Letters from the Great War
Dunham Massey 2014
Mother, we have plenty of good food here
was his first lie, though parcels came sometimes
with cake, fags, dry socks.
I hope I will get leave soon, so I can
come and meet our daughter for the first time,
wrote the officer when leave was withdrawn.
I am not afraid, mum, not with all my mates
going over the top with me in the morning.
He was killed soon after, his body never found.
We sing songs in our trench every night, dad.
Glad I took my mouth organ like you said.
It keeps our spirits up a treat.
I could not be in a better place, darling,
wrote the officer from hospital, keeping
the amputation quiet for now.
These letters displayed a hundred years on,
as fresh as when first scratched out in ink,
still lie to readers, as we file past them in silence.
Sleep interrupted by the flicker of the reel; continues, looping.
Faces etched in flames and agony, persistent.
The dark cold blanket covers my thoughts like an unfolding map, completely.
That distant cold southern Isle lit up in my dreams, vividly.
The re-run powered by nervous sweat, burnt.
I want to wake up! Relentless pressed images, fear.
My thoughts ride the depressive circuit, image fix.
The cold desert with the plume of fire is with me again, always.
The box cannot, will not be kept sealed. Never.
The splash of torn voices, projections in the cinema of dreams, whirring.
The sharp edges of anxiety, stab into my soul. Forever.
The echo of war, a re-run tonight. Fear is free.
(A Poem about PTSD)
She glides in on spiked heels, after the men are laid out row by row, after the small ships unload their drenched human cargo of shock, blood and broken limbs.
After all the searching for 300,000 wounded and dying men, in the compound, scared eyes whiten. She pops a twirl over cracked patterns of stone and foxtrots in neat squares. She bends, checking ankle against
seams. She runs off where Dover’s jetty once boarded tourists during endless summers, dances and mirth. She thrusts forward, turning, stepping on burial ground with pounding heart.
After the last look at the muster of men on the dock where once a flag waved victorious, she stumbles out of death’s night, past men with shoulders weak from Dunkirk’s fury, stoic, persevering and alive. Her stride quickens from anticipation.
Strangers returned from their night sea passage. Circling and circling, she turns inside their names, never fearing ghosts, nor the wails, never to surrender and signals the little ship that brought him home.
Written from an account by my mother who went to Dover with her sister. Our family story is about how my aunt and my mother searched among the wounded men to find my aunt’s fiancé. She was 21 and her sister 23. I wrote this poem in remembrance of these and many other women’s stories of courage during wartime.
Entrenched am I in the letters from him…
Entrenched am I in the pain of him
of missing him
of the fear in him.
Entrenched am I in the heart of him
of anger in him
of the change in him.
Entrenched am I in the depth of him
of caring in him
of the soul of him.
Entrenched am I in the unity of him
of duty in him
of the soldier in him.
Entrenched am I in the battle of him
of fight in him
of the death in him
Entrenched am I in the grief of him
of loss in him
of the anguish in him.
Rain and Death at Ypres
It did not end. Noise echoing our bellies, into the ears
pinned flat against our heads. The days, the nights,
split with metal thunder – our brains burst with it.
Better that though, than the screaming. Faces blasted
to cratered moons, sockets like tipped churns –
their tears milk, running to the ground. Arms slung
round my neck, these men would tell me about ghosts
they saw in the trenches – told me about how they saw
folk from back home that they loved. Read their letters
leaning on my side, broke their sorrow across my back.
