History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Revealed: secret letters from wartime poet John Jarmain

Published: November 8, 2013 at 3:58 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

A cache of 150 letters written by Second World War soldier-poet John Jarmain has been discovered in a family bureau.


Hidden for decades in a locked drawer, the letters were found by Jarmain’s daughter Janet, following the death of her mother.

She had been unaware of any surviving correspondence between her parents.

The letters detail her mother’s worries and loneliness during wartime, and convey Jarmain’s personality.

They include his most famous poems, El Alamein and Sand, which Jarmain had sent home along with accounts of desert warfare in rorth Africa and enquiries about family news.

An artillery captain who served in the 51st Highland Division and lived in Somerset and Dorset, Jarmain was killed in Normandy in June 1944, several weeks after D-Day, having met his daughter only once.

His war poems were published to critical acclaim in 1945.

Suffering great dangers and difficult conditions, Jarmain sent his poems home to ensure their preservation. An early version of his best-known work, El Alamein, was copied in a letter, dated December 1942. This version starts:

“They rang the bells for us, for Alamein:

“From church to church across the grassy land

“By elm–girt square and tranquil village green

“— As there gun answered gun across the sand —

“Proudly the grey spires passed the peal

“For us, for Alamein. That name will stand,

“Long after us maybe, for brave deeds done,

“For stubborn glory, and the battle won…”

In a 1942 airgraph responding to news of his daughter’s birth, Jarmain writes to his wife: “My Dearest, Your cable reached me this evening, having taken 10 days to come.

“So Janet Susan is waiting for me too now, and you are well and safe. I have waited very long to hear that. 

“Bless you my dearest, and keep yourself well, for me.”

Another letter tells of life in the desert, where Jarmain sits in a dug-out with “everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all? 

“That is the trouble: we are in two worlds, and it is probably hardly possible for you in yours to picture mine. 

“But my spell of duty was from 9pm to 7am, so unless I fall asleep I should have time to send you some sort of pictures of the desert as I know it now.”

The letters have been given to the University of Exeter by Janet, and are now archived to form part of the university’s Heritage Collection.

Professor Tim Kendall, director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Literature and Archives, said: “The poets of the Second World War are less well-known than their First World War predecessors, but at their best, they were just as powerful.

“In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions.

“He is a landscape poet inspired by some of the most hostile and forbidding landscapes ever endured.

“A soldier in north Africa experienced war in very different ways from his First World War predecessors. It was a far more mobile war, and many soldiers remarked on the strangeness of enjoying rest and relaxation in Tripoli, Cairo or Alexandria while the battle continued to rage only a day’s travelling away.

“Jarmain’s letters also convey the distance between home and the warzone.”

Professor Peter Barry, an English lecturer at Aberystwyth University who specialises in 20th and 21st-century literature and poetry, told historyextra: “I was delighted to hear about the discovery of the Jarmain letters, and hope that they will be published in due course.

“As a student, I was trained in the austere doctrine that only 'the words on the page' counted and that all else was 'external' and hence a distraction - the 'man' and the poet were entirely separate entities, we were taught (following T. S. Eliot).

“It is surprising we weren't put off poetry for life! Ever since, in teaching and writing, I have been trying to undo the effects of that approach.


“In many cases (Keats and Edward Thomas come immediately to mind), reading the letters and the poems in dialogue with each other makes a complete reading experience, which is immensely satisfying, and I hope that will prove the case with Jarmain's work.”


Sponsored content