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Poetry | The Fallen Volunteer

By Charles Hamilton Sorley
Winter 2018 • MHQ Magazine

Charles Hamilton Sorley was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1895. His family moved to Cambridge, England, when he was five, and he went on to study at Marlborough College, where he began publishing poetry in the school journal. Sorley won a scholarship to University College in Oxford, but before taking up his studies there he decided to spend some time in Germany. While he was attending summer school at the University of Jena, Britain declared war on Germany. German authorities arrested Sorley but released him with orders to leave the country.

Sorley returned to England and immediately enlisted in the British Army, joining the Suffolk Regiment as a second lieutenant. Posted to the 7th (Service) Battalion, an all-volunteer “Kitchener’s Army” unit, he arrived on the Western Front in Boulougne, France, on May 30, 1915, as a lieutenant, and served near Ploegsteert. In August he was promoted to captain at age 20.

On October 13, 1915, Sorley was killed in action near Hulluch, France—shot in the head by a sniper during the final offensive of the Battle of Loos. He has no known grave.

A collection of Sorley’s poetry, Marlborough and Other Poems, was published posthumously in 1916. His last poem, below, was discovered in his kit bag after his death.

THE MOUTHLESS DEAD

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you’ll remember. For you need not so.

Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,

“Yet many a better one has died before.”

Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you

Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,

It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.

Great death has made all his for evermore.

 

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue (Vol. 30, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Fallen Volunteer

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