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Essay Competition 2023-2024 – Competition Winners and Results Report

ETF Essay Competition 2023/24 Results Report

Following the success of the Essay Competition in 2022-2023, in the competition’s second year (follow this link for competition details and previous year winners) we invited year 12 and 13 students to write a close reading of Edward Thomas’ “As the team’s head brass”.

We were delighted to receive a total of 36 entries altogether, from 15 different schools, which included a spread of schools from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The quality of the essays in response to “As the team’s head brass” was very high. Selecting a shortlist and the eventual winners was particularly challenging.

Congratulations to the following students and our thanks to everyone who submitted an entry this year:


Ruby O, Wellington College

Prize: £100, essay published in Edward Thomas Fellowship newsletter, one year’s free print and digital membership of Edward Thomas Fellowship

Runners up:

Anya T, St Paul’s Girls’ School

James B, Colyton Grammar School

Prize: £50 each


Angelica R, St Paul’s Girls’ School

Anya F, Alton College

Chloe D, St Paul’s Girls’ School

Fergus P, Fettes College

Freya L, St Paul’s Girls’ School

Isaac G, Fettes College

Mya S, Tiffin Girls’ School

Prize: All ten shortlisted students listed in Edward Thomas Fellowship newsletter

All candidates

Prize: one-year free digital membership of Edward Thomas Fellowship, which includes newsletters, discounted events admission, information on competitions and more

Judges’ comments

This year’s shortlist was decided by the Edward Thomas Fellowship’s Essay Competition committee, whilst the winners and runners up were chosen Fellowship’s longstanding committee member and trustee, Richard Emeny.

Richard and the Fellowship’s judging committee commented:

“Ruby O’s winning essay conveyed a very clear sense of the poem combined with some perceptive, personal comment, and was well-written and contained excellent analysis”.

 “Anya T’s essay effectively analysed the impact and nuance of particular language choices in establishing the overall tone and message of the poem.”

“James B’s essay was astute and well-structured – it saw the poem as exploring how the apparent initial detachment of the rural life from the war gave way to a realisation that the conflict and destruction were a constant presence.”

“In general, the response from the 36 students was impressive. The majority focused on the immediate ordinary rural activity in the context of the ongoing First World War and Thomas’s own part in it, and explored the situation thoughtfully.”

Participating schools

We are grateful to the students and teachers from our 15 participating schools. Each school received one year’s free print membership of the Edward Thomas Fellowship. This year’s participating schools were:

Fettes College (7 entries)

Colyton Grammar School (5)

St. Paul’s Girls’ School (5)

Cardiff Sixth Form College (3)

Tiffin Girls’ School (3)

Alton College (2)

St Catherine’s, Bramley (2)

Wellington College (2)

Altrincham Grammar School for Girls (1)

City of London School (1)

Colchester Royal Grammar School (1)

King Edward VI Grammar School (1)

Our Lady and St Patrick’s College Knock (1)

Stratford Girls’ Grammar School (1)

Wycombe Abbey (1).

We would be very grateful for your feedback on the Essay Competition – please email your thoughts to Robert Woolliams (


The winning essay, by Ruby O:

The 1916 poem “As the Teams Head-Brass” by Edward Thomas is a moving examination of the human condition in the face of war’s unrelenting advance, focusing on individuals detrimentally affected by war in rural areas and the natural world. Significantly, one sees a contrast to most war poems, which concentrate on the effects on soldiers and those involved in the horrific combat but are oblivious to the impact of the hidden figures who are powering the war at their loss, which Thomas manages to express through intricately weaving together the themes of war, loss, nature, and reflection throughout the entire poem further accentuating this exploration.

Thomas formulates a dynamic atmosphere via the contrast between the team and the lovers: “As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn, The lovers disappeared into the wood”. The team, frequently connected to agricultural labour, represents responsibility, routine, and the pragmatic facets of life, juxtaposing the narrative, which gains a more personal, poignant, and human element when the lovers are introduced, suggesting a more comprehensive range of human experience embracing both the public and private domains, emphasising the complexity of the speaker’s reflections. Additionally, Thomas manufactures a sense of escapism and refuge within the lover’s withdrawal into the woods while introducing a feeling of mystery, alluding to a break from the undesired reality. However, within the context of war, the disappearance mimics the disturbance in the personal and emotional sphere of existence, differing from the team’s continuous movement, which ultimately represents the demands of life persisting even during the war.

“As the team’s head-brass” explores loss and transformation as significant themes, revealing an emotional depth throughout the poem. In light of the death of his companion, the speaker is compelled to consider the severe effects of war: “One of my mates is dead. The second day in France, they killed him”. This open admission of death illustrates the terrible reality of war, adding a sense of loss and irrevocable change. Furthermore, the idea of permanent change is reiterated, with the fallen elm serving as a symbol for the changes that conflict inevitably brings about. This examination of change is heightened when the speaker considers “everything would have been different. For it would have been another world,” emphasising a distinct sense of yearning for a different reality unaffected by war’s malicious actions. The poem highlights the long-lasting effects of war on those forced to endure it by depicting loss in the realm of individual lives and the broader context of societal upheaval.

Thomas carefully incorporates the theme of optimism into the poem’s reflective narrative despite the fact it discusses war and loss., “Ay and a better, however. If we could see all, all might seem good. “Here, the ploughman offers a positive viewpoint, arguing that a deeper understanding may reveal virtue even in the face of difficulties like conflict. Furthermore, the lovers’ return emphasises this optimistic point of view, “Then the lovers came out of the wood again”, possibly signifying continuity or hope despite the descriptions engulfing them. The resilient spirit rendered by acknowledging a positive perspective encourages the reader to reflect on the possibility of favourable outcomes despite the difficulties presented in the poem.

The lovers’ reappearance from the woods and the last ploughing scene, “The horses started, and for the last time I watched the clouds crumble and topple over After the ploughshare and the stumbling team,” both contribute to the poem’s cyclical structure. This scene returns the reader to the agricultural setting and gives them a glimpse of the recurrent nature of life. The enduring image of harvest and regrowth is a constant reminder that life will unavoidably continue and reflects the resilience of those who carried out their daily tasks despite the turbulent period. The final section contemplates the tenacity of the human spirit and its ability, necessity, and desperation to find continuity and meaning when faced with hardships. In addition, the poem is elegiac, lamenting the changes that the war has brought about in the rural and human landscape; this is mainly seen in the final lines, which emphasise the melancholy and resigned acceptance of “and for the last time… the stumbling team”, which has a haunting poignancy perhaps because the word “stumbling conjures up images of soldiers crossing no man’s land.

To conclude, “As the Teams Head-Brass” serves as a microcosm of the war’s detrimental impact on rural society; the poem also reflects the desire to escape the harsh realities of conflict due to the themes of loss, war and change while also highlighting the resilience of those compelled to fulfil their life-altering duties, who are trying to maintain and cherish their personal and intimate experiences of life, that are scarce due to the hardships they face. The poem is unique to readers because it reflects our understanding of war and Edward Thomas’s death.

As the team’s head-brass – by Edward Thomas

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more …. Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.