World War One

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month draws near. That was the moment in year nineteen eighteen when the unspeakable tragedy we call World War One came to its bitter conclusion. Little did those who called it The War To End All Wars foresee, a scant twenty one years later, a twin tragedy - the outbreak of World War Two.

The fires of both wars were ignited by one nation seeking to assert its dominance over all others. For me, Germany had no need to resort to war in order to achieve its objectives. Such a strong nation would very likely have done so over time through industrial / innovation / economics. But war / force is the single flaw in the character of all natural bullies, is it not?  And with what crazy enthusiasm did my own country and in time its friends join in the opposition!

In nineteen ninety six Delia and I visited the little town of Albert in Northern France. By nineteen seventeen Albert had been reduced by continual shelling to a skeletal ruin. At that time the shattered church still tried to stand, atop it had been a golden statue of the madonna and child, and this statue still managed to hang on, albeit at a wierd angle. The British troops called it the Angel of Albert. The scuttlebutt was that when it finally fell the war would be over.

Close to this church today is an underground pasageway that has been turned into a WW1 museum. We paid our dues and went down there. I shall never forget the experience.On the way out I bought a book - a compendium of WW1 poets. I read it cover to cover in my Riyadh hotel a week or two later. I had this compulsion to do something.. This was / is it ... the italicised words are those of the poets themselves ...



 

IN WOUNDED FIELDS

Prologue

We wander down the subterranean shaft
In which the museum at Albert, Picardy,
Conceals from this town’s normal life
The bloody, muddy face
Of World War One,
The stinking trenches
And all the wounded fields.
And you can hear the dying;.
Taste the death down here;
In our strange silence I do not want to stay
Where no words come
But find I cannot quickly take myself away....

In the souvenir shop on the way out
Of the brick-arch tunnel, cold stone floor,
Before reaching the fresh air of the town
We look in silence still
Through sickly memorabilia
And at the history books:
And from a nice French lady buy one
Called; “Violets from Oversea;”
By Toni and Valmai Holt
(Illustrations Charlotte Zeepvat)
That tells how from chaos flowered poesy,
Avoids the use of the word ‘hero,’
Of poets speaks without hypocricy.

And outside in the thin October rain
As I look high up to the golden virgin,
Child in her outstretched hands, against grey sky,
That surmounts the Town Hall
(Known to the soldiers as The Angel of Albert,)
And later, reading of those soldier poets -
I know I have to say some thing.
To some of them, anyway.
 

Bryan Islip
October 96
To Charles Hamilton Sorley; 19 May 1895 - 28 April 1915

 Hello pale youth, lip touched with thin moustache,
Captain, D Company, Suffolk Regiment,
Cross-Wiltshire running old Marlburian:
At you fast sped the unkind spinning lead 
At Loos to drill your helmet, still so new.
How all too true your words of how...“Earth...
            Shall rejoice and blossom too
            When the bullet reaches you.”

Wherever did you stow your socialism,
Your bitter sense of anti-Kiplingism?
When you packed up your old kit-bag, and where
Your liking for Goethe & Rilke, Ibsen?
(Not for Hardy, your love of him had lapsed)
Your marchers...”All the hills and vales along...
            The singers are the chaps
            Who are going to die perhaps.”

But listen, you could have been one of those
Pieces of living pulp  you so dreaded having
To carry back across that no-man’s waste:
Or one of those with you at Ypres who
Had breathed deep of the gently shifting breeze,
Blinked, blinded by its gift of British gas,
Coughed out their sightless time in yellow pus.

You could have been...have been the dramatist,
The best, John Masefield, Poet Laureate said,
Since that Stratfordian, if you had lived.
I am giving my body,” you wrote, (I think
He’d like your shocking words,) “To fight against
The most enterprising nation in the world”
But Charles how straight you stood, your flag unfurled!

Sighing, you folded; sank spent-muscled down
Into that slime and no-one said soft things:
No bands of angels took thee to thy rest.
They never found you, Captain Sorley, did they?
Though lost you not for minds cannot decay,
And you would know, sweet twenty, soldier prince,
It matters not in what dark earth you lay...

