Sunday, 3 January 2021

Denis Garstin MC, DSO, Order of St Catherine of Russia (1890 - 1918) – British writer, poet and soldier

Captain Denis Garstin - right -
in Russia WW1
photographer unknown

Born Denys Norman Garstin on 22nd July 1890, his parents were Norman Garstin, a Newlyn School artist, and his wife, Louisa Fanny Garstin, known as ‘Dochie’, née Jones. The family lived at 4 Wellington Terrace, Penzance, Cornwall, UK.  Denis was the middle son of three children, his siblings were Crosbie (1887 – 1930), who also became a poet, and Alethea (1894 – 1978).

Educated at Blundells School, Tiverton, Devon, where he excelled at sport, he went on to study at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he edited “Granta” magazine. Denys joined the University Officers Training Corps and was a member of the Guard of Honour during the funeral of King Edward VI.  He then went to Russia to work as a tutor for a Russian family and while there wrote articles about Russia for the “Daily News” and “Morning Post” newspapers.   

When the war broke out Denis was in Moscow. He travelled home via Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. Volunteering for service, he was commissioned into the 18th Hussars and was posted to France in the spring of 1915. Transferred to the 10th Hussars, he joined their Machine Gun Squadron and fought during the battles of Ypres, Thiepval, Albert and Loos.  In September 1916 Denis was sent to Russia to the British Embassy in Petrograd as a member of the Anglo-Russian Commission, working with Hugh Walpole.  When the Embassy was evacuated in February 1918, Denis continued his diplomatic work with Mr Lockhart and moved to Moscow with him. He represented Great Britain at a conference held at Vologda in the spring. 

Denis managed to escape from Moscow after the British Embassy was attacked and he walked to Kem, near the White Sea, in disguise so as to avoid capture by the Red Army.   Escaping with difficulty from Moscow after the attack on the British Embassy, and wlking most of the way from Petrozavodsk disguised so as to escape the Red Army,  he caught  up with the British Army at Kem, near the White Sea, joining the Colonel of Q.H.Q. Intelligence at Kem during the third week of July. He then joined the Omega Expedition, which left Kem on 30th July. Denis arrived at Archangel on August 8th and on or about the 11th left for the front to join Haselden's column. He was killed in action on 15th August 1918, at Seletskoe and is buried in the Archangel cemetery.  His funeral was attended by representatives of all the Allied armies and the firing party was composed of American blue-jackets. 

''QUATRE SOUS LAIT'' by Denis Garstin 

Marie Therese is passing fair, 

Marie Therese has red gold hair, 

Marie Therese is passing shy. 

And Marie Therese is passing by ; 


Soldiers lounging along the street 


Smile as they rise to their aching feet. 

And with aching hearts they make their way 

After the maiden for quat’ sous lait. 


Beer in the mug is amber brown. 

Beer in the mug is the stuff to drown 

Dust and drought and a parching thirst ; 

Beer in the mug comes an easy first, 

Except when Marie Therese is near, 

With the sun in her tresses so amber clear ; 

Then quickly we leave our estaminets 

For Marie Therese's quat' sous lait. 


Yvonne Pol of La Belle Française 

Cannot compare with Marie Thérèse ; 

Berthe of the " Coq " looks old and staid 

When one but thinks of our dairymaid ; 

Beer in the mug is good to quench 

Thirsts of men who can speak no French ; 

Heaven is ours who can smile and say, 

" Marie Thérèse, give me quat sous lait”. 

Denis Garstin. Aug. 18, 1915.

Published in “Poems from Punch 1909 – 1920” (Macmillan, London 1922) p. 207. This is available to read as a free download on Archive: https://archive.org/stream/poemsfrompunch00hend/poemsfrompunch00hend_djvu.txt

An excerpt from Hugh Walpole’s Preface to “The Shilling Soldiers”:

“The Diary of a Timid Man” is exactly that mixture of imagination and hard definite realism that seems to me to be art; he had the way of giving detail a colour and form that made it his own detail without forcing it to be untrue. That he had the dramatic gift none who read “The Runaway” can doubt, and “Trooper Kinnaird” and “Love o' Woman” have humour of a very remarkable kind. As to his poetic vision, “Wind in the Trenches” and “The Pigeon” are proof enough.”    

“The Shilling Soldiers” with a preface by Hugh Walpole, was published after his death by Hodder & Stoughton in 1918 and is available to read as a free download on Archive: https://archive.org/details/shillingsoldiers00gars

Sources:  Find my Past

Catherine W. Reilly “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978) p. 137

Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914 – 1918 

https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=GBM%2FDR%2FVOL5A%2F0072&parentid=GBM%2FDR2%2F013798

https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=GBM%2FDR%2FVOL5A%2F0072&parentid=GBM%2FDR2%2F013798

Photograph of Denis in Russia - photographer unknown - from https://www.stivesart.info/cornish-artists-and-authors-at-war-1914-9/