I remember sweeter pasture, the plough I pulled – oats,
pleasant water at the end of an honest day. Stretching
my plump upon on forks of fresh straw. Wet shrank
our necks into soggy harness, spongy coats, puttees
heavy with sludge. Raindrops, kind upon metal sang
rat-a-ping! Tap-tap-tapped on tin hats, spouted
from the end of our noses. Vermin curled in mess-tins,
fed on fingertips, browned as acorns. Spoiled feet plodged
the gutters, vile with rot. My hooves cast their shoes,
too ruined to hold a nail. How I hated treading on blasted bits
but the shafts of the gun cart swung me, kiltering through
rut and bog, skittering on gore and filth, on mouths still framing
their last quiet call. We are not made to spew – I cursed
my swallowings, wished I could join the soldiers, retching
bully beef. Sludge to my gaskins, my tendons bowed in the mud,
I felt my wind break. Greedy vines of spiky wire grabbed at rags,
bits of trouser. An ounce of un-brewed tea, spilled – its homely smell
sweet and sharp. Drizzle clouds the dugouts – I blink at its freshness.
The sergeant puts the barrel to my head’s grubby star. Folk
would rub it, tell me I was good. We are thin, man and beast,
we are scrawn and chiselled rib. There is nothing left of us – lost
amid this gore, I remember flicking my tail under trees, mist settled
on early grass. I close my eyes. I am going back to the sunshine,
to where there is apple and corn, the calm of a Clydesdale’s eye.
I am a simple creature. This is enough for me.
Dedicated to the eight million horses, donkeys and mules
that died during service in WW1.
Purple heather on a windswept hilltop
of the northern Pennines.
We tread carefully, lifting our boots knee-high
thighs aching with the effort
of all that heather. We watch for black adders
who slither effortlessly out of our way.
Animal corpses litter the ground.
We walk downhill past a burnt out croft,
blackened timber and rubble are laid out
in the sign of the cross. We walk along
the remnants of a stone path
and come across a seat, a memorial
to a soldier killed in Afghanistan.
His death like silence on the moor
heather in full bloom, purple as a bruise.
We sit with his name cast in iron on our backs
as the sun sets blood red over our heads.
(For Coprporal A. Polkinghorne D Company 2/6 Regiment in Mesopotamia
based on a letter to Harry Ritch, his bandmaster at home in Cornwall, 1st January, 1918)
Dear Mr Ritch, I am getting on alright.
I did not see the New Year come
but slept in, snug and dry, and warm as I could get.
Our poor tents have been flooded, see;
a foot of mud we’ve slept in, nearly,
sometimes with the water to our knees.
Remember me, please, to all at home;
the Bible class is small these days, I guess;
but, if you could see us, and you brought
your camera, you could take some comic views:
all of us, as like as not, quite lagged in mud, soaked through.
The rain’s not like the rain back home; it comes in bucketfulls.
Oh, Mr Rich, make no mistake, out here we do see life.
Our Christmas here was quiet enough,
as it must have been for those at home this year.
When dinner time came, they gave us skilly
which is a kind of mixed up stew.
Cook mixed it up with something else –
though what the something was we never knew.
Still, we all look on the bright side here;
and, well, you should have heard us Christmas Day.
We sat in our tents and sang like larks
a merry Christmas roundelay.
We Cornish lads, we sang and sang –
and we showed them the way.
Abigail Elizabeth Ottley
Thiepval, September 30th 2016
we honour you,
nineteen, you served and fell
a hundred years ago today
Jenni Wyn Hyatt
This cinquain was written for Pte Henry (Harry) Marshall, of the South Staffordshire Regiment, who was killed on the Somme on September 30th 1916 and whose niece, Barbara Hill, née Marshall, lives in Worcester.
On viewing a pair of Staffordshire china figurines on a mantelpiece at Rudyard Kipling’s house, ‘Bateman’s’, Burwash, East Sussex
I remember, at home,
on the marble mantelpiece, a pair
of painted porcelain lovers, cream, rose-pink and green,
one either side of the big mirror, gilt-framed
and blotched with age; the mottoes
‘Farewell’ … ‘Return’ …
curlicued in china ribbons around their feet.
I never liked it. I was too young for that love.
But I cannot unsee my mother’s image in the mirror
as she dusted the thing over and over, putting off goodbye.
the parting gifts they gave us as we boarded:
notebooks, tobacco in pouches,
woollen scarves and socks knitted by unknown women;
the handkerchiefs and banners waved
the day we sailed with heads, hopes, ambitions high,
towards Flanders and the waiting fields of death.
