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Battle Pieces


XVI

Dies Irae

THE land went up in fire and curdled smoke,
And the flames flickered on the flowing blood,
And all the hot air thick with thunder stood
Shaken, as oxen shake beneath a yoke
And rattle all their harness: laughter broke,
A horrid laughter, from the steaming flood,
And the unpent cry of broken womanhood
Mounted to God and hid him like a cloak.


Red mortal wrath of man, that so he dies
For indignation just, and lightly slays,
Sealing so bloodily his length of days,
Regarding not the splendid sacrifice,
Holding the gift of life below God's price
To his eternal glory and God's praise.

In Flanders.


XVII

Babel

Therefore is the name of it called Babel

AND still we stood and stared far down
Into that ember-glowing town
Which every shaft and shock of fate
Had shorn unto its base. Too late
Came carelessly Serenity.


Now torn and broken houses gaze
On to the rat-infested maze
That once sent up rose-silver haze
To mingle through eternity.


The outlines, once so strongly wrought,
Of city walls, are now a thought
Or jest unto the dead who fought . . .
Foundation for futurity.


The shimmering sands where once there played
Children with painted pail and spade
Are drearly desolate,—afraid
To meet Night's dark humanity,


Whose silver cool remakes the dead,
And lays no blame on any head
For all the havoc, fire, and lead,
That fell upon us suddenly.


When all we came to know as good
Gave way to Evil's fiery flood,
And monstrous myths of iron and blood
Seem to obscure God's clarity.


Deep sunk in sin, this tragic star
Sinks deeper still, and wages war
Against itself; strewn all the seas
With victims of a world disease.
—And we are left to drink the lees
Of Babel's direful prophecy.


XVIII

In the Morning

(Loos, 1915)

THE firefly haunts were lighted yet,
As we scaled the top of the parapet;
But the east grew pale to another fire,
As our bayonets gleamed by the foeman's wire;
And the sky was tinged with gold and grey,
And under our feet the dead men lay,
Stiff by the loop-holed barricade;
Food of the bomb and the hand-grenade;
Still in the slushy pool and mud—
Ah, the path we came was a path of blood,
When we went to Loos in the morning.


A little grey church at the foot of a hill,
With powdered glass on the window-sill—
The shell-scarred stone and the broken tile,
Littered the chancel, nave, and aisle—
Broken the altar and smashed the pyx,
And the rubble covered the crucifix;
This we saw when the charge was done,
And the gas-clouds paled in the rising sun,
As we entered Loos in the morning.


The dead men lay on the shell-scarred plain,
Where Death and the Autumn held their reign—
Like banded ghosts in the heavens grey
The smoke of the powder paled away;
Where riven and rent the spinney trees
Shivered and shook in the sullen breeze,
And there, where the trench through the graveyard wound
The dead men's bones stuck over the ground
By the road to Loos in the morning.


The turret towers that stood in the air,
Sheltered a foeman sniper there—
They found, who fell to the sniper's aim,
A field of death on the field of fame;
And stiff in khaki the boys were laid
To the sniper's toll at the barricade,
But the quick went clattering through the town,
Shot at the sniper and brought him down,
As we entered Loos in the morning.


The dead men lay on the cellar stair,
Toll of the bomb that found them there.
In the street men fell as a bullock drops,
Sniped from the fringe of Hulluch copse.
And the choking fumes of the deadly shell
Curtained the place where our comrades fell.
This we saw when the charge was done
And the east blushed red to the rising sun
In the town of Loos in the morning.


XIX

Release

(Composed while marching to Rest-camp after severe Fighting at Loos)

A LEAPING wind from England,
The skies without a stain,
Clean cut against the morning
Slim poplars after rain,
The foolish noise of sparrows
And starlings in a wood—
After the grime of battle
We know that these are good.


Death whining down from heaven,
Death roaring from the ground,
Death stinking in the nostril,
Death shrill in every sound,
Doubting we charged and conquered—
Hopeless we struck and stood;
Now when the fight is ended
We know that it was good.


We that have seen the strongest
Cry like a beaten child,
The sanest eyes unholy,
The cleanest hands defiled,
We that have known the heart-blood
Less than the lees of wine,
We that have seen men broken,
We know man is divine.


