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'Sorley was critical of Brooke', says Stallworthy, 'at a time when Brooke's (and indeed Owen's) writing was still confined in a 19th century Keatsian time warp. 'When you see millions of the mouthless dead' was found in his knapsack after his death at the battle of Loos in 1915, aged only twenty, and shows Sorley already understood the real scale of what was happening, of what high command was inflicting on the ranks. He was the first poet to get the numbers right.'

Caught up in the botched allied attack a year before the Somme, Sorley and his fellow officers could see, plain as a pikestaff, that all the ordinary soldier wanted was to get home : 'I could wager that of twelve million combatants there aren't twelve who really want it,' he wrote. Sorley hoped for 'A nice little bullet wound, tidy and clean, in the shoulder -- that's the place.' Sadly, Fritz found his temple. He died on 13 October 1915.

Charles Sorley (portrait by Cecil Jameson). Photo: The Imperial War Museum, London
Charles Sorley (portrait by Cecil Jameson). Photo: The Imperial War Museum, London

Had Sorley lived, he would undoubtedly have made his mark : his boyhood poetry :

There, where the rusty iron lies
The rooks are cawing all the day.
Perhaps no man, until he dies
Will understand them, what they say.

- a number of poems took shape in his head as he coursed across the Marlborough Downs on solo runs -- hasn't the range of, say, Keith Douglas (who fell to the Germans in North Africa a generation later, aged 24), though can verge uncannily close to Sassoon, as in his 'Roman' evocation of Barbury Camp :

We burrowed night and day with tools of lead,
Heaped the bank up and cast it in a ring
And hurled the earth above. And Caesar said,
'Why, it is excellent, I like the thing.'
We, who are dead, made it and wrought,
and Caesar liked the thing.

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Copyright © 26 December 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Malvern, Worcestershire, UK


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