For William John Symons (1892-1953)
11 September 1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire
Eight at night, hot, sweaty, the rabbit
In the pot bubbling, the wireless crackling.
The news of bombs on London docks grabs
Your guts, mashes your mind, mood blackening.
A wave of shouting passes, and the slapping
Of hasty feet, of women and men,
With girls and boys who rush ahead of them.
‘They’re running to the schoolyard, come on Dad!’
Shouts Tony, full of steam, with tossing head.
You rush along with Doll, behind the lad ,
Past chink-free cottages and musty garden sheds.
The whole world’s woken up and left their beds.
You crowd into the schoolyard on the hill,
The stars are black-out bright , your heartbeat still.
The breeze is warm, the trees’ leaves tremble near.
Towards the South an angry glow grows red
And lights the crane spikes of the docks. You hear
The droning bombers’ engines overhead
And on your flesh, you feel the fear ahead.
The criss-cross beams of searchlights cast their net.
The flames flick through the far-off second sunset.
Weeks ago, you martialled East End children:
Your school was moving from the German bombs.
You herded them through Liverpool Street Station,
And counted them on board, one by one,
Their string-tied labels flapping cardboard tongues.
Tearful parents needed someone strong
To reassure that it was not for long.
You stand with their evacuated kids,
Who watch you now to see if you’re afraid
Of Jerry and his blitz. Your head forbids
The reeling-feeling dread of his invasion.
How can this all be happening once again?
You went to war, to end all wars, with friends
From Portsmouth twenty years ago. Back then
You didn’t fight to see them over here,
Buzzing, blitzing, bombing East End streets.
You didn’t hide in cellars, rank with fear,
To cower in shelters now while we repeat
The fight with Germans who you thought you beat.
So much for League of Nations, armistice.
Did we learn nothing, is it back to this?
‘Oh God, Bill,’ Dolly says, ‘What shall we do?’
‘We’ll carry on Love; I will teach my class,
You will fix the workers’ daily stew,
Tony will go to school – and this will pass.
We beat them once and we’ll complete the task
Again, you’ll see, no need to be alarmed.’
You hold their hands, look confident and calm.
To billets in the village, dark and drowsy,
The children stumble back along the lane.
‘What about our mums and dads, our houses?’
You tell them, ‘It’s all fine. Old Jerry’s aim
Was never any good – it’s still the same.’
‘You think all our bananas might be burning?’
‘I’m sure they’re not,’ you smile. Your stomach’s churning.
10 February 1906 – Portsmouth Dockyard
The champagne bottle bounces off the back
Of Dreadnought as she slips down to the sea.
It does not burst until the third hard crack,
The spume cascades down lapping plates of steel.
This ship shouts ‘Empire’, floating arrogantly,
Machine of mass destruction, steaming proud.
You stand with John, your dad, amongst the crowd.
His red eyes fill. You cheer and wave the flag.
He’s worked here for a year to build this beast,
A year of blood, sweat, toil and tears. Your dad
Came home for tea each day with tales to feast
Your ears on: welds, thick plates, huge guns; so pleased
The Royal Navy ruled the seas outright,
That none dare challenge our Great Britain’s might.
You’re working hard at school, you’re proving bright.
And John is proudly getting good reports
From teachers who can see the glowing light
Of promise in your eyes and give support
For you to leave the docks, the first cohort
At Portsmouth’s new college, where you’ll strive
For University in a few years’ time.
These teachers push you hard to give your all.
They inspire by what they do and what they say.
You grow in mind and stature in their mould.
Though short at five-foot-five, you can hold sway.
You rev yourself to make the getaway.
It’s clear you are a leader, and your dream
Of being a schoolmaster starts to gleam.
15 February 1915 – Luton, Bedfordshire
‘Your Country Needs You,’ so the posters say.
You wait in line to sign your name for war.
It’s one year on. So you know today
About the Western Front and what’s in store.
And yet you smile, you’re proud, you’re brave, you’re sure.
You all want to go and show the Huns
What happens when you anger British lions.
