By the day he met his untimely end on one of the many bloody battlefields of World War I, Edward Thomas had achieved a reputation as a writer and editor. His publication history included essays, critical studies of famous poets and biographies. He had exhibited a natural talent for editing and reviewing and was looked up for his keen insight into what it took for others to product great poetry. When Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on Easter 1917, the full extent of the canon of poetry that would be his legacy had been composed entirely within the previous two and a half years.
The fact that Thomas would become a casualty of World War I is tragically fitting. As it became increasingly obvious that war was inevitable in Europe, he waged an internal war with himself over such a war was worth enlisting to fight. While his career as a poet began before the onset of the Great War, the poetry that he produced in response to the tug-of-war taking place between patriotic sense of duty and the artist’s innate recognition of warfare as ultimately pointless seem to fire his spirit.
During the last six months before finally enlisting, Edward Thomas went on a creative tear that produced 85 poems, and then somehow managed to find time during his actual military training to write 50 more. Those early poems generally situate the ravages of war as a means of exploring larger themes. Even during the early period of his enlistment when the battles take on a more concrete character, perspective is still that of an outsider not really fully engaged. The process of enlistment and training bought on the reality that death may wait and the later poems inexorably link war to mortality.
That slow transformation in the way young men swept up in the patriotic fervor of defending their country come to view war, as they themselves are transformed from civilians to warriors, becomes the theme of the war poetry that established his reputation. The swiftness of that evolution of perspective only serves to punctuate how his death could come to seem almost inevitable and almost too perfectly poetic to be believed.
That Easter Monday in 1917 is not just any date related to the Arras Offensive. It was the very first day of the Arras Offensive, and Thomas had only recently arrived. His first duty on the battlefield was in an observation capacity. His death came instantly and without warning as the result of a stray shell.