. I'll play yer pitch and toss –

Six. – I wins, and tails yer loss.

'Nother minute sprinted by

'Fore I knowed it; only Four

(Break 'em into seconds) more

'Twixt us and Eternity.

Every word I've ever said

Seems a-shouting in my head.

Three. Larst night a little star

Fairly shook up in the sky,

Didn't like the lullaby

Rattled by the dogs of War.

Funny thing – that star all white

Saw old Blighty, too, larst night.

Two. I ain't ashamed o' prayers,

They're only wishes sent ter God

Bits o' plants from bloody sod

Trailing up His golden stairs.

Ninety seconds – Well, who cares!

One –

No fife, no blare, no drum –

Over the Top – to Kingdom Come!

“To His Dear Memory” (April 14th, 1917)

Beneath the humid skies

Where green birds wing, and heavy burgeoned trees

Sway in the fevered breeze,

My Brother lies.

And rivers passionate [A]

Tore through the mountain passes, swept the plains,

O'erbrimmed with tears, o'erbrimmed with summer rains,

All wild, all desolate.

Whilst the deep Mother-breast

Of drowsy-lidded Nature, drunk with dreams,

Below Pangani, by Rufigi streams,

Took him to rest.

Beneath the sunlit skies,

Where bright birds wing, and rich luxuriant trees

Sway in the fevered breeze,

My Brother lies.

The bending grasses woo

His hurried grave; a cross of oak to show

The drifting winds, a Soldier sleeps below.

—Our Saviour's cross, I know,

Was wooden, too.

[A]The river Rufigi rose so high the night he died, none of his own Battalion could cross it to attend his last honours.

The Pangani River is a major river of northeastern Tanzania. The Rufiji River lies entirely within Tanzania. The river is formed by the confluence of the Kilombero and Luwegu rivers. It is approximately 600 kilometres (370 mi) long, with its source in southwestern Tanzania and its mouth on the Indian Ocean.

“A Sacrament”

TEARS! And I brought them to the Lord, and said

What are these crystal globes by nations shed?

What is the crimson flood that stains the land?

Where is Thy peace, and where Thy guiding hand?

Why are those thousands daily sacrificed?

Where is Thy might, and where the love of Christ?

And from the heavens methought I heard a voice

“Oh son of earth, I bid thee still rejoice!

Those crystal tears by men and nations shed

Water My harvest, sanctify My dead.

That crimson flood which stains the hapless earth

Is but the prelude to a nobler birth.

Those thousands, who for home have gladly died,

Sleep in the hope of Jesus crucified.

Flesh, Blood, and Water, Little Child of Mine,

Veil in their depths a Mystery divine.”

I bowed my head, and prayed for faith to see

The inner visions of Calamity!

Sources:  Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) pp. 68 and 20.

Find my Past


Article written by Phil Dawes, March 2015