You are to join the Expeditionary Army
In France, this is the first time ever abroad
For you, a Portsmouth shipwright’s son, now tommy.
And what of trench-life truth will you be told
While training, bulling boots and getting cold?
Will early mornings, box-pinched beds, sharp creases
Help, when your mates get blown to pieces?
29 November 1916 – Arras, France
Arras. The squeaking, creaking train pulls up.
It’s full of boys, young, single, just like you.
Fresh Royal Fusiliers are forming up,
Smooth-faced, feckless, reckless, hats askew.
Spotters fly, flimsy, over you.
The straight strips of stretchers line the track,
With smoking, blinkered boys who don’t grin back.
Sergeant Symons, a year on now from training,
You march the muddled men to join the ranks
Of comrades underground in chalky, shaking
Caves and cellars under Arras. The dank
Dark throws the thud of boot on plank.
The light bulbs flicker SOS across
Graffiti signposts on the road to chaos.
A city underground. You share the stench
With rats and bats and lice and mice and men
English, Scots, Chinese, Canadian, French,
Welsh and Maoris digging to extend
The tunnels, through the chalk, beyond the trenches
To shield assaulting men from shells and guns
When they close in and bayonet the Huns.
You eat your scalding tins of bully beef,
You drain your rum until you are not here.
You dream of strawberry jam and clotted cream.
You’re missing Martha’s bread and warm, flat beer.
Your mind makes green and placid fields appear.
Above, the weather worsens every day:
The snow and driving rain will melt the clay.
On last night’s raid, you saw a mud-drowned man.
He’d slipped off duck boards into sucking muck,
His face mud-masked. The filthy, clawing hands
And febrile fingers of a sitting duck.
The eyes glared through his death mask, terror-struck.
All this, illuminated by the flares,
Is the hell to which you climb, up white chalk stairs.
Rumours from the East of revolution:
The Russians might well pull out of the fight.
The Easter Rising cranks up more confusion.
A fresh offensive must be now in sight
With talk of improved tactics every night.
‘It’s coming, Sarge. It can’t be far away.’
‘Maybe, but we’ll be ready, lads,’ you say.
9 April 1917 – Outskirts of Arras, France
Five days the guns have fired
On Germans buried just ahead
To ‘soften them up’ and cut their wire.
Under Arras thousands wait
And listen to the shrieking shells
As they bombard without a break.
Even in this citadel
Below the earth the guns burst through
Your ears, your head, your every cell,
Reverberate and numb you to
A gaping statue, ghostly white,
Incapable of thought, but you
Must do the rounds by candlelight
And buck the boys up with good cheer,
Give a hand if they can’t write
Their letters home to sweethearts dear
And praying parents back in Blighty
Who could never dream what’s here.
You’ve been above, in thundering night,
To see, through periscopes, objectives
For the hurling, howling, headlong flight
Right through No Man’s Land, (perspective
Altered by the lenses), close-
Seeming, so that this directive
To attack may be, who knows,
Not quite as stupid as it seemed
To you, this morning, when disclosed.
That’s what you tell the lads at least,
As you explain to them the scheme.
Now your boys are huddled round,
Ready to ascend to hell,
Muttering prayers against the pound
Pound, pound, pound of shells,
Crumpled pictures close to hearts
In pockets, as they try to quell
The body-trembling terror darts
Which fly from head to toe. Mr
Lamb, thumbs up, starts
Up the steps, draws his pistol,
Shouts, and out into the ditch.
You slap the backs of boys resisting.
‘Go on lads! Let’s leave this pit
And get some fresh air in our lungs!’
Your wit: they shake and smile at it.
Mr Lamb will lead Wave One,
Wave Two (with you) will give them cover
With fatal fire from Lewis guns,
Wave One down, then Two will be over
In the Boche trench fair and square,
And… finish off survivors.
There won’t be much left living there,
Once you have poked round everywhere.
Five thirty and they fire the flares.
Wave One spring up with Lamb and dash.
The creeping barrage bucks the air.
No Man’s Land erupts in flashes.