In hell’s meadows, grass and waving crops blasted
into a treacle of blood and mud,
sown and seasoned with ruined iron, my comrades died;
through the glaucous poisoned smoke, the war-fog,
I saw my friends tossed into new-made craters
blooming with mashed red flesh and splintered bone,
and could not reach them. Where was the return,
after that? Who was there then
to cry ‘Farewell!’ as they died?
They died; I returned. I have been given back
to my mother. I am young, and broken. I sit
in her green garden sweet with roses,
bathe in its unscathed beauty, and remember.
Where was chivalry? Where was the pride of war?
Where is high honour now?
Whose the victory, when we feel the sting?
Jack Kipling’s Medals Speak
We were meant to hang above his heart,
dazzle debutantes, daunt his peers,
prove his prowess and his strength
when he came marching home again
after taking part in this jolly lark,
this very Great Adventure.
Under glass, we glint. Three brothers.
Each of us thinks he’s more distinguished,
more impressive, braver than the other two.
On the left, I hang in tricolor,
Napoleonic red, white, blue.
Below me shine two stars, a sword.
In the middle, I’m orange,
flanked by blue and white.
From me trails a gleaming manly profile.
On the left, my rainbow colours stream.
Dangling from me is a golden sun
a young man trapped, immortal.
Now, while tourists gawk at us
safe in our glass case,
what’s left of Jack lies shattered,
shredded, lost in Flemish soil.
They never knew just where,
because his face was blasted off.
Not much chest was left,
no uniform to hang us from.
Susan Castillo Street
When you jumped from this deck
fifty years ago,
did you know you would never leave,
did you know it would become
the fulcrum of your life?
How many times did you
stand on this deck
in your memory, how many times
arrange the chairs for worship
How often did you wonder
if you should have tried harder
to reach your battle station,
why it was you, you on this deck,
you who lived?
At last you’ve come home.
After fifty years of wandering,
your ashes lie under
this deck you never left.
Now you can rest. Here on the bottom,
the ceremonies for the dead are
the storms and accidents of history
distant, ripples on the surface.
Gary S Rosin
Counting the Casualties 1917
Great Uncle Arthur put Mouthy Turner’s daughter up the duff
and buggered off to Australia.
But the Army got him.
Shipped him back to Blighty where
He absconded three times. Lost his stripes. And was confined in Colchester barracks.
Two months later. On the ‘nursery sector’ at Armentieres
Shot through the heart. Valentine’s Day 1917.
‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parles Vous,
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parles Vous
We buried him up by the village, pretty like.
Put railings right around. Fixed up a cross. Made it look like marble.
2nd Lieutenant said, ‘Gray, was a good man’
Back at the billet he ticked another, ’one’ under the column
Prolley Moor, Shropshire, 1945
In a frock fitted at the waist and flared
to just below the knee, I’m pegging out the washing,
two pairs of boys’ shorts, four grey socks,
flapping in the warm September breeze. This world
is mine. Mine and my boys’. They’re playing
at my feet, one crawling, pulling up grass and
sprinkling it into the washing basket;
the other, collecting ants and worms,
dropping them in on top.
All this will end. Because Hitler is dead.
My hair, wiry and wild, blows across
my face so I don’t see Jim running
over the pitted field towards the cottage,
waving his army hat; not till I hear his voice
calling my name over and over again. I glance down
into the washing basket at the dead grass,
the worms, the hungry ants.
Small hands grasp at my hem.
M. J. Oliver
Turned up leaves crunch underfoot
like so many shrapnelled bones,
as Autumn’s park is filled up
with old soldiers bearing standards,
younger soldiers bearing arms
and boys and girls in uniforms
they’ll grow into far too soon.
Local dignitaries, as corpulent
as any puffed up General,
grown fat on backroom
direction of battles.
And the vicar dedicates his sermon
to the holy lamb of God,
while the thousand tiny crosses
talk of lambs to the slaughter.
