Rupert Chawner Brooke (middle name sometimes given as “Chaucer;” 3 August 1887 – 23 April 1915) was an English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets written during the First World War, especially “The Soldier.” He was also known for his boyish good looks, which were said to have prompted the Irish poet W. B. Yeats to describe him as “the handsomest young man in England.
Brooke was born at 5 Hillmorton Road, Rugby, Warwickshire the second of the three sons of William Parker Brooke, a Rugby schoolmaster, and Ruth Mary Brooke, née Cotterill. He was educated at two independent schools in Rugby: Hillbrow School and Rugby School. In 1905, he became friends with St. John Lucas, who thereafter became something of a mentor to him.
As a war poet Brooke came to public attention in 1915 when The Times Literary Supplement quoted two of his five sonnets (“IV: The Dead” and “V: The Soldier”) in full on 11 March and his sonnet “V: The Soldier” was read from the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday (4 April). Brooke’s most famous collection of poetry, containing all five sonnets, 1914 & Other Poems, was first published in May 1915 and, in testament to his popularity, ran to 11 further impressions that year and by June 1918 had reached its 24th impression; a process undoubtedly fueled through posthumous interest.
Brooke’s accomplished poetry gained many enthusiasts and followers, and he was taken up by Edward Marsh, who brought him to the attention of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Brooke was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary Sub-Lieutenant shortly after his 27th birthday and took part in the Royal Naval Division’s Antwerp expedition in October 1914. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28 February 1915 but developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite. He died at 4:46 pm on 23 April 1915, on the French hospital ship, the Duguay-Trouin, moored in a bay off the Greek island of Skyros in the Aegean Sea, while on his way to the landing at Gallipoli. As the expeditionary force had orders to depart immediately, Brooke was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on Skyros. The site was chosen by his close friend, William Denis Browne, who wrote of Brooke’s death:
I sat with Rupert. At 4 o’clock he became weaker, and at 4.46 he died, with the sun shining all round his cabin, and the cool sea-breeze blowing through the door and the shaded windows. No one could have wished for a quieter or a calmer end than in that lovely bay, shielded by the mountains and fragrant with sage and thyme.
His grave remains there still and was erected by a close friend and famous war poet Stanley Casson. Another friend—and war poet—Patrick Shaw-Stewart, also played a prominent role in Brooke’s funeral. On 11 November 1985, Brooke was among 16 First World War poets commemorated on a slate monument unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on the stone was written by a fellow war poet, Wilfred Owen. It reads: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
The original wooden cross that marked his grave on Skyros, which was painted and carved with his name, was removed to Clifton Road Cemetery in Rugby, Warwickshire, to the Brooke family plot. When a permanent memorial was made for his grave on Skyros, Brooke’s mother, Mary Ruth Brooke, had the original cross brought from Skyros to Rugby and placed at the plot. However, because of erosion in the open air, it was removed from the cemetery in 2008, and replaced by a more permanent marker. The original grave marker from Skyros is now at Rugby School with the memorials of other old Rugbeians.
Brooke’s brother, 2nd Lt. William Alfred Cotterill Brooke, was a member of the 8th Battalion London Regiment Post Office Rifles and was killed in action near Le Rutoire Farm on 14 June 1915 aged 24. He is buried in Fosse 7 Military Cemetery (Quality Street), Mazingarbe, Pas de Calais, France. He had only joined the battalion on 25 May.