Earthen fountains fly sky-high.
You and Wave Two dodge the crashes,
Slam against a crater’s side,
Spray the guns to shield Wave One,
Then up again for one last time.
Wave One fires. Lamb is down.
Wave Two stabbing Huns.
You hit the ground. No-one around.
No sound… No sound.
No sound… No sound.
No sound .
13 April 1917- Hotel Mont Dore, Bournemouth
Starched nurses butterfly-bob from bed
To bed, changing dressings, chatting, pushing
Men in chairs on parquet boards, heads
Bandaged, drinking cups of tea; shushing
Curtains, white, white, plumped-up cushions,
Surgical smells, rustling cotton sheets,
A vase of roses at your clean, dry feet.
The clipboard on the washstand next to you:
Shrapnel – head and thigh (Removed Calais).
Your leg is strapped up tight, your head is too.
A smoothly-spun, white turban overlays
Your thud-throbbing brain and half your face.
Around you in regimental rows
Lie shrouded human shadows, trying to doze.
You send a card to John and Martha so
They know you’re here and safe, not far away
From Portsmouth. When they come they’ll want to know
What happened outside Arras just four days
Ago, to you, and others, young and brave.
But how much can you tell them? Can you bring
The dash back to your mind, or anything?
‘Oh Son, what have they done to you?’ she says.
‘It’s alright Mum, it could have been much worse.’
‘Much worse than this?’ she gasps, as she lays
Soft hands on yours and John shouts a curse
On Kaiser Bill, which gets a passing nurse
To say, ‘Enough of that for now, Sir. Please!’
And John, back in his place, looks ill at ease.
‘They came to get me Dad,’ you wince and strain.
‘My boys came back to get me from the hole.’
‘It’s OK Son, don’t tell it all again,’
Says John. ‘You need to rest, forget it all.’
But that is easier said than done, your soul
Is scarred forever with that memory.
You want to go back soon across the sea.
‘We got there really fast across the gap.
At first I thought we might all make it there,
But Mr Lamb, in front, fell fast, poor chap.
I had to take the lead, get up and tear
Across the bursting holes and wire snares
And take my men to cover from the shells.
My ears felt full of shrapnel, and I fell.’
Martha folds her face as you recount
The story of the boys and how they helped
You into shelter, life in doubt.
‘Thank God they got the pieces of the shell
Out from your head and leg,’ she gulps,
‘You’re not going anywhere, my lad.
You’re staying put right here with me and Dad.’
They leave you now to rest, and you lie back,
But all you want to know is what’s become
Of your platoon, and whether the attack
Succeeded. Did the enemy succumb?
How many made it through? – Anyone?
No-one knows, or no-one wants to say.
One day you’ll know it all, but not today.
11 November 1918 – 4th Officer Cadet Battalion, Oxford
You’re going to be a ‘temporary gentleman’:
The public schoolboy’s dying fast in France.
Of course, they’ll never think of you as genuine;
‘Not one of us, you know.’ They’ll look askance.
But for the war you wouldn’t get a glance.
Tomorrow morning you will be commissioned,
Second Lieutenant Symons (with conditions).
‘Gentleman; I have historic news!
The armistice was signed this morning, early.
The end of fighting! Eleven o’clock it’s due!’
The company commander leads the hurly-burly ,
Tears, prayers, cheers. But this will surely
Scupper all your plans of going back
To give the fight in France another crack.
1940 – Furneux Pelham, Hertfordshire
The war to end all wars did not. And so
You watch as London burns for months on end,
You see young men fall from the sky again.
But you keep cool, collected, even though
The scars you bear, the friends you left out there,
Must seem to count for nothing anymore.
Would you have made Headmaster without war?
Your wife, your son, your life all stem from there.
. . . . . . . . . . The echoes of those wars repeat:
Human bombs explode instead of shells,
Innocent civilians face the hell,
And soldiers, heads in hands, beg on our streets.
Much has changed today, and much…not yet
I hope you’re proud of us: we won’t forget.
4 thoughts on “On the Centenary of The Battle of Arras”
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