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.”

Find out more about this story in the University news article. You can also listen to a radio interview on BBC Radio Somerset with James Crowden, author of a book about John Jarmain entitled Flowers In The Minefields – El Alamein to St Honorine, and watch the BBC news video.

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