...And after in your muddy kitbag there
They found your cry against what Brooke had said:
Your cry; “Say only this; that they are dead.”
****
           
To: Leslie Coulson      July 1889  -  October 1916
 
“Who spake the Law that men should die in meadows?”
You ask and I reply, ‘Man spake that Law,’
(Though in regards to other than himself;)
And in pursuance since the dawn of human
Kind has killed and died in meadows, towns
Upon the seas and hills, now in the air
And after questioned why, and was it fair.
Why? But no-one knows - and fair? Who is to care?

“Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes?”
You ask and I reply, ‘You spake that word,
You, Sergeant, for by just being there -
Proud member of the London Regiment
Retreating last from lost Gallipoli
- With all those men, some khaki some in grey
Who’ll fight until one colour wins the day
‘Till thick in lanes the dead, the dying lay.

“Who gave it forth that gardens should be boneyards?”
You ask and I say it was ever thus,
Beneath the beauty always lie the bones
That nourish it, upon which it must feed
As feeds nobility in war upon the lost,
The crying of the dead, the awful dying:
You who vainly fought, near Albert lying,
Your bones now ‘neath the nodding flowers, sighing.

“Who spread the hills with flesh and blood and brains?”
You ask and know the answer: it is you
Who trained your smoking gun upon the foe,
Who covered hills with screaming shot and shell
To deaden all that runs or flies or grows.
For more than this ask your creator God,
Your fingers stiffly clawed into the sod,
‘Till agony is spent with all your blood.

‘All the blood that war has ever strewn is
But a passing stain,’ you wrote... before the start...


*****

To Francis Ledwidge      August 1887  - July 1917

 Did you still, “Hear roads calling and the hills
And the rivers, wondering where I am,”
At Hellfire Corner, sitting drinking tea
As arced unseen that deadly mortar bomb
Which was to end an Irish poet’s dream?

A long way sure, from Owen, Brooke, and those
Smart young men in smarter khaki clothes
Who never mended any metalled road
Yet were your brothers of the silken verse
And knew as well as you the smell of death.
I wonder what became of all your clan
(Nine children to evicted farming man:)
Perhaps your father was a dreamer too,
Dreaming, “Songs of the fields,” just as you,
His Celtic longing more than mind can bear.
But what genetic streak of ancient Gael
Gave will to write and sensitivity
To know; “And greater than a poet’s fame
A little grave that has no name;”  tell me,
You school-less twelve year old adrift, tell me,
Lance Corporal Francis Ledwidge, fighting man,
Sometime Slane Corps of Irish Nationalists
Now Inniskilling Fusiliers, enrolled
To kill the foe of She who’s not your friend
And fight for her through hell’s Gallipoli.
And how, I wondered, could a poet write
In winter trenches on the brutal Somme
Of lilting “Fairy Music” (“Ceol Sidhe”)?
Was still the barred cuckoo so real to you,
In Crocknahara meadows by the Boyne?

Always you yearned for mother, Ireland,
“The fields that call across the world to me,”
And now near where the spires of Ypers stand
You dream your dreams, denied reality,
Beneath your wild flowers ‘till the end.

 
To Roland Aubrey Leighton: March 1895 - December 1915
 
We searched the lanes, found you in Louvencourt’s
Small cemetry amidst a company
Of stones standing straight-rowed to attention,
Smart white in a slow rain, near where you died;
‘Lieutenant R A Leighton 7th Worcesters,’
Says your monument; said that telegram.
“I walk alone although the way is long,”
You said, in private lines in your black book,
“And with gaunt briars and nettles overgrown;”
What pain you meant by this we’ll never know.
Just such a light so bright as yours aligns
The many-splendoured ones on which it shines.

She capitalised your ‘Him’ as godheads do
Whenever afterwards she wrote of you.