The Last Post wrings the tears
it was always composed for,
and we all pretend to have learned
while they’re planning the next war.
The band strikes up a happy tune
and we stand in line, just like before.
Man in the Middle
Five of us passed up Sunday breakfast
on The Arizona
on our way to the 8 am Mass
when the first munition detonated
but we all blamed the Marines
for Sabbath-morning maneuvers
Then the planes came in low
Japanese markings were undeniable
there was smoke
sailors swimming to shore
All five of us ran
shoulder to shoulder
but a zero swooped in
strafing the ground at our feet
until one of us fell
The man in the middle
took four bullets
one for each of us
boys became men
as we each placed a hand
upon a wound meant for us
And the man in the middle smiled
happy to be surrounded
and held onto by friends
proud to have taken their bullets
on his last day
You appear in monochrome
Silent, as the projector ticks off
Images of boys going off to fight
A man’s war, hats tipped slightly
Over haunting eyes
Marching bands, parades
For the ones leaving
Or the ones who remain?
It is our job, the ones left
All aboard, the steam
Billows, the crowd lingers
The wives, mothers, sisters,
Brothers, fathers, others
Send you off with a wave
Flags, countless flags
In war, in peace, in life, and here
Keeping watch over silenced voices
A hillside of forgotten dreams
Rows upon rows of marbled corpses
(for J N D 2/28th Battalion)
Cold April dawn in King’s Park
frozen flame twists skyward
crowds revolve around plinth
tiers inscribed in gold
North Africa Borneo New Guinea
black marble mirrors warplanes
passing over once more
old diggers watch wet cheeked.
Carved on History
So many names carved deep in stone
at crossroads or the market place
of nearly every village and town,
or lettered on long wooden boards
that gaze down at the future from dark walls
in the sad austerity of old school halls.
So many names, carved or painted,
clinging to immortality; weak shades
of adolescent boys blown to eternity
in hellish ditches or washed away
on Normandy sands. Black lettering,
black memories, black deeds.
Most moving of all, perhaps, the single flame
that burns in the name of unnumbered dead
at the tomb of the unknown soldier.
For my grandfather, Jack D. Lime, Sr, who earned a purple heart in World War II.
She passed away thirty five years ago
and I can’t remember what she looked like—
my wife, and I can’t remember her face.
I remember things in flashes, feelings,
I remember the War,
I remember the end, being shot four times
and I laid there panting like an animal,
just waiting, freezing, on German ice.
I remember being grabbed by the collar
and dragged to safety
by a medic I never knew.
I remember looking beside me,
the body of my friend dragged along with me—
I can’t remember his name,
not even on a day like that
but I remember his jaw frozen open,
his fingers still curled around his revolver,
and I remember that smoke floated from his chest
like a snake.
I don’t remember being sent home, but
I remember coming home to her—
I remember that feeling.
I remember we had four more years together,
and children, two children.
I remember when they were born.
I can remember being young with her, and
I can remember when she died.
I found her in our bed,
curled with her knees tucked to her chest.
I can remember the night before,
I remember that we made love that night before,
and laid, watching each other
for hours after.
I don’t remember her face anymore,
not even on nights like those,
but I remember how I felt,
and I remember sharing a cigarette with her,
and I remember that the smoke floated from her lips
like a prayer.
The cost of life
we didn’t know
why dad was
we didn’t dare ask
she puts her
I glimpse her wet face
yearly I’m there
staring at red
‘the cost of life’.
Servants of WWI
The women who served in the First World War,
who gave what they had, and then gave more,
the ones who waved their fiancés away,
knowing they might not return, come the day.
The army was running short of men,
too many dead to reproach or condemn,
no woman sat to twiddle her thumbs,
‘into the fray’, went buns and tongues.
They formed the Women’s Legion,
went to work to give us freedom.
Their kit of caps, jackets, skirts—khaki,
no one had time for misery or malarkey.
