A place devoted to death. At noon, when I came out, the sun
struck at my eyes. I’d been trying to hear Minnenwerfers,
catch the flare of a Verey light, the thud of a phosgene shell.
Across one wall a blinded daisychain of men went clambering
like stricken insects waving feeble antennae. Eyes burnt out,
they clutched the jacket of the man in front:
this neat clean dugout never knew them, neither did
the model soldier standing at the door, his webbing blancoed,
boots bright, puttees perfect, head high.
A general’s delight.
There were photographs of running figures wavering,
lurching, buckling at the knees. There were humped heaps
fallen, stranded like fish on a desolate beach.
Sunshine showered sparks, drenched the steps.
I could not see, shaded my eyes.
They were all out there. Some tide of war had washed them
down the steps from Bapaume or the Somme,
rolled in cocoons of blankets, sprawled on their backs, knees up,
spilled on the shaven glass:
prone near the flowerbeds they slept like stones,
jaws dropped, mittened fingers clutching.
Far under bushes I could see them
in attitudes of death,
rolled in their plastic bags waiting for something to happen.
by Joyce Herbert
What did he see in the war, my father?
All I have are the photos – small sharp stills
from a 1940s film: Trevor Howard,
angular, tanned, glancing up handsome
from the shade of a cocked serge cap.
His hands, fine and strong, held compasses, maps;
knew the levers of lorries and the shafts of guns.
The same hands that cupped my head
like an egg when I tripped and fell,
could tell the cool weight of a grenade, the exact bite
of a Stanley knife. Had laid out the dead.
I could well believe he’d been a soldier,
the hardness of his body showed it.
And the way he held the bowl of his pipe,
firmly, with a kind of sure commitment:
this is what I am, these are my tools,
my equipment. There are tasks to be done.
It was there in the weave and cut of his clothes:
things well made, stout for their purpose –
gaberdine and wool, best leather, double-stitched,
double-knotted, built for wear and weather.
What could he do in peacetime
that would compare with those days
deliberate as a bird’s of animal’s days
when there’s food to be found, nests to be made?
The medals meant nothing:
trinkets, he called them. But the men –
ordinary, afraid and brave,
welded to him in the long slow furnace
of shared smokes in canvassed trucks,
nights under desert skies – it was they
who brought up the light in him,
repeating their lines forty years on.
What of the rest could he find to say
to a young girl who knew only
the safe house of his steady arms,
the gentleness of his delphinium eyes;
and the cheerfulness worn casually,
daily, like collar and tie.
by Anna Wigley
As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat amongst the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the 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
Th 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.
by Edward Thomas
Even without a blackout
There was not much to show.
A street of cottages and whitewashed pub
Well used to the art of dousing
Every trace of light.
You knew the Heinkel’s unique drone –
Big, angry maybug trapped in a shade –
Yet here was one lower, and faltering.
The Swansea bombs were a murmur at dusk
But this was the first you ever heard fall:
Thin steam from a kettle;
The whine of sap in a sycamore;
Mosquito’s itchy piccolo.
Under the table you felt the house’s gentle shift,
Making itself more comfortable.
A joint shuddered, perhaps a slate
Escaped its nail.
And the next morning
Stood out in the field staring into the crater
That 500 pounds of German dynamite had dug.
At the rim you found a cow’s horn
Polished like the haft of a walking-stick,
And noted the mattresses of roots, silver now,
In the wall of the pit.
‘If the buggers could aim,’ your mother had said,
Shaking the plaster out of the tablecloth,
‘They’d be dangerous.’
by Robert Minhinnick
All day the jets have rifled through the air,
Drilled through the lessons that I’ve tried to give.
Scabbing the blue with vapour for a scar,
Passing the dummy-bombed hamlets with a wave.
I’ve comforted myself. I’m not so bad,
I’ve thought, in spite of the raised voice, the sudden squall
If discipline and strictness knocks them dead
At least I’m not out there learning to kill.
And each frail cliche rears to the surface.
Writhes in the strong light, dies, and having sunk
Leaves me to know I work for who in office
Shuts books to put more octane in the tank.
What I would does not possess our minds.
This boy, the fat one, has been rifled too.
Belongs to the plane amd every bomb it sends,
Absorption melted from his ragged row
Of words. Just now he, my bluntest blade
Inevitably felled first in any game,
Looked from the tortured page, the word-wrought board,
To a sky where steel hammered its own scream –
by Christopher Meredith