XX

The New Æneid

THESE waters saw the gilded galleys come
From the red east: the oarsmen cast their gaze
Upon its brightness, and recalled the blaze
With sorrowing hearts of once proud Ilium.
Men without homes they were, yet unafraid
Westward they fared some far-off home to seek,
Their sires, whose power revenged them on the Greek,
And round these seas a mighty empire made.
Ah, strong immortal rowers, that never were!
Leader that lived not, deathless in the song
Sung to Rome's glory,—'mid a martial throng,
I bless the answer to an ancient prayer,
Clear-eyed to see what once was partly hid,
The splendid pageant of the Æneid.

In Gallipoli.


XXI

The Road

WHEN first the paving of the Road
Rang to the tread of the marching Roman,
And Cæsar's legions seaward strode
To find a yet unmastered foeman,—
Full many a curse, of ancient flavour,
Rolled far along the muddy Way;
A curse upon the highway's paver,
Whose echoes linger to this day!


A thousand years—(when England lay
Beneath the heel of the Norman raider):—
The cobbles of the age-worn Way
Echo the march of the mailed Crusader:
Whilst many an oath, of pious fervour,
Between their chaunt and roundelay,
Gives proof to any close observer,
That men are little changed to-day!


Again a thousand years—again
The ancient frontier Road enslaving,
Come horse and cannon, motor-train:—
All sweep along the narrow paving.
A wondrous change, you say? but listen!
Listen to the words they say!
What matter cannon, petrol, piston?
The men are just the same to-day!


XXII

Between the Trenches

HOW strangely did you break upon
That sudden land beyond life's veil?
A moment did your spirit fail,
As mine when first I knew you gone
The last dark journey, saw your clay
So vacant, loveless, borne away,
And the features, that I loved to scan,
The same but of another man
Unknown—a bright dream all undone.


What stranger did the bearers lift
In their soiled stretcher lightly laid
Where I had seen you fall adrift
From life—had time to be afraid?
—That, all of you that had breathed and moved,
That, none of you that lived and loved,
A hush that so I seemed to hate
For claiming still its lost inmate,
A false pretence, a solid shade.


Shadow more solid, but less real
Than love and laughter whence it fell
Across my path with mute appeal
And served your spirit's purpose well—
So well that even I could see
It indistinguishably thee,
Till you had left it like a sheath
With laughter in the hands of death,
And left me gay, not miserable.


Ah, love had never more to loose:
If certain love had less to tell
Then might I in despair's excuse
Bid you a hopeless, vain farewell,
And by the stranger's grave have wept
A solemn while, and sadly kept
In mind his features filled not through
With breathing life, love living, you
Who smiled upon his burial.


XXIII

Comrades

BEFORE, before he was aware
The "Verey" light had risen . . . on the air
It hung glistering. . . .
And he could not stay his hand
From moving to the barbed wire's broken strand.
A rifle cracked.
He fell.
Night waned. He was alone. A heavy shell
Whispered itself passing high, high overhead.
His wound was wet to his hand: for still it bled
On to the glimmering ground.
Then with a slow, vain smile his wound he bound,
Knowing, of course, he'd not see home again—
Home, whose thought he put away.
His men
Whispered, "Where's Mister Gates?" "Out on the wire."
"I'll get him," said one. . . .
Dawn blinked and the fire
Of the Germans heaved up and down the line.
"Stand to!"
Too late! "I'll get him." "Oh the swine,
When we might get him in yet safe and whole!"
"Corp'ral didn't see un fall out on patrol
Or he'd a got un." "Ssssh". . .
"No talking there."
A whisper: "'A went down at the last flare."
Meanwhile the Maxims toc-toc-tocked: their swish
Of bullets told death lurked against the wish.
No hope for him!
His corporal, as one shamed,
Vainly and helplessly his ill-luck blamed.

·····

Then Gates slowly saw the morn
Break in a rosy peace through the lone thorn
By which he lay, and felt the dawn-wind pass
Whispering through the pallid, stalky grass
Of No-Man's Land. . . .
And the tears came
Scaldingly sweet, more lovely than a flame.
He closed his eyes: he thought of home
And grit his teeth. He knew no help could come. . .

·····

The silent sun over the earth held sway,
Occasional rifles cracked, and far away
A heedless speck, a 'plane, slid on alone
Like a fly traversing a cliff of stone.


"I must get back," said Gates aloud, and heaved
At his body. But it lay bereaved
Of any power. He could not wait till night. . . .
And he lay still. Blood swam across his sight.
Then with a groan:
"No luck ever. Well! I must die alone."