In droves, they joined the Auxiliary Corps,
or the Women’s Royal Air Force,
served with the men in the Medical Corps,
VADs—on a voluntary tour.
Workers in factories, cooks and mechanics,
drivers, typists, no time for panics,
the wartime state needed women’s labour,
this was not a case of, ‘love thy neighbour’.
The Women’s Emergency Corps,
a clearing house, it evened the score.
The skirts ‘twelve inches from the ground’,
any less, it was thought, the men might confound.
But men had no time to be confounded
or think of skirt lengths, such fears were unfounded,
all were too busy to bask in trivia,
the focus: to win, to live through the war.
Just Another Hero
Beneath the turf,
deep in the earth,
the bones of a hero lie.
Caught in a war he did not understand,
a war that had seen him die.
Far from home, scared and alone
he picked up his gun and aimed,
the trigger was pulled at young men to be culled
in the way that he had been trained.
He wasn’t brave, longed to be saved,
shipped back home to Blighty,
not wanting to fight, surely words could put right
if said by the ranks of the Mighty.
He never went home, died all alone,
still not knowing the reason why
young men like him
were taken from kin,
no talking, just ordered to die.
The soldier is dead, kind words were said,
his bravery commended.
Praised by a man he’d not known in life but
who’d ensured his short life was ended.
Won and Lost and Won Again
That summer when we holidayed in Pas-de-Calais,
lounging in the long grass behind the sun-washed gîte,
listening to the TGV thunder through the cutting
beyond the pond, beyond the lonely stand of trees;
that summer when we strolled along the country lanes
and read the vergeside signs marking Allied lines,
metres of arable land contested, claimed and mapped,
bloodied earth lost again in months, in weeks, in days;
that summer when we packed our rug and picnic basket
and headed south towards Bethune, Arras, Albert,
discovered sprawling battlefields, and cemeteries
laid out with regimented lines of Portland stone;
that summer when we recognised the names in history books
as villages and farms, hamlets, copses, churches,
each nestled in the chalk downs of the Somme:
Ginchy, Pozières; Delville Wood and Ancre Heights;
that summer when we stopped in monumental shadow
to read inscriptions of Thiepval’s listed lost and missing,
when stone-carved names stretched too far beneath our fingers
and the cost chilled our bones, unbearable, unthinkable;
that was the summer when sunbright children racing home
from canopied boulangeries, arms stuffed with crispy batons,
when old men playing pétanque outside the dusty cafes,
when black-frocked women sharing news on street corners
and their giggling daughters glancing away from laughing boys,
when each of them became an echo of their ancestors,
defending metre’d land, won and lost and won again.
She balances the small paper bag between workworn fingers.
It’s the sort of bag that holds sweets from the corner shop;
usually she buys parma violets – they always remind me of her –
but today she chooses jelly babies to share with the boys.
Those poor fatherless children, she calls them, although
she would never call herself a sad sonless mother,
nor refer to me that pitiful husbandless wife.
She pops open the bag; its mouth gapes as she tips in
the tiny black speckles from the drying seed heads.
They cascade in their hundreds, their thousands.
Later she will scatter them like ashes on the hillside
where she can see them bloom from her kitchen window.
In the summer the banks will bleed with scarlet blooms,
a petal for every lost boy, she says, so many souls.
So many you can’t tell one swaying head from another.
When Dad Died
This is my father’s essence: Purple Heart in hand
by a field of mowed grass and headstones white after white
military right angles honored, respected
yet somehow unexpected, surprised.
This was never supposed to happen
not a deathbed, not him, none of us
it wasn’t allowed, not Old Sarge
flag folded tight
Taps blown smooth and round like glass,
he was paternal perfection now surrounded by peers.
I want to throw myself onto the ground and howl
with the voice of a fatherless jackal
unable to find or say words
only the disyllabic vines of grief:
mea culpa, mea culpa of being human
mea culpa mea culpa of being imperfect
mea culpa of being mortal.
