Edward Thomas and the Snake’s Head Fritillary

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town –
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet’,
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

Snakes Head Fritillary

Thanks to Deborah Roberts for the above photo.

Thanks to Bob Fry for the above photo.

The local Swindon paper’s obituary for Edward Thomas
Commented on his love for the country around the town –
And William Cobbett’s hated rotten borough,
‘The place by the river’, was just six miles or so
From his grandmother’s house near the railway works;
Did he, I wonder, ever make an Easter visit
To the Lammas Meadows at Cricklade,
From Swindon’s Old Town station,
After talking with Alfred Williams,
‘The hammer man poet’,
Glimpsing the ‘Other man’ in the Anglo-Saxon fields,
Or near where a vengeful King Canute crossed the Thames,
And did those memories flit through his mind
On that fateful Easter Monday in 1917,
Recalling some of the ‘Other names’
Of the snake’s head fritillary,
Such as bloody warrior or widow’s wall.

He loved the inadvertent poetry of place names,
So how he would have loved the poetry of the snake’s head fritillary,
Also known as the Oaksey lily, the chequered lily,
Bloody warrior, dead man’s bell, falfaries fan cup,
Shy widows, snake flower, solemn bells of Sodom,
Toad’s head, weeping willow, and widow’s wall,
The flower that sprang up to warn of the advance of Roman legions,
The flower that survived enclosure,
The flower that may have bloomed in Thomas’ mind,
To warn of a concussive shell,
Hurtling across no man’s land,
But not the 77mm pip-squeak that shot right through his chest.

‘Hush, here comes a whizz bang,
Hush, here comes a whizz bang,
Now you soldier men, get down those stairs,
Down in your dugouts and say your prayers,
Hush, here comes a whizz bang,
And it’s making straight for you,
And you’ll see all the wonders of no man’s land
If a whizz bang hits you.’

But it’s the pip-squeak that gets you,
That stops the clocks,
When you’re studying the sky,
Lighting your pipe,
In pursuit of the spring in Arras,
In the front line,
Unenclosed.

Snake’s head fritillary,
Bloody warrior,
Widow’s wall,
Dead men’s bell,
Shy widows.

As in life, so in death: Edward Thomas was still to be haunted by ‘The Other’:

Matthew Hollis in Now All Roads Lead to France: ‘Edward Thomas left the dugout behind his post and leaned into the opening to take a moment to fill his pipe. A shell passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. He fell without a mark on his body.’

Jean Moorcroft Wilson in her biography Edward Thomas From Addlestrop to Arras: ‘Captain Lushington received a telephone call just after the battle began, reporting that Thomas had been “killed in the O.P. by a direct hit through the chest.”’ Lushington then wrote to Helen to say that Thomas had been killed from “a direct hit by a shell.”
Wilson thinks that Lushington decided to protect a vulnerable Helen from the truth, however, when he eventually visited her, by re-imagining a fictive death based on Thomas’ miraculous escape the day before his death, when a shell landed close to him – a dud. Helen wrote, in consequence that, “there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.”
Wilson adds that Lushington wrote to an early biographer of Thomas in 1936 that, “Thomas had been killed, shot clean through the chest by a pip-squeak (a 77mm shell)”. Wilson thinks that the biographer ignored the letter “in deference to the widow.”
The letter, buried in archives, has only recently been unearthed.

As in life, so in death: Edward Thomas was still to be haunted by ‘The Other’.