Rupert Brooke was born on August 3rd 1887. His father was a teacher at Rugby school and Brooke was to spend five years there. He gained a reputation for being artistic but also as someone who excelled at sport. In 1906 Brooke won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. A contemporary of his at King’s, Frances Cornford, described Brooke as “a young Apollo”. He had a glittering array of friends at Cambridge – E M Forster, Virginia Woolf and Cornford. He knew Hugh Dalton and for a while dabbled in socialist politics.
In 1910 he stood in for his recently deceased father at Rugby. He worked at the school for a term and then returned to Cambridge to continue his work on English authors. When he was not doing this he travelled and wrote poetry. His first collection of poems was published in December 1911, and simply called “Poems”.
In 1912 Brookes spent more time travelling in Europe. After recovering from a mystery illness that caused him to return to Rugby, Brookes continued his travels and went to Berlin. Here he wrote ‘The Sentimental Exile’. His friend Edward Marsh persuaded Brookes to change the title to ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’ and it became his most famous pre-war poem.
Brooke was awarded a fellowship from King’s College in March 1913 for his dissertation on Webster. Between May 1913 and June 1914 he travelled around the world for the ‘Westminster Gazette’, which paid him £4 a time for his impressions of the various countries he visited – Canada, America, various Pacific islands and New Zealand. He wrote fifteen articles for the ‘Westminster Gazette’ and when he returned he found that his literary star shone brightly and he was very much the centre of attention in London’s literary scene.
However, in June war with Germany seemed inevitable. His long-term friend Edward Marsh now worked for Winston Churchill at the Admiralty. Marsh introduced Brookes to Churchill and the First Lord of the Admiralty offered to help Brookes get a commission. Brookes could not make up his mind but decided that it was his duty to do so – “If Armageddon is on, I suppose one should be there.”
Brookes got a commission in the Royal Naval Division – a land based unit. In late September Brookes did some training in Kent and in October, along with his platoon, he embarked for France. His unit, the Anson Battalion, Royal Naval Division, was ordered to move into Belgium to help stem the German advance on Antwerp. They came up against a flow of fleeing Belgian soldiers and refugees. Brookes and his men were temporarily based at a chateau at Vieux-Dieu. After they had moved out to some Belgian trenches, the chateau was hit by German artillery. The whole unit was ordered to withdraw and after catching a train to Ostend, they made their way back to Dover by October 9th. It had not been a particularly glorious introduction to the war.
The writings of Brookes at this time in the war were typically patriotic. He wrote that fighting the Germans was what God wanted him to do; he considered his previous ‘life’ of study and travelling as frivolous. In particular he felt that the Belgian people had been wronged by the German government and set out to correct this wrong.
Brooke’s spent the November 1914 at Blandford in Dorset. He spent his time training. When Brookes was not doing this, he wrote sonnets. Over the New Year of 1914/1915, Brookes stayed at Walmer Castle in Kent or back at Rugby. In February 1915, while recovering from a feverish cold, Brookes spent nine days recovering at 10, Downing Street.
On February 20th 1915, Brookes found out that his unit was bound for Gallipoli. He wrote, “I have never been so happy.” It seems that the whole idea of fighting to relieve Constantinople appealed to the romantic side in him. However, he and his men never reached Gallipoli. After various stop-offs and delays that included a visit to the Pyramids. Brookes landed at Lemnos. He fell ill and the medical staff attached to his unit diagnosed an infection caused by a mosquito bite. Despite help from a French medical team, nothing could be done for Brookes and he died on April 23rd 1915. Three days later Winston Churchill wrote in ‘The Times’:
“He was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in the days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable.”