Skip to content

The Rubaiyat in Ruhleben Camp – Omar Khayyam in the First World War

December 29, 2013

ruhlebenmagThe New Year ahead of us will mark the 100th Anniversary of the start of the Great War 1914-1918.  For many of those involved in those terrible years, the Rubaiyat was an important support and solace, as is shown by the fly-leaf inscriptions of copies from the period.  Further evidence that Omar Khayyam was there, comes from the archives of an internment camp for civilians, at Ruhleben, a few miles from Berlin.  The site of the camp was originally a harness-racing track.   In it were between 4,000 and 5,500 civilian male prisoners from the Allied Powers, most of them British.  These were mainly people who had the misfortune to be caught in Germany at the outbreak of war.  (For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruhleben_internment_camp.)

The camp became something of a self-contained community, with a wide range of activities developed, financed through the American Embassy.  This enabled goods to be sent in and/or bought from local suppliers, and shops and markets were established.   Sports were important including football, cricket, rugby, golf, and tennis, while cultural activities covered music like The Mikado with orchestra and costumes, a drama society and a printing press, producing books and a magazine which was published intermittently all the way through until 1917.

In the October 1915 edition no. 9 of this magazine, then called In Ruhleben Camp, there are twelve quatrains parodying the Rubaiyat, published as ‘Translated from the original by S.E.J.’ under the title ‘Omar Khayyam at Ruhleben’.  In the May 1916 edition no. 3 of The Ruhleben Camp Magazine (the name was changed) there are a further eight quatrains under the title ‘Omar Revisits Ruhleben’.  A selection of the verses is given below.  They highlight the relevance of the Rubaiyat’s message of resignation in the face of fate, to those like the camp members for whom ‘The Time is Now – to pass it as we may,/Until Deliverance shall come at last!’ .

From October 2015
 
Wake! For the Glories of the Rising Sun
Remind us of another day begun.
There is the old routine to live again,
The weary round before the Day is done.
 
Hark how the cock crows welcoming in the day!
Arise my Little Ones to work or play;
And cheat the ultimate Design of Fate;
And pass the all too slothful Hours away! …..
 
For here and there, above, below, about,
Though you may look for ways of getting out,
‘Tis Labour vain and ill-repaid, as some
In Stadtvogtei would prove to you, no doubt. ….
 
A wonderous, motley crowd are we, and queer,
Made more so, possibly, in the long year
Of tedious Trivialities and Talk,
Sans Wine, sans Cash, sans Women, and Sans Beer. …..
 
From May 2016
…..
Recumbent on a wood-stuffed Mattress, I
Now hear a voice within the Barrack cry,
“Forth! leave thy Bath, and join the waiting Throng,
Nor stay that soapy Hide of thine to dry!”
 
Another cries: “What matters your Attire?
Go, bear this can to yonder Boiler Fire;
Condensed Milk , Helvetian Bread, and Jam
Will make a Breakfast such as we desire!
 
A Suit-case from the Cubby Hole I bring,,
And, in it all my Winter Garments fling
My rubber shoon and nailed clogs I cast
Therein, and laugh, for lo! it is the Spring!  ….

Copies of the original magazines can be seen in the library of the Imperial War Museum in south London, and some other libraries.

Advertisements
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Carole Garrard permalink
    January 4, 2014 12:23 pm

    In the 1960s my grandfather sent me a small, well-worn, leather-bound abridged copy of the Rubaiyat; I still treasure it and the letter in which he tells how he carried it in his tunic pocket throughout the First World War.

  2. January 20, 2014 10:09 am

    Thanks for this contribution, Carole. It would be good to know which edition of the Rubaiyat from which publisher your grandfather had. And did he give you any further comments (that you can disclose) about why he carried the Rubaiyat and what he thought about it. It would be great to know.

  3. Bob Forrest permalink
    January 22, 2014 2:11 pm

    Sandra and Bill’s posting on the Rubaiyat in Ruhleben Camp in the First World War is a very interesting example of that curious phenomenon – the solace that can be provided by such fatalistic verses. Siegfried Sassoon, in his “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” (1930), which, though fictional, was based largely on his war diaries, quoted a couplet from Omar as “the only prayer which seemed worth uttering” at the time. (The couplet was, “For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man / Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give – and take!”)

    Another book of fatalistic verse popular at the front was A.E.Housman’s poem, “A Shropshire Lad.” Some of Housman’s poems were in fact included in the so-called “Broadsheets for the Trenches” – literature specially printed to be sent out for the use of soldiers and sailors on active service, the first making their appearance in late1915. So far as I know, though, The Rubaiyat was never actually included in the Broadsheets for the Trenches. Certainly it doesn’t feature in Geoffrey Dawson’s books “A Book of Broadsheets” (1928) and “A Second Book of Broadsheets” (1929). [By way of illustration, the Broadsheets covered a wide range of literature, from the Bible, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Dickens, to Gilbert White on birds, Izaak Walton on fishing and John Nyren on cricket. All of which invites the question: just how popular was “The Rubaiyat” in the trenches?]

    Though not directly related to the reading matter in the trenches, there was an interesting article, “Books and the War” by ‘Onlooker’, which appeared in “The Bookman” for October 1915 . Basically it was an account of the books which had sold best in the shops of W.H.Smith in the previous year. Of some 150 titles supplied, not all of which were named in the article, about two-thirds of them were books relating to the war. Of the 84 titles named, 45 were War Books, 10 Poetry and 29 Fiction & Miscellaneous. The poetry books are by Rudyard Kipling (particularly “A Song of the English”), G.K. Chesterton, and Rupert Brooke – with no mention here of either A.E.Housman or The Rubaiyat!

    Later in the war, of course, American troops were involved, and they too were supplied with reading matter on request. In an interesting article published in “The North American Review” in February 1919, Katherine Mayo gave an interesting list of the wide variety of material requested. The list included some odd items, like books on accountancy, dairy farming, electrical engineering and trigonometry, but also more literary items like the works of Tennyson, Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations”, the short stories of O. Henry, and – here it is – “The Rubaiyat.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: