Joseph Johnston Lee was born in Dundee in 1876. A bright boy, he went to Harris Academy at the age of eleven, but as the family was not able to afford for him to continue in education, he left school at fourteen and started work as an office boy. Restlessness and a spirit of adventure spurred him to travel; he went to sea, making several long trips, working and sketching, and spent a year working in Canada, but Dundee always called him back. In his late twenties Lee found work as a free-lance cartoonist in London and then worked for a small newspaper, where his talents in both drawing and writing were put to use, kicking off his lifelong career in journalism. Returning to Dundee in 1906, Lee edited and produced several local magazines, then joined the staff of John Leng & Co., the publishing house responsible for the Dundee Advertiser, The People’s Friend and The People’s Journal, of which last he became editor. He was writing and publishing poetry in the magazines; his first collection, Tales O’ Our Town, appeared in 1910.
When war broke out in 1914 Lee was almost forty and had bronchial asthma. His travelling years were behind him, he was established as a poet and artist and a respected journalist. Nevertheless, he volunteered for the 4th Black Watch, the local Territorial Army battalion. Dundee being a centre of publishing, there were inevitably other journalists in the battalion, including Linton Andrews, Jack Beveridge Nicholson and Joseph Gray; they called themselves the ‘Fighter-Writers’.
The battalion crossed to France early in 1915 and was involved in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Neuve Chapelle, and then, in September, in the Battle of Loos. When he could, Lee was writing and sketching, recording life in the trenches and on the battlefield in his poems, which were sent back to the Dundee Advertiser for publication. Lee’s poems were much appreciated in his native city; he became known as ‘the Black Watch poet’.
Lee was promoted to sergeant. Initially refusing a commission, he eventually agreed to train for one, and became a lieutenant in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1917. In command of ‘A’ Company, 10th Battalion, Lee was reported missing during the Battle of Cambrai. In fact, he had been taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in the internment camp at Karlsruhe. The camp became the setting for his sketches (which were popular with his captors) and his last literary output of the war, a diary which he later developed into a book.
In Karlsruhe Lee wrote no poetry, and very little after the war ended. After his return he worked in London, and married and settled down with the viola player Dorothy Barrie. During the Second World War Lee served in the Home Guard, at the same time working as sub-editor of the News Chronicle, until poor health finally made him retire in in 1944, after which he and Dorothy lived in Epsom. Lee made his final return to Dundee in 1947, where he lived until his death in 1949.
Ballads of Battle, Lee’s first book of war poetry, was published in 1916 by John Murray, and Work-a-Day Warriors in 1917. A review in The Scotsman of December 27, 1917, describes his poems as ‘at once simple, strong, and neatly and pointedly wrought’, and declares the accompanying sketches to have ‘a kindred vigour and efficiency of pleasing artistry’. Lee’s sketches and poems illustrated the friendship between soldiers not just of the same army, but of the different nations standing together against the enemy – Australian, Irish, Indian, French – and gave a fair appraisal, too, of that enemy. His poetry was well-received – well-loved, in fact – by the general public, and he was included in several war anthologies. Popularity, though, did not earn him an undying place in the canon of war poets, and his name faded to obscurity, except, perhaps in Dundee, where he is remembered, and where the University now cares for his archive. A biography, Fighter Writer: the eventful life of Sergeant Joe Lee, Scotland’s forgotten war poet, was written by Bob Burrows and published in 2004.