Born in Dundee in 1876, Joseph Lee was the grandson of Sergeant David Lee, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. He left school at the age of 14 and began work in a local solicitor’s office. Finding the work dull he eventually took a job as a steamship’s stoker, making a number of sketches during his voyages. In 1904 he was employed as a newspaper artist in London, drawing cartoons for the Tariff Reform League. He returned to Dundee in 1906 and worked for several local periodicals before becoming a member of staff at John Leng & Co where he eventually edited their People’s Journal publication. He published his first book of poems Tales o’ Our Town in 1910.

Lee joined the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch in 1914. The battalion crossed to France early in 1915 and was involved in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Neuve Chapelle and, in September, the Battle of Loos. When he coud Lee wrote and sketched, recording life in the trenches and on the battlefield. His poems were sent back to the Dundee Advertiser and he became known as the ‘Black Watch poet.’ Two volumes of his war poems and sketches – Ballads of Battle (1916) and Work-a-Day Warriors (1917) – were published while he was at the Front. In 1917 he became a second lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and later that year was captured near Cambrai. His experiences as a prisoner of war in camps at Karlsruhe and Beeskow are described in his book A Captive at Carlsruhe.

Lee’s war poetry was widely praised at the time it was published – John Buchan praised his poem The Green Grass as one of the best war poems he had read and his reputation as a war poet once ranked alongside those of Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. However, as the works of Owen and Sassoon grew in popularity, Lee’s fame waned. Lee’s biographer, Bob Burrows, suggested a number of reasons why his poetry failed to gain the lasting recognition of that of his contemporaries: he did not have the backing of an influential supporter; he came through the war relatively unscathed, returning to work as a journalist; he may have had no ambition to be a great literary figure, so did little to push his work; in addition, Lee’s working class origins may have made it difficult for his work to achieve widespread acclaim [Bob Burows, Fighter Writer: The eventful life of Joe Lee, Scotland’s forgotten war hero, Breedon Books, 2004]

He was a people’s poet in that he wrote poems about what he saw, just like an artist would sketch what they see, and perhaps that’s not the kind of poetry people wanted to remember just after the war. [Caroline Brown, University of Dundee]

Photograph of Joseph Lee © University of Dundee, reproduced with kind permission of Dundee University Archives

Joseph Lee’s Poems:

Sketches by Joseph Lee

 Reources for Joseph Lee:

University of Dundee online exhibition

Joseph Lee collection at Dundee

Urquhart, Frank (12 November 2005). “Tribute to ‘forgotten’ Scots war poet”. The Scotsman.

Scottish Poetry Library

Matthew Jarron and Caroline Brown, Joseph Lee – WW1 Poet, Dundee University Press, 2014

Bob Burows, Fighter Writer: The eventful life of Joe Lee, Scotland’s forgotten war hero, Breedon Books, 2004