The war diary of Edward Thomas

Reference: NLW MS 24030 i & iiA

Shown here is the war diary, 1 January - 8 April 1917, of the poet and writer Edward Thomas. The National Library of Wales holds one of the most important collections of Thomas’s manuscripts. It includes correspondence, literary drafts and diaries. See Edward and Helen Thomas MSS

His background

Thomas was born in Lambeth, London, in 1878, the eldest of six boys. His parents came from Monmouthshire, and his father was a Welsh speaker. During his childhood Thomas spent long periods holidaying with relatives in South Wales, and he came to view Wales as his spiritual home. In 1898 he went up to read history at Lincoln College Oxford, where the educationalist and Welsh nationalist, Owen M. Edwards, became his tutor. This gave a further stimulus to Thomas’s interest in Welsh life and culture, an interest which found expression in prose works such as Beautiful Wales (1905), The Childhood of Edward Thomas (1938) and the autobiographical novel, The Happy-Go-Lucky Morgans (1913). In 1899 he married Helen Noble; they had three children: Merfyn, Bronwen and Myfanwy.

After leaving Oxford, Thomas scraped a living as a self-styled ‘doomed hack’, contributing articles and reviews to various periodicals. He also published numerous biographies, and topographical books on the English landscape. His biographical study, Richard Jefferies (1909), is considered a classic of the genre, and he broke new ground with his travel books, The Icknield Way (1913) and In Pursuit of Spring (1914). He often suffered bouts of severe depression and came close to committing suicide on at least one occasion, all of which placed a strain on his marriage to Helen. It was Thomas’s friend, the American poet Robert Frost, who was chiefly responsible for encouraging him to write poems. Frost saw the raw material of great poetry in much of Thomas’s prose. Like Frost, Thomas believed that poetry should arise from the natural rhythms of everyday speech, and one of the main characteristics of the poems which he came to write is their simplicity of language. They often give expression to Thomas’s own psycho-drama, and they look forward to 21st-century preoccupations in their powerful ecological vision, and in their subtle explorations of consciousness.

The Diary and the War

Thomas despised jingoism and imperialism, but following the outbreak of the First World War he felt a duty to defend his motherland against the threat, which he perceived, to its communities and their way of life. He joined the army as a volunteer in 1915, and spent a period with the Artists’ Rifles, before being commissioned second lieutenant with the Royal Garrison Artillery in November 1916. Thomas began this diary in January 1917, while he was with his regiment in Lydd, Kent. By the end of the month they had crossed to France:

Arrived Havre 4 a.m. Light of stars and windows of tall pale houses and electric arcs on quay. March through bales of cotton in sun to camp. The snow first emptying its castor of finest white. Tents.

The diary contains pithy, sometimes humorous, observations on military life, together with arresting descriptions of the natural world following its course amidst the fighting. Thomas also evidently saw beauty in warfare:

Enemy plane like pale moth beautiful among shrapnel bursts.

He was killed, within three months of arriving at the front. On the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday 1917, a stray German shell passed so close to him that the rush of air compressed his lungs and stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body, with the diary in his greatcoat pocket. The strange arc of creases on the diary’s covers, and on every page, was probably imprinted by the shell’s shock wave. The last diary entry was written on the evening before his death. In the back of the volume (f. 29) can be found the only surviving draft of his last poem, ‘The Sorrow of True Love’. When seeking material for new poems, Thomas had often drawn on passages in his diaries and letters, and he would doubtless have done so with the contents of this diary had he lived.

During his final two years Thomas had composed a formidable body of over 140 poems. This late flowering of creativity has placed him among the most influential English language poets of the 20th century. And it gives greater poignancy to the blank final pages of his diary.

Further reading

The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas, edited by R. George Thomas (Oxford, 1978). This contains the edited text of his war diary.

Hazel Walford Davies, ‘Edward Thomas: twelve unpublished letters to O.M. Edwards’, National Library of Wales Journal 28 (1994), 335-345.

Related materials

Amongst the other Edward Thomas papers in the National Library of Wales are the following:

NLW, Edward and Helen Thomas Manuscripts

NLW, R. George Thomas (Edward Thomas) Research Papers

NLW MS 23695E

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