Occasional rifles cracked. A cloud that shone,
Gold-rimmed, blackened the sun and then was gone. . . .
The sun still smiled. The grass sang in its play.
Some one whistled, "Over the hills and far away."
Gates watched silently the swift, swift sun
Burning his life before it was begun. . . .


Suddenly he heard Corporal Timmins' voice: "Now, then,
'Urry up with that tea."
"Hi Ginger!" "Bill." His men!
Timmins and Jones and Wilkinson ("the bard")
And Hughes and Simpson. It was hard
Not to see them: Wilkinson, stubby, grim,
With his "No, sir," "Yes, sir," and the slim
Simpson, "Indeed, sir?" [while it seemed he winked
Because his smiling left eye always blinked]
And Corporal Timmins, straight and blonde and wise,
With his quiet-scanning, level, hazel eyes,
And all the others . . . tunics that didn't fit. . . .
A dozen different sorts of eyes. Oh, it
Was hard to lie there! Yet he must. But no:
"I've got to die. I'll get to them. I'll go."


Inch by inch he fought, breathless and mute,
Dragging his carcase like a famished brute. . . .
His head was hammering and his eyes were dim,
A bloody sweat seemed to ooze out of him
And freeze along his spine . . . then he'd lie still
Before another effort of his will
Took him one nearer yard.

·····

The parapet was reached.
He could not rise to it. A look-out screeched,
"Mr. Gates!"
Three figures in one breath
Leaped up. Two figures fell in toppling death;
And Gates was lifted in. "Who's hit?" said he.
"Timmins and Jones." "Why did they that for me?
I'm gone already!" Gently they laid him prone
And silently watched.
He twitched. They heard him moan,
"Why for me?" His eyes roamed round and none replied.
"I see it was alone I should have died."
They shook their heads. Then, "Is the doctor here?"
"He's comin', sir, he's hurryin', no fear."
"No good. . . .
Lift me." They lifted him.
He smiled and held his arms out to the dim,
And in a moment passed beyond their ken,
Hearing him whisper, "O my men, my men!"

In Hospital, London,
Autumn, 1915.


XXIV

The Star-shell

(Loos)

A STAR-SHELL holds the sky beyond
Shell-shivered Loos, and drops
In million sparkles on a pond
That lies by Hulluch copse.


A moment's brightness in the sky,
To vanish at a breath,
And die away, as soldiers die
Upon the wastes of death.


XXV

Battle

1. Noon

IT is midday; the deep trench glares. . . .
A buzz and blaze of flies. . . .
The hot wind puffs the giddy airs. . . .
The great sun rakes the skies.


No sound in all the stagnant trench
Where forty standing men
Endure the sweat and grit and stench,
Like cattle in a pen.


Sometimes a sniper's bullet whirs
Or twangs the whining wire,
Sometimes a soldier sighs and stirs
As in hell's frying fire.


From out a high, cool cloud descends
An aeroplane's far moan,
The sun strikes down, the thin cloud rends. . . .
The black speck travels on.


And sweating, dizzied, isolate
In the hot trench beneath,
We bide the next shrewd move of fate
Be it of life or death.


2. Night Bombardment

Softly in the silence the evening rain descends. . . .
The soft wind lifts the rain-mist, flurries it, and spends
Itself in mournful sighs, drifting from field to field,
Soaking the draggled sprays which the low hedges wield
As they labour in the wet and the load of the wind.
The last light is dimming.Night comes on behind.


I hear no sound but the wind and the rain,
And trample of horses, loud and lost again
Where the wagons in the mist rumble dimly on
Bringing more shell.
The last gleam is gone.
It is not day or night; only the mists unroll
And blind with their sorrow the sight of my soul.
I hear the wind weeping in the hollow overhead:
She goes searching for the forgotten dead
Hidden in the hedges or trodden into muck
Under the trenches or maybe limply stuck
Somewhere in the branches of a high, lonely tree—
He was a sniper once. They never found his body.


