On this day in 1915, Rupert Brooke, a young scholar and poet serving as an officer in the British Royal Navy, dies of blood poisoning on a hospital ship anchored off the Greek island of Skyros, while awaiting deployment in the Allied invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Brooke, born in 1887 in Rugby, Britain, attended King’s College in Cambridge, where he befriended such future luminaries as E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes and Virginia Stephens (later Woolf) as a member of the famed Bloomsbury set. Brooke’s travels in the United States in 1912 produced a series of acclaimed essays and articles; he also lived for a time in Tahiti, where he wrote some of his best-known poems. Returning to England just before the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Brooke gained a commission in the Royal Naval Division with the help of his close friend Edward Marsh, then secretary to First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. In his poetry, Brooke welcomed the arrival of war, writing: Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour/And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping.
Rupert Brooke saw his only action of World War I during the defense of Antwerp, Belgium, against German invasion in early October 1914. Although aided by a stiff resistance from Antwerp’s inhabitants, British troops suffered a decisive defeat in that conflict and were forced to retreat through a devastated Belgian countryside. Brooke subsequently returned to Britain to await redeployment, where he caught the flu during the training and preparation. While recovering, Brooke wrote what would become the most famous of his war sonnets, including Peace, Safety, The Dead, and The Soldier.
Brooke sailed for the Dardanelles near Turkey on February 18, 1915; problems with enemy mines led to a delay in his squadron’s deployment and a training stint in Egypt, where Brooke contracted dysentery. By this time, Brooke’s poems had begun to gain notice in Britain, and he was offered the chance to return to Britain and serve away from the battlefield after his recovery; he refused. On April 10, he sailed with his unit to Greece, where they anchored off Skyros. There, Brooke developed a fatal case of blood poisoning from an insect bite; he died on April 23, 1915, aboard a hospital ship, two days before the Allies launched their massive, ill-fated invasion of Gallipoli.
On April 26, The Times of London ran an obituary notice for Brooke written by Winston Churchill. The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind, Churchill wrote, will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward in this, the hardest, the cruelest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. The opening lines of The Soldier, Brooke’s most famous poem, evoke the simple, heartfelt patriotism to which Churchill felt all England’s soldiers should aspire: If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England.