It was the evening of Saturday April 17, 1915, eight months into the First World War, and the British troop ship SS Grantully Castle was moored off the Greek island of Skyros, awaiting deployment to Gallipoli. In the officers’ quarters, two magnificent-looking young men were conversing about literature, as they’d done on several previous occasions since their first meeting back in September at the appropriately-named ‘Ship Restaurant’ in London’s Guildhall. Bristling with patriotism and a sense of adventure, they were anxious to get into action, but it was becoming increasingly unlikely, as already they’d been turned back after approaching within just a few miles of the Dardanelles coast. And now, with each passing day, new platoons from their elite Hood Battalion were being deployed on reconnaissance missions to suspected Turkish strongholds, leaving the remaining forces depleted and thus ill-equipped to participate in any major offensive.

The SS Grantully Castle, on board of which Kelly started on his Elegy

The younger among them, aged 27, had already been dubbed “the handsomest young man in England” by no less a judge than the great Irish writer W.B. Yeats. His friend, six years his senior and Australian-born, was an Olympic gold medallist, a rower whom some experts in the sport described as the greatest stylist ever. Both were creative artists, the younger a poet, the older a composer. And that night on board their ship, the poet read aloud to the composer a selection of his latest works, including the lines:

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

That night in the Aegean Sea, Sub-Lieutenant Rupert Brooke’s soon-to-become most-famous poem The Soldier made a deep impression on his listener Frederick Septimus Kelly, the leader of B Company’s 5th Platoon. Kelly wrote in his diary that he “enjoyed the sound of [Brookes’] voice and the way he read,” but the poem itself also resonated, because the Sydney-born composer had recently shared in Brookes’ premonitions of mortality.

As he’d prepared to leave England two months earlier, Kelly wrote, “In view of my going to the Front, I am somewhat conscious of the spirit of Keats’ sonnet – ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be/Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain’ and am anxious to leave my unpublished work as far as possible ready for the press.”

At home in Bisham Grange, Berkshire, he tidied up his musical manuscripts, sat for an artist’s charcoal portrait, and then went down to the port at Bristol, not knowing where he and Brooke were to be deployed.

Despite their rare gifts, Brookes’ and Kelly’s mutual contemplation of premature death was more practical than clairvoyant. Already by the time of their embarkation in February 1915, Britain’s first 100,000 troops deployed to the War now numbered just 10,000 still alive. They didn’t call this the War to End all Wars for nothing.

At the time of his premonition, the bachelor Kelly’s existing oeuvre was modest in size, the principal works including a Serenade for the flautist (and Melba’s manager) John Lemmone, a String Trio, which had been performed by Hungarian violinist Jelly d’Aranyi and Pablo Casals, and several piano pieces which Kelly himself had premiered in his brief career as a soloist that had begun on a visit back to his hometown of Sydney in 1911. He loved new music, attended Wagner operas, was blown away by a Scriabin recital, and heard Schoenberg conduct his orchestral music.

Poet Rupert Brooke

As he left for the War, he had ideas for so many new works of his own, among them a Symphony in E Major, a Lyric Phantasy for large orchestra, a String Quartet in E Minor, none of them yet glean’d from his teeming brain.

The seventh child of a wealthy Irish-Australian family, Kelly had been born into privilege, his father having started out as a wool-broker, then become a shareholder in 20 or more mining companies, and finally ending up as Managing Director of the Sydney Smelting Company. Like so many of his era, the wealthy businessman took his family back ‘home’ to Britain when ‘Sep’, as Frederick Septimus was known to the family, was just 12 years old.

The youngster, who was already able to play Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas from memory, attended Eton and then Balliol College, Oxford, but his prodigious musical talent was stifled by his family’s wishes. Forced to read History instead, he threw all his frustrations into the sport of rowing, his glorious style dominating the Henley Regatta during the first decade of the 20th century and his Olympic triumph as a member of the Leander 8 in 1908 confirming him as arguably the greatest English oarsman of his generation.

In 1901 Kelly’s father died and then the following year his mother also passed away, leaving the young man devastated, resulting in the award of a less-than-stellar Fourth Class Honours degree in 1903. He inherited a fortune, though, and never needed to work another day in his life. He took himself to his friend Percy Grainger’s old alma mater in Frankfurt to study music, where his teacher Iwan Knorr said he had never encountered anyone who grasped the technique of contrapuntal writing more quickly.

Frederick Septimus Kelly

Wealth gave Kelly an entry into high society, but it couldn’t cure him of commonplace neurosis. He suffered from a facial tick, worried constantly about various conditions of his forearms, hands and fingers, and sought relief in self-hypnosis.

His intensity gave him a serious demeanour, as his former mentor and erstwhile friend, the composer and music-theorist Donald Tovey wrote: “It is impossible for him to say anything superficial.” It was intended as a compliment, but for an aspiring concert performer, such gravitas was also something of a curse, and his solo recitals in London in 1912 were criticised for the stiffness and emotional detachment of his playing – exactly the opposite qualities that he displayed in his gloriously fluid rowing style. As a result, he never entirely shook off his reputation as a sculler who’d turned to music, and friends advised him to cancel his final performances in the series. But like so many of his generation, in War he found his purpose.

On the day after the Declaration, Kelly tried to enlist, using his impeccable society connections to get into 10 Downing Street itself, where Lord Kitchener and Prime Minister Herbert Asquith were in attendance. His own lack of any military training saw him initially fobbed off, although he kept coming back to ask again, and eventually he was successful.

