There is far less known about Nowell Oxland (the first of our soldier poets) than most of our other contributors.
However, following the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War new details have surfaced and it appears that he has a local connection. Historian and writer James Daly (Daly History Blog) mentioned that his parents moved to Outram Road, Southsea,(1) before his death at Gallipoli in 1915, but council and church records confirm that his father remained Vicar at St Augustine’s Parish Church in the High Pennines until 1917.(2) It seems that it was at this time that they moved back South to Portsmouth to be near his mother’s elder sister Mary and perhaps seeking the solace of the sea.
William and Caroline Oxland married in 1871 in Charles Church, Plymouth, Devon and remained in the South West for the birth of their children, Collette, Dora May and William Campbell. Their youngest son, Nowell, was born nearby at Compton Gifford near Plympton in December 1890. The memories of Nowell’s childhood are retold by the family of his close friend, Noel Hodgson, in the biography (Before Action: William Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons) published by Charlotte Zeepvat in 2014.
“… he had three older siblings, though in his case they were so much older that he might as well have been an only child. His parents were in their forties when he was born; he was four when his only brother and closest sibling left home for University, nine when the younger of his two sisters died. The elder sister, Colette, was more than eighteen years his senior. Their father, the Rev William Oxland, was a naval chaplain; after a lifetime of service on board various ships, in 1897 he became chaplain to the Royal Dockyard and the Naval Hospital in Chatham and moved the family to Kent. In 1901 he left the Navy behind him, accepting the living of St Augustine’s Church in Alston in Cumbria, high in the North Pennines.
For Nowell, then ten years old, the remoteness of this new home excited his imagination. A solitary boy and very independent, young Oxland explored the moorland landscapes, drank in their history and legends, and became a keen climber and bird-watcher. The Cumbrian fells quickly became his own place, an identification he felt so deeply that his southern roots were forgotten…”(3)
This breath-taking landscape provides the inspiration behind Outward Bound, published posthumously in The Times in August 1915 (4) and which remains the only well-known poem by Nowell Oxland that survives today.
There’s a waterfall I’m leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There’s a pool for which I’m grieving
Near the water-ouzel’s home,
And it’s there that I’d be lying
With the heather close at hand,
And the Curlew’s faintly crying
‘Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise.
I can hear the river singing
Like the Saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounders sinking
By the bridges’ granite span.
Ah! To win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the rivers’ stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through clouds-rifts rent asunder
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world…
After setting sail from Liverpool with the 6th Battalion Border Regiment on 30 June 1915, Lieutenant Oxland composed these lines during his long sea passage to the Mediterranean.(4) The first section of the poem recalling his love of Alston Moor before drawing us back in time to the invasion of the Greeks at Troy across the Dardanelles. (5)
… Though the high Gods smite and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came here many years ago:
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace;
We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
When the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again.
Nowell was a dedicated student. He attended Durham School as a King’s Scholar and it was there he met Noel Hodgson, both sharing a love of poetry, sport and hill climbing. Hodgson (renowned war poet Edward Melbourne) was widely published during the war and penned his most famous poem ‘Before Action’ in the days leading up to the Battle of the Somme.(6) (We will hear more about Nowell Oxland’s time at Durham School and their lasting friendship in my next post – ‘Men Well Versed in the Horrors of War’.)
Oxland left Durham for University in 1909 and was studying History at Worcester College, Oxford, when war broke out. On the 24 August 1914 he joined the 6th Battalion Border Regiment (recruited from the dales, towns and villages of Cumberland and Westmorland) and received his commission on 31 December the same year. After lengthy preparations, the Battalion set sail at the end of June 1915.
The Gallipoli campaign was to become an ill-fated attempt to shorten the war with a plan to eliminate Turkey, create a Balkan alliance against the Central Powers and secure a sea route to Russia. The resulting allied forces casualties reaching over 390,000.
‘On August 9th the 6th Battalion was ordered to attack Ismail Oglu Tepe and the windmills south of Anafarta Sagir. In the attack, the Turks were occupying Hill 70 (Scimitar Hill) and were able to pour fire down on the Border men. Before being forced to withdraw 13 officers and 26 men had been killed, 5 officers and 241 wounded, and 131 other ranks were missing. One of the fallen officers was Nowell Oxland. He was aged 24’.(7)
The Helles Memorial which stands on the headland at the very tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula commemorates those who have no known resting place – the panels list 558 Border Regiment men of the 1st and 6th Battalions. Lieutenant Nowell Oxland is buried nearby at Green Hill Cemetery, Suvla.
Josh Levithan takes us back to 6 September 1915 with his blog ‘A Century Back‘ and Noel Hodgson’s letter to his sister Stella on that day:
She had sent him a piece of England: a hunk of moss from a favourite spot of his. “In other circumstances, he would have treasured it as a physical link to home,” but Hodgson had just learned of the death of his close friend Nowell Oxland.
‘Thanks very much for the moss from the Gable, which I burned at evening in the memory of Oxland who died in the Dardanelles a fortnight ago, and was my great companion in my hill climbs. I shall miss him much; also three more school pals who were in Saturday’s list’.
The two friends had often discussed their plans for their literary careers, and now Hodgson will begin to feel as if he must write for two. At some time in the next few weeks he produced these verses:
In Memory of Nowell Oxland, Killed at Suvla Bay
August 9th, 1915
You were a lover of the hills, and had
From them some measure of their Roman strength;
You that are laid in hearing of the sad
Aegean waters, by a whole sea length
Severed from these: above your nameless bed
The pitiless forehead of an alien sky
For the cool peace and spaciousness that lie
Upon the slopes of your own valley-head.
So if in happier times I climb Black Sail
Over the Gable to Bowfell, and drop
By Sticks as evening comes, to Borrowdale
Often, my friend, shall I remember you
Taking your long rest on the distant shore.
And say I love my ancient hills the more
Because you wandered here & loved them too.(8)
Despite surviving the battlefields at Loos, Fricourt and Mametz, Hodgson was killed in action on the 1st July 1916 at the Battle of the Somme.
Both families released posthumous volumes of their poetry, but perhaps the most poignant memorial to Oxland remains in his Father’s former parish church, St Augustine’s, Alston. There is an elaborately carved memorial screen and behind the altar, a rederos flanked by two painted panels. These panels depict Saint Michael and Saint George, but on closer inspection, both clearly show the face of Lieutenant Nowell Oxland.(9)
It must have been heartbreaking for the Rev. William Oxland to leave behind his parish church, but letters to the Bishop indicate that he suffered a breakdown following his son’s death and was unable to complete his duties. Nowell’s parents retired to Southsea in 1917 and sadly his Father passed away just a year later. His Mother remained in Portsmouth and it is here she would have received the news that Nowell’s brother, Captain William Campbell Oxland of the King’s African Rifles, had been awarded the Military Cross for distinguished service in South Africa in January 1919.(10)
(3) Zeepvat, Charlotte, William Noel Hodgson and the 9thDevons, Pen & Sword (2014)
(4) Oxland, Nowell – Outward Bound- The Times (Aug 1915)
(7) Ralph, May, Glory is no Compensation, the Border Regiment at Gallipoli, 1915(2003)
(10) London Gazette, 7 February 1919, p293-4