Tag Archives: World War 1

Friday Poem: To England — A Note

I watched the boys of England where they went
Through mud and water to do appointed things.
See one a stake, and one wire-netting brings,
And one comes slowly under a burden bent
Of ammunition. Though the strength be spent
They ‘carry on’ under the shadowing wings
Of Death the ever-present. And hark, one sings
Although no joy from the grey skies be lent.

Are these the heroes-these? have kept from you
The power of primal savagery so long?
Shall break the devil’s legions? These they are
Who do in silence what they might boast to do;
In the height of battle tell the world in song
How they do hate and fear the face of War.

 

Friday Poem: Epitaph on an army of Mercenaries

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Follow’d their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandon’d, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

by A.E. Housman (1860-1936)

To me, this poem is evocative of all those who do the dirty work for the rest of us. It is a WW1 poem, but also  applies, I feel, to all those who fought in WW2, specifically to my  Grandfather who fought in both world wars and his children:  my Uncle who defended India, my Godmother who repaired Spitfires under enemy fire  and her sister who manned (womanned?) the Barrage Balloons during the London Blitz. Plus my other Aunt’s American fiance who died at D-Day and all the young American boys my teenage mother danced with during the long wait for D-Day, and who she cried for as they left one night to take back Europe.

The mercenaries in this poem are actually the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914— the professional British army before the rush of volunteers. The BEF was sent to France in 1914 to fight against the Germans.

Photographs by Ivor Gurney

Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily;
   Watching the candle guttering in the draught;
Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily
   Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed
With pity and pride, photographs of all colours,
   All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France;
Or mother’s faces worn with countless dolours;
   Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance,
Though in a picture only, a common cheap
   Ill-taken card; and children—frozen, some
(Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep
   Out of the handkerchief that is his home
(But he’s so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling
   Delight across the miles of land and sea,
That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling
   Could quite blot out—not mud nor lethargy.
Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O
   The pain of them, wide Earth’s most sacred things!
Lying in dug-outs, hearing the great shells slow
   Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings.
But once—O why did he keep that bitter token
   Of a dead Love?—that boy, who, suddenly moved,
Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken,
   A girl who better had not been beloved.
       one of my favourite poets.