Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Death of Edward Thomas, Author of the Title for Roads to the Great War

At the top of this page, you will see a quote from poet Edward Thomas from his poem "Roads." His is one of the names on a slate stone in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, which commemorates the sixteen “Great War Poets." It is alongside the likes of Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, so Thomas’s name will therefore be immortalized as a war poet although most of his work was written before he ever went to war.  In fact, his time at the front was tragically short—he was killed at the Battle of Arras very soon after arriving in France in 1917 on 9 April 1917.

Edward Thomas During Training
Like so many men of the time he felt compelled to enlist in the Army even though, as a married man of 37, he was not obliged to do so. Thus he joined the Artists Rifles in July 1915.  It is generally regarded that he came to his decision having read fellow poet Robert Frost’s great poem "The Road Not Taken."

He went to France as a commissioned officer of the Royal Garrison Artillery and met his end in curiously tragic circumstances on Easter Monday, April 1917.  Having survived the bloody Battle of Arras he stood casually in his trench to light his pipe.  A late, random shell burst near to him and the concussive blast wave from it was so strong that the force of it killed him where he stood.

Edward Thomas’s body was taken to the Military Cemetery at Agny in France and here he lies among the many rows of fallen soldiers. He left behind his wife Helen and two daughters and so consumed by grief was Helen that she sought solace in writings of her own. She published an account of their early years together called As it Was (1926) with a second volume following in 1931 called World Without End.

This poem was one of the last Edward Thomas Wrote before he left his training camp for France.:

By Edward Thomas

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain 
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me 
Remembering again that I shall die 
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks 
For washing me cleaner than I have been 
Since I was born into this solitude. 
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon: 
But here I pray that none whom once I loved 
Is dying tonight or lying still awake 
Solitary, listening to the rain, 
Either in pain or thus in sympathy 
Helpless among the living and the dead, 
Like a cold water among broken reeds, 
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff, 
Like me who have no love which this wild rain 
Has not dissolved except the love of death, 
If love it be for what is perfect and 
Cannot, the tempest tells me,  

7 January, 1916 



  1. Edward Thomas was a great writer and poet. I have read his many books and peoms as well. They are always having lessons, I do recommend them to my kids as well.

  2. Given Thomas' depression and occasional suicidal impulses, is it reasonable to suggest that he deliberately put himself in harm's way at the observation post where he was shot ?
    His life with his family had become unbearable, he was full of guilt at his behaviour towards Helen and his children, there had been no recognition of his literary skill and the landscape he discovered around the Western Front must have been the most appalling shock to a man who loved the natural world.
    He had nothing to look forward to on his return to Britain, why not let Fate decide the issue ?
    I estimate the observation post was about a mile to the west of the German front line, too distant for an aimed shot even assuming a German sniper would bother with such a target when the fighting was much closer to home. Spent bullets and shrapnel, however, often fell well behind the British front and my guess is that this was the cause of his death. Even with his limited front line experience he would have known that standing above the protective dugout would have placed him at serious risk of death or injury.
    And so it proved.