2nd Lieutenant S.J.H. Durnford, Royal Regiment of Artillery, December 1940.

Back numbers of The Shirburnian provide ample evidence of the talents of OS poets. From the Powys family, Cecil Day Lewis, Lawrence Sail to the modern generation, Sherborne has an enviable tradition of producing high quality poets.

Verse is probably at its most emotive when relating to war, especially with regard to the First World War poets, the likes of Brooke, Binyon, Thomas, Owen and Sassoon. However, let no one say that these icons hold a monopoly on sublime war poetry.

The verses below were written by Stanley John Harper Durnford (School House 1934-1938), when, as a prisoner of war during the Second World War, news came through of the Japanese surrender in August 1945. They feature in his volume of seven poems entitled A Form of Consolation. Poems, 1942-1945 (1984). The news of the surrender had reached Bangkok on the 12th August but took another four days to reach Khanburi.

Durnford writes ‘The worn, tired faces reflected something akin to shock and disbelief. There were no demonstrations. Many sat in silence, some in tears, thanking God it was finished.’

VJ Day, Khanburi
‘Gentleman!’ he said in tears, ‘the war is over’,
Looking towards a yellow hurricane light,
Held up by someone in the struggling crowd,
I glimpsed your face, its usual smile
Checked in bewilderment at so much joy,
So you must once have looked, when, as a boy,
They gave us gifts at Christmas – now, this Freedom.
Silent, the men sat on in darkness, bowed and still,
As though at prayers, or sleeping after death.
Then slowly, one by one, as a great crowd
Of ransomed spirits might attend their Lord,
Began impulsive movements towards the door.
Stars filled the jagged hills, the village slept.
The shuffling feet paused. Then someone sang,
Timid at first, their voices, gathered in strength,
Sounding a great hymn from the ragged lines,
While, all night long, drums beat in the darkened shrines.’

John Durnford (Stan to his Sherborne contemporaries) won the English Verse Prize three years in succession from 1936 to 1938 as well as the Barnes Elocution Prize, and the Longmuir English Prize in his last year at Sherborne. He was also Editor of The Shirburnian. Joining the Royal Artillery at the outbreak of war, he served in the disastrous Malaysian Campaign, which culminated in the fall of Singapore on the 15th February 1942, where he became one of the 100,000 allied troops captured by the Japanese. As a prisoner of war, Durnford was sent to Thailand to work on the notorious River Kwai railway. In conditions of extreme hardship, starvation and humiliation, only just over 3,000 of the 20,000 British troops sent there survived the ordeal, and the emotions felt at the scene that he describes above, can scarcely be imagined. During his three year ordeal, he wrote his verse mostly at night after a gruelling twelve hour working day where each man was designated a cubic metre to excavate by hand. There was no electricity in the camps and he had to write by the light of a lamp made of a tin filled with coconut oil.

‘VJ Day, Khanburi’ featured as a reading in the service held in the School Chapel on the 8th May 2005 to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of VE Day. It was a poignant reminder to all of us present that, as Europe celebrated freedom in May 1945, many friends and allies were still engaged in the ‘Forgotten War’.

Stan Durnford in happier days relaxing on the Sixth Form Green at Sherborne School in 1937.

John Harden (g 70)

This article was first published in the 2005 OS Record .

Books by John Durnford:
Branch-Line to Burma. With a foreword by Admiral of the Fleet The Earl Mountbatten of Burma (London, MacDonald, 1958).
A Form of Consolation. Poems, 1942-1945 (Box, Wilts. J. Durnford, 1984).
Immortal Diamond (Ilfracombe, Arthur H. Stockwell Ltd., 1975).

See also:
Sherborne School Roll of Honour.
Online resources for Sherborne School and the Second World War

For further information about the Sherborne School Archives please contact the School Archivist.

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