Cen­te­nary of the First World War: The Other Mase­field

This England - - Contents - Graham Beb­bing­ton

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’

The ceme­tery in France which be­came the poet’s fi­nal rest­ing place.

Chea­dle at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury.

Stafford­shire coun­try­side, near Kin­ver, which Mase­field cel­e­brated in a guide to the county. GRAHAM GOUGH

The ru­ins of Lens.

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