A letter from John Jarmain

BBC News story

WW2 soldier-poet's letters revealed after decades hidden in bureau

A cache of 150 letters from World War II soldier-poet John Jarmain has been discovered decades later by his daughter, Janet, who had been unaware of any surviving correspondence between her mother and father. Following her mother’s death, Janet found the letters locked away in a drawer of the family bureau.

They include his most famous poems ‘El Alamein’ and ‘Sand’, which Jarmain had sent home along with accounts of desert warfare in North Africa and enquiries about family news from the home front. 

An artillery captain who served in the 51st Highland Division and lived in Somerset and Dorset, Jarmain was killed in Normandy in June 1944, several weeks after D-Day, having met his daughter only once. His war poems were published to critical acclaim the year after his death.

Like many grieving widows in the years after the war, Janet’s mother spoke only rarely of her loss, even to her daughter. Thanks to her discovery of the letters, Janet has been able to understand much more about her parents’ relationship, about her mother’s worries and loneliness during wartime, and about her father’s personality. The letters and poems have been given to the University of Exeter by Janet and are now archived to form part of the University’s Heritage Collection, enabling academics, students and the wider public to have access to this unique resource.

Professor Tim Kendall, Director of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Literature and Archives, said:“The poets of the Second World War are less well-known than their First World War predecessors, but at their best, they were just as powerful. In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions. He is a landscape poet inspired by some of the most hostile and forbidding landscapes ever endured.” 

In a 1942 airgraph responding to news of his daughter’s birth, Jarmain writes to his wife:‘My Dearest, Your cable reached me this evening, having taken ten days to come. So Janet Susan is waiting for me too now, and you are well and safe.  I have waited very long to hear that. Bless you my dearest, and keep yourself well, for me.’ Another letter tells of life in the desert, where Jarmain sits in a dug-out with ‘everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all?  That is the trouble: we are in two worlds, and it is probably hardly possible for you in yours to picture mine.  But my spell of duty was from 9pm to 7am, so unless I fall asleep I should have time to send you some sort of pictures of the desert as I know it now.’

Suffering great dangers and difficult conditions, Jarmain sent his poems home to ensure their preservation. An early version of his best-known poem, ‘El Alamein’, was copied in a letter, dated December 1942. This version starts:


They rang the bells for us, for Alamein:

From church to church across the grassy land

By elm–girt  square and tranquil village green

— As there gun answered gun across the sand —

Proudly the grey spires passed the peal

For us, for Alamein.  That name will stand,

Long after us maybe, for brave deeds done,

For stubborn glory, and the battle won…


James Crowden, an author, poet and broadcaster has published a book about John Jarmain entilted:Flowers In The Minefields – El Alamein to St Honorine

Date: 8 November 2013