Category Archives: ASSIGNMENT 4

On the Centenary of The Battle of Arras

 

For William John Symons (1892-1953)

I

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.

II

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.

 

III

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?

 

IV

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.

 

V

9 April 1917 – Outskirts of Arras, France

(1)

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.

 

(2)

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.

 

(3)

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 .

VI

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.

 

VII

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.

VIII

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.

And now? 

. . . . . . . . . .  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