A Man Of Dust: The Battles Of Keith Douglas

The Second World War is seldom feted for its poetry, despite producing poets whose talents rivalled those of the 1914-1918 conflict. Though he remained relatively unknown until the reissue of his work in 1964, of all the later conflict’s poets, the most striking was Captain Keith Douglas, with poems such as The Knife, and How to Kill hinting at the great promise that had barely begun to surface before his death on 9th June, 1944. In Desert Flowers, written in 1943, Douglas freely admits, ‘Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying’ and he made no secret of how he looked to the earlier soldier poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg for inspiration, claiming their poetry was enacted ‘everyday on the battlefields’ and admiring how they communicated their personal experiences of battle.

Born on 24th January 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Douglas’s childhood was marred by the illnesses of both his parents, which led to financial hardship for the family and the breakdown of their marriage by 1929. Douglas’s father later remarried and subsequently distanced himself from his young son, who was sent to a boarding school near Guildford. Douglas later recalled how his father’s rejection led him to retreat into his own imaginary world, which was ‘so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’ In 1931, with his mother no longer able to afford his school fees, Douglas was sent to Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, where assistance funds covered the costs of his education.

Douglas left Christ’s Hospital in 1938, to read History and English at Merton College, Oxford. At Oxford he encountered the war poet, Edmund Blunden, who was his tutor and a profound influence upon the young man.  It was at Oxford that Douglas’s love of poetry was fostered, he also met the only woman with whom he would fall deeply in love, a Chinese student named Yingcheng, who turned down his proposal of marriage, a rejection that, like that of his father, he would never quite get over. Though he would go on to have other lovers, he would tell Yingcheng, you, however cheaply you behave…will always be the only person I love completely – you’ll become almost a goddess or a mania if you go away… If you ever can decide that things could be all right… please have the courage and confidence in me to come back.’

Almost as soon as war was declared, Douglas decided to join up. His father had been a retired military man and combined with his admiration for the poets of the Great War, it seemed the most natural course of action. His training commenced in July 1940, and he passed out from Sandhurst on 1st February 1941. Initially, he was posted to Ripon as a part of the Second Derbyshire Yeomanry, before being transferred to the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry (known as the Sherwood Rangers) and sent to Cairo in July that year. Douglas was then dispatched to Divisional Staff as a camouflage officer before the Second Battle of El Alamein began on 23rd October 1942. Frustrated and angered by the heavy casualties, Douglas drove to the Regimental HQ, lying to the Commanding Officer that he had been ordered to go to the front, he was then posted to A Squadron before serving as a fighting tanker during the Eight Army’s advance across North Africa. Following a brief period of recuperation in a Palestinian hospital after he was wounded at Zem Zem in the advance on Triploi, Douglas returned to England in December 1943, before taking part in the Normandy invasion of June 1944.

Three days after D-Day, in a characteristically stubborn move, and thinking he could make more progress on foot, Douglas had abandoned his tank just outside the small village of St. Pierre. As he ran down a ditch to make a report of the area, a German mortar exploded above him, killing him instantly. Douglas was buried near where he died, but after the war his remains were moved to the Tilly-sur-Seulles War Cemetery, just outside of Bayeux.

In 1946, the Collected Poems of Keith Douglas was published, with his old tutor, Edmund Blunden providing the Introduction to the volume. Honouring the candour of his former pupil, Blunden refused to mythologise him, acknowledging instead that, ‘Against his generosity and zest for life must be place, if the portrait is to be (as he would of wished it to be) true to life, certain less endearing qualities – an impulsive and obstinate streak which was sometimes the despair of even his closest friends.’ Indeed, Douglas’s batman had also recognised the qualities Blunden described, telling him, ‘I like you, Sir. You’re shit or bust, you are.’

With his words, Douglas attempted to provide as blunt and uncompromising account of war as the earlier soldier poets had done, yet he also believed that ‘to read about it cannot convey the impression of having walked through the looking-glass which touches a man entering a battle.’ More difficult to convey still, was the ‘feeling of comradeship with the men who kill them and whom they kill, because they are enduring and experiencing the same things.’ One particularly harrowing passage in Alamein to Zem Zem, the memoir Douglas wrote during his time in North Africa, describes finding the corpse of a German soldier, and how, ‘His expression of agony seemed so acute and urgent, his stare so wild and despairing, that for a moment I thought him alive. He was like a cleverly posed waxwork, for his position suggested a paroxysm, an orgasm of pain. He seemed to move and writhe. But he was stiff. The dust which powdered his face like an actor’s lay on his wide open eyes, whose stare held my gaze like the Ancient Mariner’s.’ For Keith Douglas, though battle was something he ‘never lost the certainty’ that he ‘must have,’ his own experience of it, showed him that the enemy were also men of flesh.

Selected Sources:

Alamein to Zem Zem – Keith Douglas (1946)

Keith Douglas, 1920-1944: A Biography – Desmond Graham (2012)