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The death of Alun Lewis

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 13:00 UK time, Sunday, 4 March 2012

Many people consider the young Welsh poet and short story writer Alun Lewis, a man who died on active service in Burma in 1944, a far better writer than the more famous Dylan Thomas.

His body of work - two small poetry collections, two short books of prose - was not great and it is difficult to make judgements about lasting quality. And literature should never be about competition, about one writer being better or worse than another.

But Lewis' story is certainly one of tragedy - it was a life cut short by a terrible and brutal war, a war that he hated and despised. Who knows what he might have achieved had the man been allowed a few more years of life and creativity.

Alun Lewis was born in Cwmaman on 1 July 1915 and died on the Arakan Front in Burma on 5 March 1940. In between he was educated at Cowbridge Grammar School, the Universities of Aberystwyth and Manchester and spent some time as a teacher at Pengam. In the years immediately before the war he fell in love with a fellow teacher, Gweno Ellis, and wrote stories and poems.

Lewis was beginning to get published when war broke out in 1939. An incredibly sensitive young man, he was not ideally suited to life as a soldier. He had no desire to kill and for a while considered registering as a conscientious objector.

His disgust and horror at what Hitler and the Nazi regime were doing in Europe eventually led him to understand that he could not stand aside while others fought, and so, in March 1940 - his mind still full of doubt and confusion - he enlisted in the army.

Serving first as a sapper, by the middle of July he had been promoted to lance corporal and in October he wrote one of his most memorable poems, All Day it has Rained, on the Shoulder o'Mutton near Petersfield in Hampshire. It was a paean of praise to the countryside and to World War One poet Edward Thomas. It was also, perhaps inevitably, a melancholy lament for the "landless soldier locked in war."

The poem, published in Horizon, earned Alun Lewis immediate recognition and a number of further publications soon came his way.

He married Gweno shortly before being given a commission in the South Wales Borderers. Although his first book, Raiders Dawn And Other Poems, was soon published by Allen and Unwin, he was miserable and lonely, clearly at sea in a world and an army that had little time for sensitivities and esoteric things like poems and stories.

He would soon be lonelier still as in October 1942 he and his unit set sail for India, a country that, to Alun and Gweno, was a whole world away. From the beginning the sub-continent fascinated and appalled him. As intelligence officer for his unit he made several reconnaissance trips into the jungle, the hills and native villages. What he saw and experienced inevitably found its way into his poems and stories.

Whatever his emotions, in prose pieces like The Orange Grove and in poems such as The Peasants he had clearly found his voice:

"Across scorched hills and trampled crops
The soldiers straggle by,
History staggers in their wake.
The peasants watch them die."

It was the enormity of India that frightened and confused him, the wildness and the untamed, untouchable nature of a country that nobody could really understand. There were unknown forces present in the land that made him, at the very least, uncomfortable.

Lewis's world was shattered when, during a period of leave in the middle of 1943, he met and fell in love with Freda Ackroyd. He did not love Gweno any less but he had been apart from her for nine months. He was lonely and adrift, desperately in need of comfort.

While the relationship with Freda certainly brought him comfort, it also brought torture. He knew he was betraying a trust and, as a consequence, he was more lost and alone than ever.

Alun's unit travelled to Burma in February 1944 and quickly moved up to oppose the Japanese. On the night of 4 March he joined B Company in what was a forward position in the Goppe Pass. Just after 5am the following day, on his way to the officers' latrine, he either slipped or fell down a steep bank. His revolver was in his hand and there was a single gunshot wound to the right temple. He died a few hours later.

There has always been debate about the death. Was it an accident or did Alun Lewis shoot himself? The records of the South Wales Borderers and the formal court of inquiry say it was an accident but, given his sensibilities and the emotional turmoil of his last few months, it is hard not to believe that Alun Lewis shot himself in the head.

Whatever the circumstances, that death on the Arakan Front of Burma robbed Wales of one of its most fascinating and skilled writers. He remains an enigma, a man whose finest work was sharpened and honed by a war he hated - a war that eventually destroyed him.


  • Comment number 1.

    It makes every sense to me to regard Alun Lewis as a finer poet than Dylan Thomas (for what such judgments are worth, as you say). Lewis's poetry is so much less flamboyant, it's close to under-statement at times, and yet is so deeply moving. He also has that quality, unusual after the trench-warfare poems of the First World War, of writing so well about the people on the fringes of the war. There is the fine 'All Day It Has Rained', of course, a wonderful depiction of camp life and written before he'd been in action. And, for all the intensity of some of the poems of India, I feel that as memorable as any are poems like 'The Mountain Over Aberdare', with its portrait of the lives of the women and children of a Welsh valley community, struggling on at home.

  • Comment number 2.

    We can never agree on what constitutes fine poetry, but Lewis is certainly a major literary figure and one that Wales should be proud of. So many great writers have encountered personal tragedies, and often these are either the catalyst for their greatest work or an inevitable result of their genius.

  • Comment number 3.

    I suppose it's something of a fruitless exercise to debate or decide that one writer is "better" than another. However, I have always felt that the real power of war poetry comes, not from direct retelling - unless it's of the "light verse" variety that made Sassoon's work so powerful, where the style of writing contrasts so memorably with the content - but from people writing about what Robert calls "the fringes of the war." That's what makes Edward Thomas such a fine poet - and it's the same with Lewis. His farewell poem to Gweno has to be one of the most moving pieces to come out of the Second World War.


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