Not for ever England?: Michael Fathers on a threat to Rupert Brooke's grave

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The Independent Online
A NAVAL base being built by the Greek government on the Aegean island of Skyros looks certain to restrict and possibly prevent access to the grave of the poet Rupert Brooke, who died there aged 27 in 1915.

A Greek navy spokesman in Athens said the base would be off-limits to civilians when completed. He said he did not know that Brooke was buried in the corner of Tribuki Bay where the base was being built.

Brooke's grave - a simple marble slab surrounded by iron railings - is in an olive grove less than half a mile from the shore and about 50 yards from the access road to the site. A eulogy in Greek carved into the marble says he died for the 'deliverence of Constantinople from the Turks', a claim somewhat economical with the truth.

Construction of the base has come as a surprise not just to groups connected with Brooke, such as the Anglo-Hellenic League, his literary executors and the British Council, but also to the Brussels headquarters of Nato, of which Greece is a member, and to the Royal Navy, whose charts of the area are used by the world's shipping. Both Nato and RN officials said they were not aware of its existence.

Britain's naval attache in Athens has said he hopes to visit the site soon after fears that Brooke's grave might lie within the base's perimeter.

Whatever the outcome, the tranquillity of the site - that 'corner of a foreign field that is for ever England' envisaged by Brooke in his patriotic poem 'The Soldier' - will be destroyed.

A series of deep concrete bunkers, visible from the sea as you enter Tribuki Bay on the barren southern coast of Skyros, line the shore to the western side of the valley where Brooke lies. Fitted with 2ft- thick steel doors, the bunkers are unfinished but hydraulic lifts for carrying heavy loads, possibly ammunition, have already been set on runners hanging from each roof. Half a mile to the east, a concrete pier capable of mooring frigate-size vessels is being built.

Skyros is a strategic site in the northern Aegean close to the Dardanelles and the western Turkish coast. A large air base at the northern end, built by the United States and taken over by the Greek air force, has put that part of the island off- limits to civilians. A similar fate probaly awaits Tribuki Bay. Greek military analysts refer constantly to Turkey's alleged military build-up and the need for Athens to respond. Nato officials say privately that the threat is exaggerated.

Rupert Brooke was on a troopship bound for Gallipoli when he died of septicaemia. Part of the British invasion fleet had anchored in Tribuki, one of the biggest natural harbours in the Aegean, while the rest headed for Limnos island closer to the Dardanelles.

Brooke died within a few days of becoming ill. During a visit ashore he had remarked on the beauty of an olive grove covered with wild flowers and herbs.

His friends, who included Bernard Freyberg, the New Zealand war hero, and Arthur Asquith, son of the prime minister, were certain Brooke would never have wished to be buried at sea. They took his body ashore immediately he died and buried him by moonlight in the olive grove a few hours before the fleet set sail on 23 April 1915.

Brooke was described in his day as a 'radiant youthful figure', handsome, charming, intelligent, literary, adventurous and well-connected. He was for many the perfect man, adored by both sexes, old and young. Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty at the time of Brooke's death, said: 'We shall not see his like again.'

It has always been somewhat of an expedition for 'pilgrims' to visit the grave of an English romantic whose poetry of nostalgia, while the subject of much critical disdain, includes such memorable lines as 'Stands the church clock at ten to three/ And is there honey still for tea?' For more than half a century you could reach the site only by sea or overland by goat tracks.

The poet Andrew Motion, one of two literary executors of Brooke's estate, recalls his first attempt to find the site as a teenager fresh out of school in the summer of 1967. He said it took him and a companion 20 hours; they got lost, ran out of water, thought they would die, and were rescued by a 'shepherd fellow' who showed them the way. 'When we got to the grave I remember seeing a large column of ants marching out of a crack in the marble and thinking: 'Well, there goes the last of Rupert Brooke.' '

Responsibility for the grave has bounced back and forth between Brooke's family, his admirers in Britain and Europe, the Anglo-Hellenic League, the British Council, and eventually the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which tends some 14,000 graves in Greece of victims from two world wars.

However, the true keeper of the grave is a retired army major, Douglas MacRae-Brown, 77, from Eastbourne, who has visited the site each year since 1972 to clean the marble and repaint the railings. In 1980 he arrived to discover a local contractor had reopened a quarry and bulldozed a road through the olive grove within a foot of Brooke's grave. It took him two years with the help of his Greek friends on the island and the mayor of Skyros to get the road stopped and rebuilt on its present site 50 yards away. The Greek navy has since widened and strengthened this road, leaving large stones and some boulders scattered around the grave.

Mr MacRae-Brown said that in 1991 rumours were rife that the Greek defence ministry might take over the whole of the Tribuki Bay area, including Brooke's olive grove. He said the Greek ambassador in London at that time suggested the grave might be declared a national monument, which would save it and assure public access.

But there had been no word on the proposal since then, he said last week. For the moment there is a dispute over whether the grave is a religious site which would also give it some measure of protection and public access.

A spokesman for the war graves commission said if the building work at Tribuki Bay were to affect Brooke's grave and access to it 'we would be very concerned'. What if the Greek authorities responded by exhuming the remains and reburying them elsewhere? 'There would be an international uproar.'

Skyros, Sunday Review

Then and Now, page 18

(Photographs omitted)