Scenes from the Life of Poet and War Casualty: FW Harvey

The poet FW Harvey (1886-1957) spent the last thirty years of his life in Yorkley in the Forest of Dean. I was brought up in the Forest of Dean and was always taught that Harvey was our very own war poet and First World War hero who won a medal for “conspicuous gallantry” which included killing a number of German soldiers at close quarters.

However this book is about Harvey the man, who was both human and flawed. The book challenges some of the myths surrounding his story and places his poetry in the context of the violent and turbulent times in which he lived. It even goes as far as to challenge the myth of his status as a war hero. Adams, referring to a theory from a medical writer who has worked with current-day soldier-sufferers, wonders whether Harvey may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder when he wandered into the German lines. Adams goes on to question whether he was captured, confused  or, like others, just wanted to escape from the war. Harvey spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, traumatised by his experiences and sinking in and out of depression. It was during this period that he wrote the poetry for which he became famous.

Adam’s father Ivon and his grandfather Edgar, a Forest miner, were both good friends of Harvey. As a result, Adams was able to gain access to memoirs to tell a revelatory and sympathetic story of a man whose life was so affected by the First World War. His story is told by tracking his life backwards through a series of snapshots from his death to his first memories as a child, much in the poet’s own words. In the process Adams offers fresh insights into his poetry as he re-examines Harvey’s attitude to war, poverty and social justice.

Thanks to this emphasis on the development of his ideas, Harvey emerges as a more interesting poet than history has accorded a generous and active member of the Forest of Dean community, a great humanitarian and a fascinating and complex man. After the war, Harvey set up as a solicitor but often represented his impoverished neighbours in the local courts for little or no fee.  He could be often found in the local pubs, the Bailey or Royal Oak, drinking with the local miners and offering free legal advice.

The title is from an elegy Harvey wrote on the death in a lunatic asylum of Ivor Gurney his friend, fellow soldier, poet and musician, in which the war is described as

That devil’s wonder
That tore our lives asunder
And left behind a nightmare trail
Of horrors scattered through the brain,
Of shattered hopes and memories frail.

I recommend this book to anyone who seeks an understanding of the damaging effects of war on the mind of one young man and how such experiences could inspire great poetry and change a life in a land, which many hoped, would be fit for heroes.

The Nightmare Trail (£7.50) is published by Yorkley a&e (a not-for-profit cooperative) and is available at The Forest Bookshop, Coleford, Forest of Dean, or direct from yorkley.ae@gmail.com

Notes

The Nightmare Trail Cover

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