On the Idle Hill of Summer

Many of my favourite war poems are less about war than going to war, not about fighting as such but the reasons for fighting, anticipating the tragic consequences of going.

One such, memorably set to music by George Butterworth, is A.E. Housman's On the Idle Hill of Summer. Housman's soldiers are not 'marching, all to die' on the Somme or at Passchedaele. His war is not the Great War but the Boer war. But there are two poignant links to World War One.

First, Housman's most famous poetry collection, A Shropshire Lad, was among the most carried books by troops posted to France. Although poem XXXV (which is all the title 'Idle Hill' is given!) was written by Housman as early as 1895, inspired (as are many other 'Shropshire Lad' poems) by his brother Herbert's military experience, and the collection was first published only a year later its popularity led to a new, cheap, pocket edition being printed. It was this small volume that troops took to the trenches.

Second, one of the many musicians who knew and admired the poems (and who set many of them - including XXXV - to music) was George Sainton Kaye Butterworth, MC. Butterworth’s great passion was for English folk-song. Along with Vaughan-Williams, Cecil Sharp, Percy Grainger and others, he scoured the country in the years leading up to the war, carefully noting down songs that might otherwise, with the end of the oral tradition, be forgotten. But within weeks of war being declared, Butterworth enlisted and was later commissioned in the 13th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry.

A brave and popular officer, Butterworth was twice recommended for the Military Cross. The citation for its eventual award was gazetted on 25th August 1916, nearly three weeks after Butterworth was killed fighting on the Somme. His body was never recovered. He is one of the over 70,000 men commemorated on the enormous Thiepval memorial in Picardy.

On the idle hill of summer,
      Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
      Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
      On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
      Soldiers marching, all to die.

East and west on fields forgotten
      Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
      None that go return again.

Far the calling bugles hollo,
      High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
      Woman bore me, I will rise.


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