The war poet Leslie Coulson has been undeservedly forgotten
Though posthumously published in 1917, Leslie Coulson’s first and only book, From an Outpost and Other Poems, sold more than 10,000 copies that year and quickly went through four impressions. But time has dimmed this war poet’s light.
Born in Kilburn, north London, in 1889, Coulson worked as a journalist for the Morning Post and as a Reuters correspondent before enlisting as a private with the London Regiment Fusiliers in September 1914, having refused a commission. He preferred to work his way up through the ranks.
Departing for Malta in December 1914, Coulson would never return to England, but memories of his homeland would haunt his poetry. After receiving minor wounds at Gallipoli, he was promoted to sergeant and went to France in April 1916, the devastation there leading him to write of his heartbreak and his fears if similar scenes were to occur in England. On October 8, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a shot to the chest.
Among his possessions was a copy of what would become his best-known poem, “Who Made the Law?”, in which he questioned how any higher authority, mortal or divine, could ever condone carnage such as he had witnessed. His grave at the Grove Town Cemetery in Méaulte was inscribed with the words “Nothing but well and fair, and what may quiet us in death so noble”, from Manoa’s elegy for his son in Milton’s Samson Agonistes.
Written by Coulson’s father Frederick, who also edited the book, the foreword to From an Outpost is not only elegiac but also emphasises the willing sacrifice of Coulson and other young men like him, who believed that their altruism would preserve all that they held dear. The poems themselves serve as a stark reminder that beauty and brutality are not mutually exclusive.
For Coulson, the simple splendour that he found in nature could not be destroyed by the abject hell of the trenches. Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in “The Rainbow”, where he expresses his gratitude that the joyful sight of a soaring lark, or corn swaying in the breeze, is undiminished by the unnatural horror wrought by mankind. Furthermore, he recognises that these things will continue to be wondrous and unchanged long after the war is over, even after his own death.
Shortly before his premonition became a reality, Coulson wrote to his father, “If I should fall, do not grieve for me. I shall be one with the wind and the sun and the flowers.” A century later, while Coulson has been outshone by the brighter poetic lights of the First World War firmament, like the night skies he marvelled at amidst the bloodshed, his poems are indeed still beautiful: “And I dry my hands, that are also trained to kill/And I look at the stars — for the stars are beautiful still.”