Published Aug 2012
Gentle, modest and handsome, a fine poet, proficient in nine languages, eccentric Englishman Frank Thompson made an unlikely soldier. The elder of two sons of a formidable family of writers (his brother would become the radical historian E.P. Thompson), lover of Iris Murdoch, he was an intellectual idealist, a rare combination of brilliant mind and generous heart.
Despite his age, his mother’s best efforts, and the Communist Party line (Iris had herself recruited him), in September 1939 Frank enlisted. Serving first with the Royal Artillery, then Phantom, finally moving to SOE to escape the ‘long littleness of life’, he documented his wartime experiences. He wrote prodigiously: letters, diaries and poetry, the best of which, the much anthologised ‘An Epitaph for my Friends’ – the landmark poem of the Second World War – gives a taste of what English poetry may have lost when in June 1944, aged just twenty three, Frank was captured, tortured and executed in Litakovo, Bulgaria. The poem stands as a testament to his ability to speak for his generation, to bear witness to their lost youth. A dictionary he was carrying once stopped an enemy bullet and saved his life; a volume of the great Roman poet Catullus was found on him after his death: Frank fought a ‘poet’s war’.
E.P. Thompson believed his brother was a victim of both Churchill and the Stalinist Dimitrov; in Bulgaria, Frank – having been portrayed as an Imperialist spy, then a Soviet agent – is now once again a People’s Hero, their Lord Byron or T.E. Lawrence. With meticulous research, and drawing on Frank’s letters and journals, which retain a startling immediacy and still read fresh and alive today, Peter Conradi lays to rest many misconceptions. Frank Thompson emerges here as a brilliantly attractive and courageous personality, the product of a remarkable time and an extraordinary family, and a unique voice in his own right: a soldier poet or scholar-soldier of principle and integrity – a very English hero from a very different era.