Dossers at the Imperial War Museum by Joyce Herbert

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

1918 by Tony Lewis Jones

I am younger than the century. A boy, you think,

But I am chained to a machine gun

Capable of ending a thousand lives

And this makes me a man.

 

There will be no withdrawl.

The officers have warned us:

Here, in our trenches, we fight or die

And no one is to cut me free.

 

In pity for my situation,

Don’t mistake me. I’m as frightened

As the newly wedded bank clerk we all tease

Who’s never known his wife; frightened

 

As the English, waiting to attack

When dawn reveals the cratered wasteground

Under my machine gun’s eye

Like, me, they’re chained to cirrcumstance;

 

The future doesn’t favour deals.

I have to trust my comrades and my gun:

No need to aim this thing. Bring on the enemy.

Let’s see some daylight. Death, release your slaves.

 

By Tony Lewis Jones

Prayer by Anna Akhmatova

Grant me years of sickness and fever;

make me sleepless for months at a time.

Take away my child and my lover

and the mysterious gift of rhyme.

As the air grows ever more sultry,

this is the prayer I recite:

and may the storm cloud over my country

be shot through with rays of light.

 

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(11 May 1915, Day of the Holy Spirit), St Petersburg

translation by Robert Chandler