Assigned to the Drake Battalion, in September 1914 he went into camp in Kent, and immediately felt at home: “The first day of our new life has left a very pleasant impression,” he wrote in his diary. A pleasant impression was also left by Rupert Brooke on their first meeting around the same time. “Rupert Brooke is very nice, sensible and mature in all his views.”

But it was as a Platoon commander of the Drake ‘A’ Company that Kelly’s stickler-for-detail demeanour became a problem. With his insistence on uniform regulations and the minutiae of drill etiquette, which he himself spent sleepless nights memorising, he “fell foul of everyone”. His men sang songs deriding him, and when he left barracks at lights-out, it was to the sound of jeers and catcalls, a situation exacerbated by Kelly calling everyone out of their beds for punishment drills. Even when he played piano recitals for his charges, it created, “a severe atmosphere”.

The Australian trenches at Gallipoli

After a few months, he found himself transferred to a Quartermaster’s position, to which his passions for thorough details and list-making were better suited, but it also meant that, by early 1915 as the Gallipoli plans got underway, it was likely he wouldn’t be called upon to participate. A chance meeting with the influential General Mercer ended all that and on February 23, 1915 Kelly was assigned to the Hood Battalion, joining his close friend, the critic and composer W.D. Browne, and Rupert Brooke, along with Prime Minister Asquith’s son Arthur (‘Ock’) as members of the Grantully Castle’s so-called ‘Latin Club’.

Up until their arrival off Skyros, Kelly’s own war had been a comparatively comfortable affair. His diaries are filled with details of fine wines, he went to the opera in Malta, and while others were engaged in arduous field training on the island of Lemnos, he himself still found time to run through Scarlatti sonatas and his own piano works on an instrument housed in the ship’s officers’ quarters. So when he and Brooke met that night on April 17, all was comparatively well in their world of privilege, notwithstanding a blemish on Brooke’s otherwise perfect lips, the result of a mosquito bite that he’d sustained as the ship plied its way between Port Said and the Dardenelles. Three nights later, on April 20, the two men were joined by Browne and other members of the ‘Latin Club’ for what Kelly described as another “happy party.”

But after turning in that night, Brooke suddenly took ill, and by morning was in a serious condition. The mosquito bite had turned septic, his face became swollen beyond recognition, and soon he was drifting in and out of consciousness. By afternoon, his condition had deteriorated so rapidly that he was now fighting for his life. ‘Ock’ Asquith accompanied the stricken poet to a nearby French hospital ship, but when Asquith didn’t return, Kelly realised that his literary friend’s condition was terminal. 

Rupert Brooke died at 4.45pm on April 23, 1915 and as the Hood Battalion was due to leave for Gallipoli at 5am the next morning, the only option was to bury him that night on the island of Skyros. Brooke’s predicted ‘foreign field’ took the form of a rocky outcrop by an olive grove, the funeral service beginning at 10.45pm with his close friends Browne and Kelly remaining behind after the burial to cover the grave with stones and to express their own private, silent farewells, Kelly later writing in his diary: “The body lies looking down the valley towards the harbour and, from behind, an olive tree bends itself over the grave as though sheltering it from the sun and rain. No more fitting resting place for a poet could be found than this small grove, and it seems as though the gods had jealously snatched him away to enrich this scented island.”

Devastated by Brooke’s loss, Kelly immediately began to sketch his Elegy for strings, ‘In Memoriam Rupert Brooke’. It would become his most well-known work, its modal tinges referring not just to the Greek location of the grave, but also to Brooke’s own fascination with classicism, while the oscillating passagework from the violins suggests the wind rustling through the leaves of the olive tree bending over the grave.

The Grantully Castle steamed off toward Gallipoli at 5.30am the next day and remained just a few miles offshore for the next five days in a support role, as Kelly watched the Australian and New Zealand attack on Anzac Cove, again enjoying his creature-comforts while doing so: “I don’t suppose anyone ever viewed a battle in progress in greater comfort than we did the attack on Achi Baba,” he boasted in his diary.

But that comfort was to be short-lived, for on April 29, Kelly himself was called into action and over the course of the next eight months on Gallipoli he would be wounded and win the Distinguished Services Cross for gallantry in battle. In a world where bullets, shrapnel and bombs didn’t distinguish between social classes, he came into his own as a man and a soldier.

And whenever he could while he was in the trenches during the first weeks of the campaign, Kelly continued to work on the Elegy, completing it while convalescing in an Egyptian hospital after being wounded in the foot in June, and then moving onto the composition of his ‘Gallipoli’ Violin Sonata.

Kelly eventually survived Gallipoli and in fact was one of the last officers to leave during the Evacuation of early January 1916, but like most men who were still fit, he was then redeployed to France. On a foggy November day in that same year, he was killed in action during the final days of the Battle of the Somme. One of his last acts in those disgusting, mud-filled French trenches was to add a harp part to the Elegy, the work that bookended a military career that had begun so unpromisingly, but ended heroically in the storming of an enemy position near the village of Beaucourt sur l’Ancre. He was killed in a hail of machine-gun fire.

Martin Buzacott at FS Kelly’s grave

By that stage the now Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Septimus Kelly had found his true self as a leader of men, but in the process, the world had been robbed of a composer who, had he lived beyond the age of 35, might just have led Britain, and for that matter Australia too, into a new era of music.