Today is Remembrance Sunday. Also known as Poppy Day in the Commonwealth countries, Remembrance Day is a memorial day observed to remember the members of their armed forces who died in the line of duty in World War I. It coincides with Veterans Day in the US that was proclaimed first as Armistice Day at the end of the Great War and that honors all men and women that served in the United States Armed Forces. Remembrance Day is observed on November 11 in most countries because the hostilities of WWI ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”, in accordance with the armistice signed that day between the representatives of Germany and the Entente. And, red poppies became a symbol of the day due to the WWI poem In Flanders Fields that talks about red poppies blooming over some of the worst battlefields in Flanders.
So I thought it would be appropriate to travel back to WWI today. But you may ask about what Damian Lewis has to do with WWI. Well, firstly, Damian is playing a WWI soldier in Queen of the Desert but also he participated in a WWI poetry reading in 2014 as part of the centenary commemorations of the Great War.
So, Damian Lewis is Charles Doughty-Wylie in Queen of the Desert, the love of Gertrude Bell’s life and also a lieutenant colonel in the British Army; he fought at the Battle of Gallipoli, and in fact, died there. As a tribute to this WWI soldier and all others that died in the line of duty let’s visit Damian Lewis reading some moving WWI poetry at The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour.
British Library website provides the following information about the poetry hour: “The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour, founded by the novelist (Damage, Sin,The Truth About Love) and poetry anthologist Josephine Hart, has presented great poetry read by great actors for the past seven years at the British Library. During the events Josephine introduced the life and work of each poet as, like Eliot, she believed that ‘we understand the work better when we understand something of the poet’s life.’ Sadly, Josephine passed away suddenly in June 2011 but her family, friends and the British Library are committed to carrying on her pioneering work of bringing poetry in performance to a broad public audience.”
Damian has been a long time participant of the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour. He read at several different events organized by late Hart as well as at Hay Festival in 2013, with Helen McCrory, both in celebration of Josephine Hart and the revival of poetry reading tradition she established at the Festival. If you want to hear Damian and Helen read at Hay Festival, an audience member recorded the Hay Festival reading and posted it here.
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Damian Lewis’ alma mater, organized a Josephine Hart Poetry Hour: Poems from the First World War as part of the WWI centenary commemorations at the Barbican Centre on November 10, 2014. Please notice the lovely red poppy pins Damian Lewis and Dominic West are wearing…
Throughout the recital a total of thirty First World War poems were performed, including Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, W. B. Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death and Rudyard Kipling’s Epitaphs of The War. Readers included some of the School’s distinguished Acting alumni – Damian Lewis (1993), Dominic West (1995), Freddie Fox (2010), Emily Berrington (2012) and the School’s Director of Drama Christian Burgess, with introductions by Guildhall alumna, actress Niamh Cusack.
“An Irishman Foresees his Death” by Yeats was read by Damian Lewis:
This poem could, in fact, be a very proper tribute to Lt. Col. Charles Doughty-Wylie. Not because he’s Irish, because he’s not; but it is quite likely that he, in fact, foresaw his own death and went for it…
An extract from “The London Gazette”, # 29202, dated June 23, 1915, records the following: “On 26th April 1915 subsequent to a landing having been effected on the beach at a point on the Gallipoli Peninsula, during which both Brigadier- General and Brigade Major had been killed, Lieutenant- Colonel Doughty-Wylie and Captain Walford organised and led an attack through and on both sides of the village of Sedd el Bahr (Seddulbahir in modern Turkish) on the Old Castle at the top of the hill inland. The enemy`s position was very strongly held and entrenched, and defended with concealed machine-guns and pom-poms. It was mainly due to the initiative, skill and great gallantry of these two officers that the attack was a complete success. Both were killed in the moment of victory.”
Some sources argue that Doughty-Wylie only carried a stick as he led the attack because of his love of the Turkish people that he did not want to kill any of them. A Telegraph article, on the other hand, takes a different view and argues that, stuck between an unhappy marriage and an unconsummated but still passionate affair, Doughty-Wylie actually committed suicide in Gallipoli:
“By the third year of their affair, Doughty-Wylie was at his wits’ end, having been warned by his wife that she would kill herself if he left her, and by Bell that she would kill herself if he didn’t. Scornful of convention as ever, she had urged him to ignore the social disgrace of divorce, telling him in one heartfelt letter: ‘It’s that or nothing. I can’t live without you.’
Unable to keep either woman happy, he instead chose to lead a group of soldiers on a particularly dangerous beach landing at Gallipoli in April 1915. A Turkish bullet killed him at the moment of victory, and his gallantry won him a posthumous VC. Yet fellow soldiers noticed he seemed strangely calm during battle, taking no weapon with him and making no effort to avoid the Turkish guns. Did he have suicidal intentions of his own that day?”
Well, who knows?
And for those of you who wants to HEAR Damian read a poem, we have more.
First Josephine Hart’s Poetry Hour shares five WWI poems read by Damian Lewis here.
Then we have a 2009 clip in which Damian reads yet another Josephine Hart selection WWI poem, High Wood, written in 1918 months before the armistice by Philip Johnstone, a pseudonym, and little is known about the real poet. High Wood was fought over during the Battle of the Somme and finally captured by the British in September 1916 after 3 months of heavy fighting. It’s quite remarkable that the poet envisioned tourists visiting the killing fields after the war: High Wood, in fact, became one of the first places to be visited by tourists.