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Charles Causley

(1917-2003) – War baby

Charles Causley was born on the 1117th day of the war. His father was already in uniform at the time of his marriage and was fighting in the trenches when Causley was born. He returned ‘a hopeless invalid’ and died in 1924. The corrosive effect of war was a central theme in Causley’s poetry.

Credit: Causley’s House, Launceston and colour photo by Robert Tilling

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At Launceston in the year that I was born

The ragged poppies ran around the corn

And red October blew her bloody gale

About the flooded field of Passchendaele.

(‘Down by the Riverside’ written ‘for the seventieth birthday of T.S. Eliot’,

Johnny Alleluia – Poems by Charles Causley (1961), p.31) 

Charles Causley was, according to his own computation, born on the 1117th day of the First World War, or 24th August 1917.  His parents married after his father had enlisted in the 2nd Wessex Regiment and by the time of Charles’ birth he was serving in the trenches.  He returned ‘a hopeless invalid’ and died of war-acquired pulmonary tuberculosis in 1924 when Causley was seven.  Causley’s memories of him were almost all of ‘a gaunt, dying man’.  From childhood ‘it was perfectly clear … that war … reached out into one’s home from Ypres or Bethune and killed people after Peace Treaties had been signed’. 

Other members of his family also served.  Uncle Alfred was listed as missing – and his family presumed him dead.  He reappeared three years later.  Uncle Jack was temperamentally unfitted to the army – ‘first in the retreat from Mons’, but revived his ‘country scholarship’ (country cunning or keeping one’s head down) and survived.  And the town bore witness to those disabled by the war.  Dick Lander, deeply shell-shocked, haunted the streets, reduced to childishness.  The heroic behaviour of 16 year old Jack Cornwell, V.C., killed at Jutland, deeply impressed the young Causley.   

The war reached even into his children’s poems: ‘Billy Medals’*wears decorations to which he is not entitled, and in ‘Teignmouth’* the tide of Bank Holiday Monday 1914 ‘washes away the old world’.  It was from others, however, he learnt ‘the grisly songs of war’ and above all the electrifying effect on imagination ‘of reading poems and prose by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Wilfred Owen’.  These First World War poets turned him forcefully away from life in the army and led Causley to opt for the Navy when the Second World War broke out.

*Titles of poems in Charles Causley’s, Collected Poems for Children now reissued as I Had A Little Cat.

Credit: Causley's House, Launceston, colour photo by Robert Tilling, and passport photo