I see the mist drifting. I hear the wind, the rain,
And on my clammy face the oozed breath of the slain
Seems to be blowing. Almost I have heard
In the shuddering drift the lost dead's last word:
Go home, go home, go to my house,
Knock at the door, knock hard, arouse
My wife and the children—that you must do
What d' you say?—Tell the children too
Knock at the door, knock hard, and arouse
The living. Say: the dead won't come back to this house.
Oh . . . but it's cold—I soak in the rain
Shrapnel found me—I shan't go home again.
No, not home again—The mourning voices trail
Away into rain, into darkness . . . the pale
Soughing of the night drifts on in between.


The Voices were as if the dead had never been.


O melancholy heavens, O melancholy fields!
The glad, full darkness grows complete and shields
Me from your appeal.


With a terrible delight
I hear far guns low like oxen, at the night.

Flames disrupt the sky. The work is begun.
"Action!" My guns crash, flame, rock, and stun
Again and again. Soon the soughing night
Is loud with their clamour and leaps with their light.


The imperative chorus rises sonorous and fell:
My heart glows lighted as by fires of hell,
Sharply I pass the terse orders down.
The guns stun and rock. The hissing rain is blown
Athwart the hurtling shell that shrilling, shrilling goes
Away into the dark to burst a cloud of rose
Over their trenches.


A pause: I stand and see
Lifting into the night like founts incessantly,
The pistol-lights' pale spores upon the glimmering air. . . .
Under them furrowed trenches empty, pallid, bare. . . .
And rain snowing trenchward ghostly and white,
O dead in the hedges, sleep ye well to-night!


XXVI

The Assault

THE beating of the guns grows louder.
"Not long, boys, now."
My heart burns whiter, fearfuller, prouder;
Hurricanes grow
As guns redouble their fire.
Through the shaken periscope peeping
I glimpse their wire:
Black earth, fountains of earth rise, leaping,
Spouting like shocks of meeting waves.
Death's fountains are playing,
Shells like shrieking birds rush over;
Crash and din rises higher.
A stream of lead raves
Over us from the left . . . (we safe under cover !)
Crash. Reverberation. Crash!
Acrid smoke billowing. Flash upon flash.
Black smoke drifting. The German line
Vanishes in confusion, smoke. Cries, and cry
Of our men, "Gah! yer swine,
You're for it," die
In a hurricane of shell. . . .
One cry;
"We're comin' soon! look out!"
There is opened hell
Over there. Fragments fly,
Rifles and bits of men whirled at the sky:
Dust, smoke, thunder. A sudden bout
Of machine-guns chattering. . . .
And redoubled battering
As if in fury at their daring. . . .


No good staring.


Time soon now . . . home . . . house on a sunlit hill. . . .


Gone like a flickered page.
Time soon now . . . zero . . . will engage . . .


A sudden thrill.
"Fix bayonets."
Gods! we have our fill
Of fear, hysteria, exultation, rage—
Rage to kill. . . .


My heart burns hot, whiter and whiter,
Contracts tighter and tighter,
Until I stifle with the will
Long forged, now used—
(Though utterly strained)
O pounding heart,
Baffled, confused,
Heart panged, head singing dizzily pained—
To do my part.


Blindness a moment. Sick.
There the men are.
Bayonets ready: click!
Time goes quick;
A stumbled prayer . . . somehow a blazing star
In a blue night . . . where?
Again prayer.
The tongue trips. Start:
How's time? Soon now. Two minutes or less.
The guns' fury mounting higher.
Their utmost. I lift a silent hand. Unseen I bless
Those hearts will follow me.
And beautifully
Now beautifully my will grips.
Soul calm and round and filmed and white!


A shout! "Men, no such order as retire!"
I nod.
The whistle's twixt my lips. . . .
I catch
A wan, worn smile at me.
Dear men!
The pale wrist-watch. . . .
The quiet hand ticks on amid the din.
The guns again
Rise to a last fury, to a rage, a lust:
Kill! Pound! Kill! Pound! Pound!


Now comes the thrust,
My part . . . dizziness . . . will . . . but trust
These men. The great guns rise.
Their fury seems to burst the earth and skies!


They—lift!


Gather, heart, all thoughts that drift;
Be steel, soul.
Compress thyself
Into a round, bright whole.


I cannot speak.


Time! Time!


I hear my whistle shriek
Between teeth set,
I fling an arm up,
Scramble up the grime
Over the parapet!


I'm up. Go on.
Something meets us.
Head down into the storm that greets us.
A wail!
Lights. Blurr.
Gone.
On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail.
Spatter. Whirr. Whirr.


