Centenary of the First World War: The Other Masefield
The name of Masefield in poetry is generally associated with that of John Masefield (1878-1967), with many readers no doubt recalling from schooldays his poem “Sea Fever” and the opening line “I must go down to the seas again”. However, there was another poet and author in the family — Charles John Beech Masefield, a third cousin of the famous Poet Laureate but who died like thousands of other men during the Great War, paying the ultimate sacrifice in serving his country.
Charles Masefield (“Charlie” to close friends and relatives) was born at Cheadle in the Staffordshire Moorlands on 15th April 1882. The eldest son of John Richard Beech Masefield and his wife Susan (nee Blagg), he was educated at Mintholme House School, Southport, and at Repton School, Derby. There, he won prizes for poetry and divinity. On leaving Repton he was articled to his lawyer father and admitted a solicitor in 1905. To gain further experience he then practised in Derby and later in Wolverhampton, but on his father’s retirement from the family firm of Messrs. Blagg, Son & Masefield, he returned to Cheadle in 1912 whereupon he became actively engaged in the affairs of the town and a partner in the busy practice in Church Terrace.
Charles’s first serious work to be published was the novel Gilbert Hermer. Published by Blackwood in 1908, the plot is set in the immediate neighbourhood of Cheadle which he called “Cradleby”. This was followed in 1910 by his volume Staffordshire in Methuen’s series of Little Guides on English Counties. To obtain material for this he is understood to have visited every parish but one, travelling by train and bicycle. According to his friend Dr. Charles Henry Poole, the work was “a labour of love” for “he loved every inch of the county of his birth”.
Now a collectors’ item, this fascinating compilation is dedicated to “all those who are, to the dead who have been, and to the living and the unborn who will be lovers of Staffordshire”. Although of pocket size, the illustrated work covers history, archaeology, scenery, climate, communications, industries and the flora and fauna of the county. In his preface he dismisses those who regard Staffordshire as “something of a slut among the counties”, rightly contending that “much of its scenery is beautiful”. Being then drawn more to verse than prose, he followed this with two volumes: The Season’s Difference and Other Poems (Fifield, 1911) and Dislikes: some Modern Satires (Fifield, 1913). The patriotic enthusiasm that swept through the country at the outset of the Great War in 1914 resulted in many men from Cheadle responding to the call to arms, particularly following local recruitment drives. Although having been married for only a short time and with a young son, Charles Masefield was among those who volunteered for military service and in 1915 was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th (Territorial) Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment.
After a period of training and adjutant work, he was posted to France and on 14th June 1917, with the rank of Acting Captain, he was involved in a most successful attack near Lens. Despite a heavy barrage, he led his company in a raid on enemy trenches, killing two Germans himself at close quarters. At least 50 of the enemy were slain and three taken prisoner, after which he successfully withdrew his men. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and good leadership”.
Shortly afterwards, Masefield was reported “missing” following an attack at Cite du Moulin, a western suburb of Lens. It was, however, ascertained after a period of two months that he had, in fact, been mortally wounded and died on 2nd July in a German field hospital. He was subsequently buried with full military honours at the local cemetery at Leforest. Sadly, he never knew of his bravery award.
Although he continued to write verse whilst in uniform and serving his country, some contend that Charles Masefield was not a “war poet”. This may be so. He is not mentioned in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Ed. George Walter, 2006), the work also attempting to distinguish between “poet soldiers” and “soldier poets” (those who had been poets first and soldiers second, and those who for the most part had written their first material “in the field of action”). Nevertheless, some do regard Charles Masefield as a “soldier poet”.
He is, for example, listed in the contemporary work Remembrance by Arthur St. John Adcock (Hodder & Stoughton) and also in More Songs of the Fighting Men ( Erskine Macdonald). But does it matter? As his friend Charles Poole wrote of him: “In the war he fought bravely for the ideals and, although hating war, joined in its conflicts, believing ‘right is might’ and that good should eventually overcome evil.”
In 1919 a posthumous volume Poems was published by Blackwell and it has since been suggested that his later work could perhaps be deemed worthy to stand alongside Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. One can only guess at what might have been his full potential.
The following was written shortly before he died and it may be seen that he seemed calmly to accept as inevitable the certainty of his death and that his grave would be in foreign soil.
In Honorium Fortium
I sometimes think that I have lived too long, Who have heard so many a gay brave singer’s song Fail him for ever — seen so many sails Lean out resplendent to the evil gales, Then Death, the wrecker, get his harvest in — Oh, ill it is, when men lose all to win; Grief though it be to die, ’tis grief yet more To live and count the dear dead comrades o’er.
Peace! After all, you died not. We’ve no fear But that, long ages hence, you will be near — Athought by night — on the warm wind a breath, Making for courage, putting by old death, Living wherever men are not afraid Of aught but making bravery a parade — Yes, parleying with
fear, they’ll pause and say “At Gommecourt boys suffered worse that day” Or, hesitating on some anxious brink, They will become heroic when they think “Did they not rise mortality above, Who staked a lifetime all made sweet with love?”
Charles Masefield was unfortunate that he did not have the benefit of the longer life of his cousin John, being only 35 when he died. His remains now lie in the dignified setting of the British Military Cemetery at Cabaret Rouge at Souchez, Pas de Calais. He lies with those other men who fought and died for the freedom we enjoy today. May we remain ever worthy of their sacrifice.
‘It has since been suggested that his later work
could perhaps be deemed worthy to stand alongside Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon’