The Steyning Poem
Chance memory

Pages 1 . 2 . 3


Poem Original
2nd Lt Purvis

Above: The poem original and John Stanley Purvis in 1920

The version of the poem given by Ernest Raymond varies a little from the one which we now know is the author's original, dated December 2, 1915. Remarkably, Steyning Museum has acquired the hand written and dated original. It shows, in particular, the final line as, “I can't forget the narrow lane to Chanctonbury Ring.”

The Ernest Raymond version was carved into Yorkshire stone and mounted in that narrow Steyning lane, Mouse Lane, in the year 2000. The unveiling ceremony took place on Saturday, December 2nd, exactly 85 years after John Stanley Purvis wrote it. Councillor George Cockman said in a booklet produced for the event:

I have a sense that this stone will become a landmark, held in affection by local people and visitors alike. Like John Purvis who thankfully was able to walk this lane before and after the war, the downs, and Chanctonbury in particular, continue to attract and delight hundreds of people every year. Many, I believe, will take the ancient driftway down through the beech woods to find this stone at its end, and finding it will be enriched by the tradition of affection for downs, lane and town which John Purvis so memorably captured on that battlefield. And they will be glad that in the millennium year, we played our part in enshrining that tradition by setting this stone and telling its story.

In 2006, a lorry backed into the stone and split it in two. The local sponsors were concerned and generous enough to have a new one carved and mounted in the same spot. The cracked version was mounted next to the entrance of Steyning Museum, so there are now two stones commemorating the Steyning poem.

There is another poem by 'Philip Johnson' or ‘Johnstone’. It was first published in The Nation magazine on February 16th, 1918, nine months before the war ended. There has long been doubt that High Wood is the work of J.S. Purvis. There is circumstantial evidence, however. The initials PJ are, of course, the reverse of JP for John Purvis. He was literally John’s son or Johnson, since his father’s name was John Bowlt Purvis. Also, the records of the 5th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment show that 2/Lt J.S. Purvis was injured on September 15, 1916 during the final assault on High Wood. A regimental history, The Green Howards in the Great War, by Colonel H.C. Wylly, originally published in 1926, gave an account of this and concluded:

The 5th Battalion The Green Howards with the 4th, reached its objectives and clung to it under a very heavy shelling, but when relieved early on the morning of the 19th by a brigade of the 23rd Division and withdrawn into divisional reserve, the 5th had had four officers and forty-eight other ranks killed, eleven officers and one hundred and sixty-two NCOs and men wounded and twenty-seven men missing - a total of two hundred and fifty-two casualties.

The names of the officer casualties are: killed, Lt-Col J. Mortimer, CMG, Capt F. Woodcock, 2/Lts G.S. Phillips and W.R. Lowson; while the wounded were Capt H. Brown, DSO, MC, Lts E.M. Robson and G. Harker, 2/Lts P.H. Sykes, A.G. Winterbottom, C. Martin, C.R. Hurworth, C.H. Dell, W.H. Game, W. Rennison and J.S. Purvis.

High Wood

Ladies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being...
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company's property
As souvenirs; you'll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me - this way...
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the path, sir, please,
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper baskets at the gate.

The Poets of World War I website says of the High Wood poem:

In fact, Purvis' inspired prediction became reality sooner than he might have envisaged: soon after the war, High Wood in Flanders Fields became one of the first places to be visited by tourists. This macabre place has never been totally cleared of bodies and the debris of war. Estimates suggest that the ground contains the remains of some 8,000 British and German soldiers who were killed in action here. Even today, parts of the wood still conceal live ammunition and it is unsafe to stray from the paths.

The Cranleigh School archivist copied for Steyning Museum a signed sketch by John Stanley Purvis of Martinpuich, in the same locality as High Wood. The date on the sketch is September 15, 1916, the very same date for which his regiment recorded that he was a casualty at High Wood. The Cranleighan school magazine reported in March 1917 that, having visited the school during his recovery from shell shock, he had now returned to the Front.

Martinpuich Sketch

Martinpuich, September 15th, 1916 by John Stanley Purvis

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Page last updated
16th August 2021