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Joseph Johnston Lee
Dundee Poet known for his war poetry

Joseph Lee (poet)

Joseph Johnston Lee
Dundee, Scotland
1949 (aged 7273)
Dundee, Scotland


Poet, Journalist, Artist, Soldier

Known for
War Poetry

Joseph Johnston Lee (1876 1949) was a Scottish journalist, artist and poet, who chronicled life in the trenches and as a prisoner of war during World War I. He is also remembered for his fight with then poet laureate Robert Bridges over the literary value of Robert Burns' work. He has been described as "Scotland's 'Forgotten' War Poet",[1] as well as "Dundee's forgotten war poet."[2]


Born in Dundee, in 1876 Joseph Johnston Lee was the grandson of Sergeant David Lee, who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Lee began his working life at the age of 14. After a spell of employment in the office of a local solicitor, he went to sea as a steamship's stoker.[3]

In 1904 Lee worked as an artist in London drawing cartoons for the Tariff Reform League, and subsequently became a newspaper artist. He returned to Dundee in 1906 and started to write for, produce and edit several local periodicals, most notably The City Echo and The Piper O' Dundee.[3] In 1909 he founded and edited The Tocsin a monthly periodical which promoted the labour movement in Dundee. This publication won praise from leading figures in the Labour Party including Keir Hardie and Philip Snowden, but folded after less than a year.[4][5]

In 1909 he became gained employment with the Dundee newspaper and periodical publishers John Leng & Co. He was soon a regular contributor of poetry to their weekly newspaper The People's Journal, a publication which he would go on to edit.[3] He published his first book of poems, Tales o Our Town, in 1910. In April 1914 his play Fra Lippo Lippi, Painter of Florence was produced and performed by students of the Dundee Technical College and School of Art.[6]

Although he was aged almost 40 when World War I began, Lee enlisted in the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch in 1914 and eventually rose to the rank of Sergeant. During this time he sent sketches and poems back home to Scotland. These were eventually collected in two books of poetry, Ballads of Battle and Work-a-Day Warriors. In 1917 he gained a commission as a second lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps.[3] Later that year he was reported to be missing in action.[7] In fact Lee had been captured and became a prisoner of war in Germany.[3] His time spent as a POW was later depicted in his book A Captive in Carlsruhe.[8]

In 1924 Lee married Miss Dorothy Barrie, who was a well-known viola player. The couple settled in Epsom and Lee became sub-editor on the News Chronicle.[3] He also studied at the Slade School of Art during this period.[1] He returned to Dundee in 1944, and died there in 1949.[3]

Reputation as a poet

Lee's war poetry was widely praised when it was published during the conflict.[9] His poem The Green Grass was acclaimed by John Buchan as one of the best war poems he had read.[1] Lee's reputation as a war poet once ranked alongside those of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke. However as the works of Owen and Sassoon grew in popularity, Lee's fame waned.[1]

Lee's biographer Bob Burrows suggests that one reason why Lee's poetry failed to achieve the lasting recognition of that of his more famous contemporaries was because he did not have the backing of an influential supporter. He also notes that Lee came through the War relatively unscathed and returned to his old work as a journalist after his release from captivity in Germany. Burrows also suggests that Lee had no ambition to be a great literary figure and thus did little to push his work. In addition he puts forward the view that Lee's working class origins would have made it difficult for his work to achieve widespread acclaim.[10]


Joseph Lee's papers are now held by Archive Services at the University of Dundee. They include Lee's correspondence with Robert Bridges as well as material relating to his time as a prisoner of war. The collection also features copies of Lee's publications and material relating to them, including a letter from Keir Hardie.[3][11][12] An exhibition devoted to Lee was held at the University of Dundee in 2005 and was opened by his great niece.[13][14] In 2011 materials from Lee's papers, including extracts from the diary he wrote during his spell as a prisoner of war, were featured in an exhibition held by Archive Services to mark Remembrance Day.[15] A biography of Lee, by Bob Burrows, was published in 2004.[9]


Lee's first major collection of poetry, Tales o Our Town (Dundee: George Montgomery, 1910), features around sixty poems, most of which relate to people, places and events in his native Dundee. The volume also contains illustrations drawn by Lee.[16] His first collection of war poetry, Ballads of Battle (London: John Murray, 1916), contains 38 poems and 17 illustrations drawn by Lee.[17] Work-A-Day Warriors (London: John Murray, 1917) contains 39 poems, including four which had previously been published in The Spectator and one, "The Carrion Crow", which had earlier been published in The Nation. As with his earlier works, this volume also contains drawings by Lee.[18] The New York Times regretted Lees choice of title for this volume, as it felt it failed to convey the real depth of Mr. Lees work.[19]

1. Urquhart, Frank (12 November 2005). "Tribute to 'forgotten' Scots war poet". The Scotsman. Retrieved 14 June 2011.
2. Joseph Lee: Dundee's forgotten war poet". BBC News. 9 July 2014. Retrieved 9 July 2014.
3. "University of Dundee Archives Services Online Catalogue Joseph Johnston Lee". University of Dundee. Retrieved 27 May 2014.
4. "Tracing the development of Red Scotland". University of Dundee. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
5. Baxter, Kenneth & Kenefick, William (2011). "Labour Politics and the Dundee Working Class c 1895-1936". In Jim Tomlinson and Christopher A. Whatley. Jute No More. Dundee: Dundee University Press. pp. 207208. ISBN 978-1-84586-090-5.
6. "Archive Services Online Catalogue MS 88/4". University of Dundee. Retrieved 27 May 2014.
7. "Missing". The Scotsman. 17 December 1917.
8. Lee, Joseph Johnston (1920). A Captive at Carlsruhe and other German prison camps. London: John Lane. Retrieved November 11, 2013.
9. "Dundee's forgotten war poet remembered". University of Dundee. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
10. Burrows, Bob (2004). Fighter Writer: The eventful life of Sergeant Joe Lee Scotland's forgotten war poet. Derby: Breedon Books. pp. 194195. ISBN 1-85983-399-3.
11. "General Election Special 2". Archives, Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
12. "MS 88 JOSEPH JOHNSTON LEE, JOURNALIST AND POET (1876-1949)". University of Dundee. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
13. "Joseph Lee War Poet & Artist - Museum Services". University of Dundee. Retrieved 7 June 2011.
14. "New Exhibition of Work of Joseph Lee, Dundee's First World War Poet". University of Dundee. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
15. "World War Exhibition". Archives, Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. Retrieved 17 June 2011.
16. Lee, Joseph (1910). Tales o Our Town. Dundee: George Montgomery.
17. Lee, Joseph (1916). Ballads of Battle. London: John Murray.
18. Lee, Joseph (1917). Work-A-Day Warriors. London: John Murray.
19."Some Recent Books of Verse". New York Times. 6 October 1918. Retrieved 9 February 2012.

Ballads of Battle
Poems - Tales O' Our Town
Work-a-Day Warriors

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