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STORY | Stratford’s other Poet - Richard Spender - Soldier - Poet

A Memorial to Richard William Osborne Spender in Ross-on-Wye
A Memorial to Richard William Osborne Spender in Ross-on-Wye

SYNOPSIS | World War Two Soldier - Warwickshire Poet

You’ve probably never heard about him. Dicky Spender. Good old Dicky Spender. For why would you? He was just another young man, another soldier who lost his life in the Second World War. He is buried in Tunisia, North Africa – Captain Richard William Osborne Spender 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment.

So why? Why should I be interested in this young man? A mere twenty-one years of age when he was killed on the 28th March 1943. Because the words that are inscribed as an epitaph on his grave are fragments from his own poem ‘The Young Soldier’:

In high proud exultation
Let us repay
Laughing blood with spilt

Dicky Spender – Soldier – Poet.

Richard Spender is a little-known poet who hailed from Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. He was killed in World War Two whilst serving with the Parachute Regiment during Operation Torch, at the age of 21 years.

Richard was born in Hereford, Herefordshire on the 27th of June 1921; the youngest of four children. Just a few short months later, his mother Elizabeth died on the 19th January 1922; she was buried in Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire.

After a period spent in London the family moved to Stratford-on-Avon where Richard was educated at King Edward VI School, Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare had been a pupil. Richard appears to have been successful at school becoming a keen sportsman, Company Sergeant Major in the School Cadet Corps and head boy. 

Despite winning an exhibition to read History at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, he decided to enlist in the army in the autumn of 1940. The Second World War had begun in mid-1939 and fine young men and women were needed to fight against the Nazis and its allies as they thrust across Europe and around the world. Seasoned young men who had been coached in military methods were too useful.

Dicky first joined the young soldier’s battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment and then progressed into the Royal Ulster Rifles. At first, he was an instructor and made a somewhat infamous role in a propaganda film where he played the part of ‘Casey’ in a Military Training film entitled ‘The Fighting Section Leader’ made in 1942.

Soon after, in October 1942 he volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment and was on his way to Africa with the 2nd Battalion. Spender became platoon commander in C Company 2 Parachute Battalion. The war in northern Africa was bitter and violent. The British were fighting the Italians aided by the Afrika Korps, vast German Panzer tank divisions. This was the Desert War. Infamous battles at El Alamein occurred. It was a strategic area defending Egypt and fighting for control of key sites and indeed the Mediterranean Sea itself.

Captain Richard Spender was killed during the night of the 28th/29th March 1943 whilst leading his men against German machine-gun positions at Sedjenane in Tunisia. He is buried in the Military Cemetery at Tabarka after originally being buried near where he was killed. He was considered a brave and popular soldier.

But had it not been for war and warfare, what then? Like so many young people, what life would Dicky’s have been?

Well, Richard Spender was a published poet prior to his death in such periodicals as The Times Literary Supplement, Punch, Observer, Country Life. His poems were published by Sidgwick and Jackson in three books:

Laughing Blood (1942) – published whilst en route to North Africa

Parachute Battalion: Last poems from England and Tunisia (1943) – published posthumously

The Collected Poems (1944) – published posthumously

Richard Spender wrote lyrical poetry about Warwickshire, Stratford and the River Avon. During his childhood he loved the River Avon and was a keen oarsman during his time at school in Stratford. The ‘river’ theme occurs often in his early poems published in Laughing Blood. Richard also wrote poetry about the bloody fighting and exigencies of serving in the Parachute Regiment in North Africa. For example, the poem ‘Parachute Battalion’ describes the 2nd Battalion’s bloody withdrawal from Oudna in North Africa.

All of the poems that he wrote in Tunisia were published posthumously. His voice of the war, the last voice of him.

Richard Spender died so young that it is impossible to say how great a poet he might have become, but there is enough evidence in what he wrote to be sure that he would have become a writer of distinction.

He was once referred by a columnist in The Daily Telegraph ‘as the Rupert Brooke of the Second World War’. Whether this is true or not is open to debate. But there can be no doubt that Richard Spender’s poetry reflects the paradox of being both a soldier and a poet, documenting the unique demands of the Second World War on a sensitive artist who was actively and enthusiastically leading troops into battle.

What made a soldier poet in the Second World War?

Was it his formative years spent at King Edward VI School?

Was it the fact that his father Frank Osborne Spender had served in the Royal Garrison Artillery in World War One - first as Acting Corporal then commissioned in August 2018?

Or was it the impact of the early death of his mother Elizabeth?

Perhaps Richard Spender defined the causes himself in the dedication to his ‘Collected Poems’:

To my Mother and Father
and to King Edward VI School, Stratford-on-Avon,
because their joint conspiracy gave me
the happiest first twenty-one years of life
that anyone could dream of having.

Richard Spender is remembered at both Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire as well as Stratford-on-Avon. If you visit Stratford-on-Avon, get away from the tourist hotspots and take a stroll along the River Avon and pay a visit to the Garden of Remembrance to reflect upon the short but rich life of Richard Spender and the others who fell in war and who are remembered there.