Yes, “Life is love and love is you, dear, you”
You wrote, prize scholar bursting sweating out
Of your illicit wet night dreams of she,
Who’d written to herself ;’Impressive, he,
Of powerful frame, pale face and stiff thick hair.’
Would you we know had she not loved you so?
Dee likes to know you in those violets,
Pressed brown and withered, desiccated now,
You sent to Vee from shattered 'Plug Street' Wood,
Picked from red sticky ground around the head,
The horrid face and splintered skull that she
Must never see?... She, Vera of the V A D?

Who, from your sceptic pact with her enticed
Your secret taking of Rome’s hand of Christ?
 
And I, not knowing of you very much,
Looked in that brass bound book at Louvencourt
Read this year’s batch of private messages
To you, young friend, mostly from those unborn
When that one, shiv’ring in his field grey,
Unsurprised to see you that cold night, glad
Of the Christmas gift, squeezed the steel trigger,
Exploding pain into your youthful frame...
From far and wide they’d come to speak their grief,
So many words to you who wrote so few.
Why stood you there, why dare the guns, Roland?
‘Hinc illae lacrimae;’* your code...
I still don’t understand....
           
* Hence those tears’ ....   (Terence)



To: John McRae: November 1872 - January 1918
  
Youth steals away from all who live, McRae,
Though weary not the sons the Highlands yields,
Canadian now (except on Empire Day,)
You’re ‘uncle’ to the boys in Flanders’ fields.
You wrote; “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow;”
And midst the dogs of war you heard the lark,
Went on; “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow,”
(If generations new allow the dark.)
They say you wrote it by first morning light
One bloody Ypres day in May, ‘15,
As German chlorine robbed men of their sight,
Oh, few men see what you, Doctor, have seen -
Seen six out of each ten Canadians
Sans life sans love sans laughter; sans all sans...

Did you, Lieutenant Colonel John McRae,
Veteran of Boer war, Loos and Passchendaele,
For them your prayers say each dying day?
Your healing hands artillery did lay?
But did, for you, sometimes the tumult fade,
Did agonies relent as words unfold?
Recalled within your notebook was peace made;
“A little maiden fair / With locks of gold.”?
And left you more than she a-weeping and,
Before the war fell you for Lady R...?
Why never did you let a wedding band
Be-threat the edge of sword Excalibre?
I hope you filled life’s chalice to the brim -
And that you knew not Haig, but pitied him.

Then April, seventeen; with crimson end
Was Canada, enobled nation made -
On Vimy Ridge. And afterwards you penned;
“The Anxious Dead;” and you were not afraid.
Oh Jack McRae, few men were loved as you:
Men clung to you as shadows cling to men;
Still wear your poppies to hold glorious who
Found glory in a dark beyond their ken.
The horse you cherished led your black cortege,
Turned boots in stirrup irons to say you’re dead,
Men's tears at Wimereux were not of rage
But love for one ashamed to die in bed...
And in the going down of every sun
Some shall recall your words each one by one.

Called MacUrtsi was each poet to your clan,
Goodbye Doctor, MacUrtsi, McRae, Man.


****

IN WOUNDED FIELDS

Epilogue



And so I had my discourse with these poets
And with the others from that book
Who’d gone to war with heads held high but knew
Scant glory in the mud, and died,
Yet found their songs and verse
In such a torrent rushed
As might have changed the world

I thought of how wild flowers
In brightest beauty blaze
Where ordure thickest lies -
It's stink by glory overpowered.

This place of peace holds very little trace
Of what had come to pass those years before.
But rust away as may the swords
I shall remember poet’s words
And we shall remember them
Long after all the blood and all the bedlam,
Long after time has healed the wounded fields.


Bryan Islip

October 96






2 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Yesterday one of our female friends wore a white poppy incorporating the word "peace". She didn't believe that we should glorify the sacrifices of war. She is of course quite right but the facts are the facts. When you equip a young male with a gun and a uniform and instruct him to go out and kill people who you may not like and who may not like you, you are only tapping into the deeply flawed character of all Mankind. Whether or not we like it, most of us find some glory in the process, do we not?

      Delete

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.