White Cliffs (extracts)

British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. (Imperial War Museum)

Thou art a gem; and, set within a sea
Of azure blue, thy white cliffs nobly rise.
Rugged and yet beautiful they guard thee.
Thou art too rare, thou art a wond’rous prize.
Many’s the time thou hast been beset,
Many a Nation has aspired to climb
Thy chalky face; in vain they try, and yet
Thou hast repulsed them, calmly and sublime.

But while you guarded, England fell asleep;
“Our cliffs are there,” they said, “our cliffs of yore,”
And slumbering still they turned and slumbered deep,
While rumbling nearer came the sounds of war.
At last it came, and still they snored aloud;
“It cannot be,” they said, and turned to shore.
But opening bleary eye, they saw a cloud –
It was the ever growing cloud of war.

‘Twas then this Nation all its slumber shed,
And sent its clarion call both far and wide;
To furthest corner of Empire if fled,
To wake them all. “Nation arise!” it cried.
So, throughout the Nation, all had heard,
Had left their all and gone, ‘twas not too late.
The White Cliffs played their part without a word –
“Patriots, go forth and seek your fate.”


‘Tis three years now, and still you play that part,
You’re not forgotten, though you’re far away,
You’re deep down in that truly English heart,
To see you once again they wait the day, 
‘Tis now long time since many saw you grow

Harry Garrett Dunkirk veteran and Kent standard bearer at White Cliffs of Dover.
Harry Garrett and Kent standard bearer at the White Cliffs of Dover.

Dimmer; they stood and watched you all the time
Until you faded; some will never know
Again the joy of seeing your Cliffs of lime.
They’ve left their bodies in a foreign land,
Gladly would they give their lives, all over
Again to see their meadows, native strand,
Once more those lofty great White Cliffs of Dover.

Sergeant D. Seton Smith


Taken from the anthology: ‘Poems from the Desert – Verses by members of the Eighth Army’.  Published by George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd.

3 Comments on “White Cliffs (extracts)

  1. This poem was written by my father David Seton-Smith when he was around 23 years old – he had grown up in India and had not come back to England since he was 3. It really makes you realise how much he was missing home, he had never really had a base and had travelled with the Army since he was around 16 years old. Such a mature poem with deep sentiment for someone so young, but that was the war I suppose, it made you grow up fast. RIP Dad, you were always writing poetry, scraps of paper with scribbles everywhere! You made it at last, much love x

  2. I picked up a copy of “8 Poems from the Desert” in a local charity shop and was really moved by the poems in it. As an amateur historian I am trying to find out more about the servicemen who wrote these poems under dreadful conditions. Did they get through the war unscathed ? Did they write more poems ?
    So pleased to know that Sgt Seton-Smith carried on writing.
    Any more info please add to this stream.
    Lee Hines

    • Dear Lee, Many thanks for your comments and sorry for delay in replying.  We don’t have much information on the poets as unfortunately we only know the name and rank of each poet and the publisher no longer exists, so any records they might have held have gone missing.  Corporal S. Abel, Private J. Broome and Signalman G. Harker possibly died.  Here are the links on the Commonwealth War Graves site: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2063606/ABEL,%20S    ; http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2069328/BROOME,%20JAMES and   http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2069328/BROOME,%20JAMES   Lance Corporal P.A.A.Thomas appears to have written a book: Words of Mercury and Other Poems.  Bombardier Louis Challoner continued to write poetry and some of his work is held at the Imperial War Museum in London.  If you have any other information about the poets, do let us know.  We’d love to know!

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