- Reconsidering a “Neglected Classic” and Widening the Canon of World War I Poetry:The Song of Tiadatha
If Wilfred Owen’s dictum was “my subject is war and the pity of war,”’1 Owen Rutter’s might well have been “my subject is war and the boredom of war.” His mock-epic poem The Song of Tiadatha deals with the experiences of Tiadatha (a pun on “Tired Arthur”—a young “nut”2 or man about town) who volunteers for the Dudshire Regiment at the start of the Great War, seeing (some) action in France and Salonica before being wounded and returning home to London on leave. It is not well known now; there are no critical editions3 and it has received virtually no critical attention; only one collection of war poetry, Never Such Innocence, anthologises passages from it, describing it as “one of the great neglected classics of the war … its gentle mockery, its warmth and sympathy, and its ability to produce flashes of sharp savagery make it unique.”4 This article explores Rutter’s poem to put it into the context of his war experiences, to investigate possible reasons why it has been sidelined in the discourse of Great War poetry, and to identify why it should now be reconsidered as a meaningful poetic commentary on the realities of the Great War.
The poem was written by Edward Owen Rutter (1889–1944), at the time a captain in the 7th Battalion, Wiltshire Regiment. Rutter was the son of a Royal Navy reserve engineer, educated at St. Paul’s School, London, and had worked in the North Borneo civil service as a magistrate and district officer between 1910 and 1915, when he returned to London to enlist in the army. He was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant on 21 June 1915. In September 1915 the battalion left its camp at Sutton Veny for France and in November 1915 they moved south to Marseilles and then on to Salonica (modern day Thessalonika) as part of the 26th [End Page 463] Division. While in Salonica the Wiltshires took part in the Battle of Horseshoe Hill (10–18 August 1916) and the Battles of Doiran (24–25 April and 8–9 May 1917).
In June 1918 the 7th Battalion returned to France, arriving at Serqueux on 1 July 1918, where it was attached to the 50th (Northumbrian) Division. In France they saw action at the Battles of the Hindenburg Line (12 September–12 October 1918) as well as the Battle of Selle (17–25 October 1918) and the Battle of Valenciennes (1 November 1918). Demobilisation started in December 1918 and was completed in March 1919 when the final Wiltshires left France.5
The poem was written while Rutter was in Salonica and submitted in sections to the Balkan News, a daily troop newspaper edited by Collinson Owen which ran from 1915 to 1919. Rutter, like many soldier poets, was not a trained writer and used the pseudonym “Klip-Klip” for the initial publication. The series of poems were popular with the troops and Owen reprinted them in book form in Salonica in 1919; it was republished in London by T. Fisher Unwin in 1920. The book was reviewed in the Saturday Review: “Written in high spirits it achieves success of real value”6 and in the Athenaeum: “It is indeed an epic, if one can allow such a dignified title for a composition which is all gentle satire and kindly poking of fun at an essentially English type and yet without any literary merit whatsoever. This latter fact, however, has not prevented, nor will it prevent a large number of the Salonican army from treasuring Capt. Rutter’s verses.”7
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Unwin issued a second edition in 1922, which went through six printings by 1928 and it was republished by Philip Allan and Co., bound with a sequel, The Travels of Tiadatha, in 1935, by which time Rutter himself described it as “a period piece.”8 Rutter became a successful writer and traveller after the war; he was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical and Royal Anthropological Societies and editor of the...