Among the first to fall

Poetry - Early First World War poets are typically overlooked in favour of the grim realism expresse

In 1916, Ben Keeling, a New Statesman staff member, wrote: "I am thankful that there has been no good war poetry, or very little. There is not much that is poetic about this war." He continued: "I am more interested in life than in poetry, and I should regard it as a disaster to humanity if really great war poems began to appear. It would imply that war did really express something essential in the human soul." Four months later Keeling was dead, killed at the Somme. People did eventually find a way of writing war poetry that would not have offended him. "Above all," Wilfred Owen wrote in the preface that he left unfinished at his death, days before the war ended in 1918, "I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity." Writers working nearer the beginning of the conflict had inherited a tradition of war poetry that soon became inadequate to describe their experience. The most celebrated of them, Rupert Brooke ("If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England"), died of blood poisoning in 1915 before he could engage in any fighting. Generations of teachers and anthologists have used these earlier writers as a contrast to highlight the virtues of Siegfried Sassoon and Owen.

Julian Grenfell was a soldier-poet who, like Brooke, died too soon to participate in the new way of writing. His poem "Into Battle", written shortly before he, too, died in 1915, was published posthumously in the Times to great acclaim. It is still taught in schools today. It has been much anthologised over the years, but many compilers seem to have included it as an example of the bad old way of writing war poetry. Now, however, the curators of an exhibition devoted to Grenfell (at Taplow Court, near Maidenhead in Berkshire, once home to the poet's family) have taken it as part of their remit to "re-habilitate" him after what they consider amounts to a long campaign of vilification.

Grenfell, son of Lord Desborough, educated at Eton and Balliol, a prize-winning rower at Henley in 1909 and a member of the Royal Dragoons, embodies one of the central myths of the Great War (probably the most mythologised event in modern history): that of the gilded generation of Edwardian public-school boys who took in "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" along with their Homer, went gaily to war and were slaughtered almost to a man. Grenfell was already a cavalry officer when the war began, and seems to have welcomed the start of hostilities. "Isn't it luck for me to have been born so as to be just the right age and just in the right place . . . to enjoy it the most?" He wrote: "I adore war. It's like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic." He was struck in the head by a shell splinter on 13 May 1915 during action near Ypres, was operated on twice, and lived long enough for his family to reach his deathbed. Shortly before he died, a shaft of sunlight fell across the bedcovers and he smiled and murmured "Phoebus Apollo". He was 27. After his death, a friend of Grenfell's wrote to his mother: "His physical splendour was so great . . . He was the most magnificent human thing I have ever seen."

His brother Billy was killed three months later, less than a mile from where he himself had been hit. In 1920, Lord and Lady Desborough raised an extraordinary memorial to their sons in the grounds of Taplow Court. By the sculptor Bertram Mackennal, it represents Apollo in his sun-chariot. "Into Battle" is reproduced on the reverse. Vestiges of this doomed glamour, this almost godlike aura, attach to Grenfell and his lost contemporaries even now, like traces of gilding on a very worn antique, their sacrifice in the fields of France and Flanders viewed as the last fling of noblesse oblige. Perhaps it is this feeling, so different from the brutally unsentimental views of Owen and Sassoon, and so alien to the current generation, that makes it difficult to teach "Into Battle" to 21st-century teenagers.

The Grenfell exhibition is aimed primarily at schoolchildren studying "Into Battle", and they will find that the collection of memorabilia covering life at Taplow, as well as Grenfell's army experience, brings the poet vividly to life in a way that no study of texts could do. It even includes grisly mementoes such as the bloodstained contents of his pockets.

Taplow Court is now home to Soka Gakkai International, a lay Buddhist organisation devoted to the promotion of world peace, which at first seems an incongruous host for an exhibition that contains so much weaponry and other military paraphernalia and is designed to rescue the reputation of a war poet. Doubters should read Grenfell's poem. He was a boxer and an enthusiast for those country sports in which a man can pit himself against nature on something like equal terms, and saw struggle as an essential part of being fully alive. "Into Battle" is almost as much a nature poem as a war poem, though its context is war. The "fighting man" it hymns is something more than simply a soldier. The poem is expressive both of Grenfell's love of life and his acceptance of his destiny, and perhaps these are attributes with which a Buddhist can feel comfortable.

From "Into Battle"

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

"Julian Grenfell: soldier-poet (1888-1915)", at Taplow Court, Taplow, Berkshire (01628 773 163), is open to the public on Sunday afternoons until 31 July, and on National Heritage Day, 11 September, or by appointment

For a biography, see Nicholas Mosley's Julian Grenfell: his life and the times of his death, 1888-1915, published by Persephone Books