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Tribute to 'forgotten' Scots war poet

AN EXHIBITION opened last night as an Armistice Day tribute to Joseph Lee, Scotland's "forgotten" war poet who once ranked alongside Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke.

Lee, who died in 1949, aged 72, was hailed as one of Britain's finest First World War poets when his two volumes of war poems and sketches, Ballads of Battle and Work-a-Day Warriors, were published while he was still fighting on the front line as a sergeant with the Black Watch.

His poems - among the first to be published by a soldier directly involved in the Great War - attracted critical acclaim as far afield as America.

John Buchan, the leading novelist, described one of Lee's works, The Green Grass, as "one of the best war poems in any language" and The Times newspaper proclaimed: "There is real fibre and life blood in them, and they never fail to hold the attention."

Since then, however, his enormous contribution to war poetry has been all but forgotten. But a special exhibition, covering two floors in Dundee University's Tower Foyer and Lamb Gallery, has been devoted to Lee's work as his native city's contribution to Armistice Day.

Lee worked as a journalist on the Dundee Advertiser and the People's Journal as well as producing and illustrating his own newspapers and magazines, such as the City Echo, before the start of the First World War.

He enlisted in 1914 in the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch and his first volume of poetry was published in 1915 while he was still fighting in the trenches in France and Belgium. A year later he became a second lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps and was captured near Cambrai.

He wrote of his experiences while a prisoner in the camps at Carlsruhe and Beeskow in his book A Captive at Carlsruhe. After the war Lee married Dorothy Barrie, a leading viola player, and the couple set up home in London where he worked as a sub-editor on the News Chronicle and studied for a time at the Slade School of Art. He returned to Dundee in 1944, following his retirement, and died there five years later.

Caroline Brown, the depute archivist at Dundee University who has been responsible for staging the exhibition, said that a retrospective of Lee's work was long overdue.

"Ranked alongside Owen, Brooke and Sassoon, Joseph Lee was once regarded as one of Britain's finest First World War poets. His volumes of poetry were amongst the first to be published in America as well as Britain. And, at the end of the war, after he was released from a prisoner-of-war camp, publishers were eager to publish his war diaries because his poems had been so successful.

"He was, however, later eclipsed once Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon became more popular. They were more a part of the military establishment in some ways, and Joseph Lee was a journalist who had left school when he was only 14," she said.

"Remarkably, he was almost 40 and suffered very badly from asthma when he joined the Black Watch and went to war. He was a very modest but brave and unusual man, it would appear, and when he was a prisoner-of-war he seems to have rallied the morale of the other troops by staging concerts and plays and doing sketches of them and so on.

"His memoirs, illustrated by his own sketches, remain powerfully evocative and, composed amid the smoke and din of warfare, are undeniably authentic."

• The exhibition will run until 22 December.

 
 
 

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