"Toward that patch of brown,
Direction left." Bullets: a stream.
Devouring thought crying in a dream;
Men, crumpled, going down. . . .
Go on. Go.
Deafness, Numbness. The loudening tornado
Bullets. Mud. Stumbling and skating.
My voice's strangled shout:—
"Steady pace, boys!"
The still light: gladness.
"Look, sir, look out!—"
Ha! Ha! Bunched figures waiting.
Revolver levelled: quick!
Flick! Flick!
Red as blood.
Germans. Germans.
Good! Oh, good!


Cool madness.

1916.

Note.—(1) "Zero" is the hour agreed upon by the Staff when the infantry are to go over the parapet of the trench and advance to the attack. (2) Guns are said to "lift" when, after pounding the front line of the enemy, they lengthen their range and set up a barrier of fire behind his front line to prevent supports moving up. Our infantry then advance.


XXVII

Light after Darkness

ONCE more the Night, like some great dark drop-scene
Eclipsing horrors for a brief entr'acte,
Descends, lead-weighty. Now the space between,
Fringed with the eager eyes of men, is racked
By spark-tailed lights, curvetting far and high,
Swift smoke-flecked coursers, raking the black sky.


And as each sinks in ashes grey, one more
Rises to fall, and so through all the hours
They strive like petty empires by the score,
Each confident of its success and powers,
And, hovering at its zenith, each will show
Pale, rigid faces, lying dead, below.


There shall they lie, tainting the innocent air,
Until the dawn, deep veiled in mournful grey,
Sadly and quietly shall lay them bare,
The broken heralds of a doleful day.

Hulluch Road,
October 1915.


XXVIII

Birds in the Trenches

YE fearless birds that live and fly where men
Can venture not and live, that even build
Your nests where oft the searching shrapnel shrilled
And conflict rattled like a serpent, when
The hot guns thundered further, and from his den
The little machine-gun spat, and men fell piled
In long-swept lines, as when a scythe has thrilled,
And tall corn tumbled ne'er to rise again.


Ye slight ambassadors twixt foe and foe,
Small parleyers of peace where no peace is,
Sweet disregarders of man's miseries
And his most murderous methods, winging slow
About your perilous nests—we thank you, so
Unconscious of sweet domesticities.


XXIX

To a Baby found paddling near the Lines

HAIL! O Baby of the May
In the bubbling river-bed,
Playing where the cannon play,
With the shrapnel overhead!
Sparkling in and flashing out
Through the eddies and the shallows,
With your feet among the trout,
And your head among the swallows;
While the wag-tails on the daisies
Lead you in the minuet,
Twinkling through the flow'ry mazes,
Baby, do you quite forget
That, with shrapnel overhead,
Other babes are put to bed?


Baby, may the buttercup,
When you tumble, pick you up;
If you fall beside the willow,
Lilies rise to be your pillow!
In the winter should you go
Straying far without a rest,
Down beneath the drifting snow
May you be the mouse's guest;
May the bull-frog be your Knight,
And the tit your Templar true!
May the fairy guide you right
Wandering through a misty land,
At the crossings of the dew,
With the rainbow in her hand!
Should you fall from branches high
And go tumbling down the sky,
May the heron in the air
Take you floating on his wings,
And the cloudlets be your stair,
Over palaces of kings:
Riding high above the wold,
Larks your sentinels shall be,
Challenging with tongues of gold
Those who try to cage the free!


So, philosopher of May,
With my blessing go your way!
If you win such friends as these
You need never have a care,
Cannon you may safely tease,
And may juggle, at your ease,
With the whizzbang in the air:
Though the world be full of sadness,
You may still have fun and gladness,
And be happy for a day,
Playing where the cannon play.


XXX

The Rear-guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

GROPING along the tunnel step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.


Tins, bottles, boxes, shapes too vague to know,—
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring, fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.


Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw some one lie
Humped and asleep, half-hidden by a rug;
And stooped to give the sleeper's arm a tug.
"I'm looking for Headquarters."
No reply. . . .


"God blast your neck" (for days he'd had no sleep),
"Get up and guide me through this stinking place."
Then, with a savage kick at the silent heap,
He flashed his beam across a livid face
Horribly glaring up; and the eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard ten days before;
And twisted fingers clutched a blackening wound.

·····

Alone, he staggered on until he found
Dawn's ghost, that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground,
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat of horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him, step by step.