Tuesday, 4 December 2012

TE Hulme- the warrior poet from Endon

Between November 1915 and March 1916 a number of articles appeared in the national press under the pen name of “North Staffs”. “North Staffs” was a serving soldier in the army who used the articles to attack the direction of the war, the stupidity of the officer class as well as the necessity for the First World War in the wake of a growing pacifist movement.

The author of these articles was Thomas Ernest Hulme born in Gratton Hall a brick built mansion on a hill which commanded good views of the North Staffordshire countryside. A few miles away to the south west lay Dunwood Hall the home of his paternal grandparents. It is a prominent 19th century building which still stands today beside the A53 just outside Leek.

Thomas Ernest Hulme was born on the 16th September 1883. He was born to a moderately prosperous family who had made their money from ceramic transfers used to create large amounts of pottery and incidentally the same business that Vera Brittan’s family were engaged. Although in the First World War the views of the University educated scions of North Staffordshire on the war would take different directions. His privileged upbringing ensured that he was able to go on to the local public school in Newcastle under Lyme and then on to Cambridge.

His career at Cambridge was not a success and he was expelled for riotous behaviour in 1904. He gained a reputation for womanising- a reputation that remained with him throughout his life. One of the features of life at this time was his unwillingness to settle to a direction in life he was given to walking the countryside and  on one occasion walked from London to the family home in Endon. To the frustration of his family for a few years he continued to drift around including a period of living in Canada. After 1907 he went on to teach English in Brussels while also learning German and French. It was here that he finally decided to become a writer and a poet.

 He was fortunate in that he was financially supported in this objective by an elderly North Staffordshire based aunt who believed in his abilities. His father was less convinced believing that there was no need for a philosopher or poet in Endon. He returned to London and began to write and read poetry. Hulme was very proud of his North Staffordshire accent and it was so strong as to make it difficult for refined members of the audiences he lectured to understand him. For the next years up to the outbreak of the First World war Hulme established a reputation as one of the developing thinkers on the direction of poetry in the early years of the 20th century. He was closely associated with the magazine New Age where his articles became a powerful influence on modern poetry and criticism. His admirers included Rupert Brooke, although Hulme felt that he was precious, the American poet Ezra Pound and his compatriot TS Eliot who was introduced to his work in the 1920s after Hulme’s death. He also was briefly associated with DH Lawrence although he had a long term association with the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

In August 1914 war broke out and Hulme volunteered for the Honorary Artillery Company although initially he did not apply for a commission as he was rather ambivalent to authority. He went to France with his regiment in January 1915 describing the war in a series of lengthy letters to his father as trench war began in earnest. On the 14th April 1915 Hulme was wounded in the elbow by a bullet that killed the man behind him.

 He wrote to a friend that the dead man was a good footballer and his colleagues in the trench would have preferred it that a poet had been killed and the footballer slightly wounded.

When he returned to Britain for treatment medical staff were shocked that he read books by German philosophers. He returned to the war quickly and sought a commission in the Royal Marine Artillery. The death in the war of a close friend the French sculptor Henri Gaudier Brzeska- whose life was made into a film by Ken Russell hardened him to the war when previous he had an indifferent attitude to the fate of his comrade. It also convinced him of the need to become an officer as the quality of officer that he observed in the early months of the war did not fill him with any confidence. The idea of being killed merely because the man in charge was a complete fool struck him with particular force.

In 1916 a bill was passed in the House of Commons making all men between 18 and 40 liable to military service with single men being conscripted first. The morality of this hit him hard. He recognised the argument that conscription was an intolerable attack on civil liberties but felt that the war was just and had to be fought. He recognised that given that this was now a total war that political and military authority had a responsibility to ensure that lives were not needlessly sacrificed in the prosecution of the war. This attitude brought the Cambridge educated Hulme into conflict with the Cambridge educated Bertrand Russell who in early 1916 took issue with the arguments that Hulme was advancing.

 Russell the grandson of a 19th century Prime Minister was the most passionate of advocates of the pacifist cause. He was well known to Hulme from their Cambridge days. The differences between the two men were complete both in terms of personality and belief. For Russell liberty was an inherent right- for Hulme it was something that had to be fought for. For Russell, a German victory in Europe if it led to a preserved peace was to be welcomed, for Hulme, such a victory meant the disappearance of democracy and the emergence of tyranny. Hulme believed that there were certain values than were more important than life itself and which were worth dying for. He realised that such opinions were easily mocked in the pacifist circles that Russell moved in. An exchange of published letters took place between the two men throughout 1916.

 A problem for Russell in countering Hulme’s arguments was that the sentiments expressed by “North Staffs” were not simply of the warmongering or militaristic type. The view of the soldier poet was that war was stupid a necessary stupidity but still a stupidity. A refusal to fight and adopting the Russell position of pacifism would lead if the Germans won to a loss of the liberal tradition of this country and its replacement with Prussian militarism.

During 1916 Russell began a lecture tour of the north to propound his views on the war a number of the meetings were banned by the Government fearful that Russell’s views might have an impact upon morale. Russell did find time to conduct an affair with an actress Constance Malleson an opportunity arose to consummate the affair after a lecture in Manchester in November 1916 when they stayed at the “Cat and Fiddle” pub on the Derbyshire/ Staffordshire border.

Russell recalled that,” it was bitterly cold and the water in my jug was frozen in the morning. But the bleak moors suited our mood. They were stark but gave a sense of vast freedom. We spent our days in long walks and our nights in an emotion that held all the pain of the world in solution”

 However, during this time of conflict in print the two men never met. Russell confirmed Hulme’s view of his pacifist opponents that they could never take seriously any view except their own. Years later Russell believed Hulme was an “evil man who created nothing but evil” and that he would have ended up a fascist like Oswald Mosley

In the last year of his life Hulme spent a period training in Northern Scotland before rejoining his unit in Belgium in command of 9.2 inch gun shelling German costal positions near Ostend.

He travelled back to Endon to see his family a last time on leave in September 1917. His sister noted that he seemed older and realised that this might be his last leave. He was blown to pieces by a German shell 4 days after his 34th birthday. What was left of him was buried in a Military Cemetery at Koksijde in Belgium.

A window to his memory exists in St Luke’s Church in Endon there is a text from the Book of Common Prayer which was found on a piece of paper in the pocket of his uniform at the time of his death