Local historian Harold Heys looks at Darwen's own 'bard of the trenches'

IT’S difficult to imagine a Tommy in the trenches knocking out poetry amid the horrors of mustard gas and machine guns, shells and shrapnel.

Some of the officers, Sassoon and Brooke, Owen and McCrae among them, are remembered more than a century later for a wonderfully rich vein of poetry.

But an ordinary Tommy? Not really.

Charlie Skeels wrote poetry in the most arduous of circumstances; in the trenches around the Belgian killing fields of Ypres, in prison camps and in hospitals.

However, it was his wife, Lily Anne, who made wartime headlines when she was chosen to visit him in Switzerland together with other wives and sweethearts who were taken there for touching reunions as their menfolk slowly recovered from their wounds.

The story of the Darwen couple’s meeting has been told in the Lancashire Telegraph’s nostalgia columns, but not his penchant for poetry.

This story of his scribblings was found in the archives of the Darwen News by fellow historian Tony Foster. I thought it worth another airing over 100 years on.

Several of his poems were published in the newspaper, none of them complaining, none looking back to ill-treatment or privations but more endearing and self-effacing.

One I particularly liked is addressed to folk back home and encourages them to write to those in distress to cheer them up a bit. It sets the scene of “home” and goes on:

Just think of those in foreign lands,

In prison camps that lie,

Their vision blurred by foemen’s steel,

Beneath the summer sky.

High boards around the dwelling place

Barbed wire on every side.

And with a dull monotony,

The days do slowly glide.

Weary and worn, with longings vain

For freedom, they do pine,

As on parade their names are called,

To form a fal’tring line.

Just think how anxiously they wait,

For news of those so dear.

So don’t forget to send along

A line their hearts to cheer.

Charlie Skeels, born in Whitworth and married in Bacup, worked as a blacksmith in Darwen between service in the army. He was only a little chap, barely 5ft 4ins.

He first served in the army in the Boer War and, with the arrival of the Great War in August, 1914, he left his home in Junction Street, Darwen, and rejoined his regiment, the 2nd Cheshires.

He was wounded at Ypres and, after months in a prison camp at Giessen, north of Frankfurt, he was taken to recover in the Swiss Alps.

It wasn’t an act of kindness; Germany hadn’t enough food for its own men, let alone war prisoners.

Corporal Skeels wrote poetry as he and his pals were moved into neutral Switzerland which was happy to take them.

Here are just a couple of stanzas from that long journey and the welcome from the local folk which so raised spirits:

The whistle sounds, the train is moving

Banished now all fear and care,

As we hear the smiling people

Shouting: “Vive l’Angleterre!”

And later:

Health and comfort now await us

And our earnest wish is this;

That the glorious Flag of Freedom

Long may wave o’er loyal Suisse!

Charlie Skeels died on the eve of the Second World War and is buried in Darwen old cemetery. He would have been the last to claim any particular literary merit for his poetry, but he would have been happy to be remembered now for his enthusiastic efforts.

Until a few years ago I used to give a variety of hour-long illustrated talks to local groups around East Lancashire for hospice charities.

My favourite was Poetry of the Great War. I never once got to the end without a tear trickling down a cheek. I regret not giving Charlie a passing mention…