Here is his chair in the living room
impressed with years of life,
scuff marks on the floor trace the trail he took
to join my mother at their table for daily meals,
his eye glasses rest on a tray with the lenses he needed
to watch war films and westerns as he grew more remote
and they politically incorrect. My mother and I
do the dishes in her kitchen silent each night
his absence from that chair, the worn paths, his T.V.
a part of our daily rituals absorbed into the sorrows.
I will always wonder if he saw the snow of winter light
surrounding his hospital bed, his body, those last moments
like I did. It radiated the sweet serenity of surrender and so
I let some crawl inside my body, my self, as he gave me power,
the kind meant only for fathers or sons who survive life’s wars
and grow old enough to finally give it away.
In memory of my father, a WWII veteran who passed away in December, 2016 at the age of 97. He received two Purple Hearts and is buried at the National Cemetery in Sarasota, Florida.
18/19 April 1916
He lies beneath foreign soil
whether fragmented or whole
will never be known
A life that knew no ending
Missing, believed killed.
And still it is so.
A beginning, yes;
the promise of what was to come
shines from humoured eyes
bright with expectancy
in sepia image
beneath a peaked cap.
He would have designed and constructed;
What edifices might now be his?
Instead the constructor is himself deconstructed
Before he barely qualified
Before he barely lived.
I am glad he rowed on the Thames
Walked the Downs
Laughed with friends
and knew the love of his family.
May that have enveloped him in the moment
Or, that he never knew
As we know.
And now, 100 years on
Living bells ring out
from the church his brother built,
A call to remembrance
on a sunny day in Sussex.
His face smiles from a frame
He is home.
In Memorium – 2nd Lieutenant Philip Godfrey Mosse, 1892 – 1916. Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
Five thousand miles from home
the Lost Army
fought in Burma.
Seventy years later, a war time miracle,
pioneering film is rediscovered
in a Town Hall basement, in Manchester.
Intimate messages hidden in a tin can,
years spent away from families.
Lost treasure, saved by workmen.
United across generations
they watch the time capsule, a daughter
meets the father she never knew.
Eight thousand men and a few women
brave faces on film.
I trust you’ll all well, as I am.
I love you, darling.
When I send my letters it is perfectly true –
I haven’t changed much.
Decent grub but I miss my fish and chips.
Be in God’s keeping.
Families who lost their loved ones,
who never came home.
A version of this poem was originally written for commissioned performance. Credo – Third Act Home/Loss
North West Film Archive
BEYOND THE COLLECTION
In addition to the Remembrance Anthology, here is a poem by Antony Owen, a Coventry based poet and recent Guest of Inkspill Writing Retreat.
From the 1st November until the 11th Antony posted a new poem everyday. Here is one he let us reprint.
These valeted suits the stiff men starched
faced floating names with whom they marched
that roll from stone the sunlight parched.
These tasselled flags roll with throats
a bagpipe snags against its notes
carolled rags have sailed like boats.
The empty chairs shall fill with rain
hollowed youth will leave their stain
signing up to belong again.
Stems from England’s bloodied rose –
a vase of sky with kerosene bows
the blooming buds that had to close.
War speaks through tongues of maddened bells
and locked in men with mouths like wells
that hang like mist in check out hotels.
The men and women who all come back
lions and lambs confined to a pack
who stroke their friends on the acre plaque,
And so it is the war we’ve built
old over young in six foot of silt
our ceremonies of grandeur guilt.
Kirsten Luckins shared this poem she wrote for the ‘Heroism & Heartbreak’ Project in Hartlepool.
Thanks to everyone who submitted to the Remembrance Anthology. I received a record number of entries. Aside from tough editorial decisions, the subject matter and your personal tributes made this collection an incredible project to work on. I appreciate your stories and your time.
I hope you will share this commemorative collection.
We remember the fallen. The brave men and women who fought for our freedom.
All images used under CC0 Creative Commons Licensing agreement, with appreciation.
Messages Home By Nina Lewis North West Film Archive