First World War centenary: Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and the story of their time in Gidea Park’s Hare Hall
PUBLISHED: 16:59 30 May 2014
“What passing bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns,” read the first two lines of Wilfred Owen’s famous poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, which encapsulates the disillusionment he came to feel about the “Great War”.
But when the poet, and other young men like him, enlisted they were not aware of the horrors which would be unleashed on them.
Owen enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles in 1915, a regiment created in 1860 which became popular with volunteers and featured creative people such as painters and sculptors.
It also boasted other poets such as Edward Thomas, who like Owen, became known for his verse after the war.
Both men were sent to Hare Hall in Gidea Park, where members of the regiment undertook their training before heading off to fight in the trenches.
According to historian Brian Evans, the Artists’ Rifles were an esteemed group of men.
“People came from all regiments in Britain to train with them. The guy in charge had been so pleased – he realised they were going to make a good training regiment.
“About 10,000 soldiers were trained in Havering and people came to select the best cadets [for the war].”
Upon arriving at Hare Hall, Thomas – who later became the camp’s map instructor – wrote to American poet Robert Frost, who he had become friendly with before the outbreak of the conflict.
He wrote: “I wondered if you would recognise me with hair cropped close and carrying a swagger cane [which officers carried]. I was never so well.”
The recruits’ training regime was tough. It often took place from “very early in the morning to very late at night” and included activities such as drill and marching.
Both poets passed their officers’ exams during their time at Hare Hall and, after passing his, Owen moved on to a different location, which Mr Evans believes was Balgores House in Romford, also used by the regiment.
In a letter to his mother, Owen commented on the difference between the “hut” he stayed in at Hare Hall and his new surroundings, which featured a mess room and a table with a tablecloth on it.
Mr Evans said the men in Hare Hall slept on the floor.
Owen added in his letter that himself and the other men expected “the work to be strenuous”.
Thomas, who had a wife, Helen, and three children, is alleged to have become close to Lady Edna Clarke Hall while in Havering; an artist who lived on the common in Harold Wood, which was “really Upminster”.
Mr Evans said: “He spent quite a bit of time with her. Some of his poems might have been meant for her, but nobody could prove it.”
Thomas also wrote a poem called If I Were to Own which featured Havering place names such as Wingle Tye, Gooshays and Lillyputs.
Owen and Thomas, who it is thought were not aware of each other, eventually went on to fight on the Western Front; both meeting with tragedy.
Thomas was killed by the blast of an exploded shell on Easter Monday 1917, the first day of the Battle of Arras.
Owen had received treatment for shellshock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, but decided to return to the war in August 1918.
He was shot on November 4, with the news of his death arriving at his family’s home a week later – on Armistice Day.
“He probably could have stayed at the hospital,” said Mr Evans, “But he insisted on going back. He may have survived and written even more poetry.”
For more information from Brian Evans on Edward Thomas and Hare Hall, see issue 47 of the Romford Record, available for £4 at Havering Museum and Swan Books.