THE POETRY OF CONFLICT
AND OUR FALLEN REMEMBERED

By

Brian Jefferson

The great gift of words, and an ability to order them in memorable verse is not given to all. Frequently it takes great emotion to bring out the gift in many, and this is perhaps more true in the poetry of conflict, where the loss of nearest and dearest can often best and most lastingly be described in stanza's and rhyme.

After the battles are over,
And the war drums cease to beat,
And no more is heard on the hillside
The sound of hurrying feet:
Full many a noble action,
That was done in the days of strife,
By the soldier is half forgotten,
In the peaceful walks of life.

So begins Ella Wheeler Wilcox's "After the battles are over", written in 1872 after the American Civil War for a soldiers re-union. How well she captures the mood of the post war silence, which the families of returning soldiers will well remember. Heroes all to have been through the hell of war, but always reluctant to tell of their experiences. But not forgotten either are those who did not return:

O boys who died for your country,
O dear and sainted dead!
What can we say about you
That has not once been said?
Whether you fell in the contest,
Struck down by shot and shell,
Or pined 'neath the hand of sickness
Or starved in a prison cell.

We know that you died for freedom,
To save our land from shame,
And we give you deathless fame,
"Twas the cause of Truth and Justice
That you fought and perished for,
And we say it oh, so gently,
"Our boys who died in the war."

In this year of 2002, as we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, it is with much gratitude that we as a nation reflect on a relatively peaceful half century. It has thankfully been a long time since our casualty lists in war filled the newspapers on a daily basis. But for all those families whose finest fell in the defence of their Country, it is both right and fitting that they be remembered in verse. Most haunting of all are the words of the soldiers themselves. The piece that follows by Rupert Brooke, are the thoughts of an anonymous young English soldier on the Western Front. The poem was quoted in Dean Inge's sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915, and one can only imagine the impression it left on the minds of the congregation as the trench warfare in France became ever more bloody.

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there is some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing fresh, English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds: dream happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The gentle and almost accepting words of 'The soldier', belie the often horrendous truth of war which for the many involved is often terrifying and ghastly. Not all the poets are caught up in the glory and duty, which are best remembered, and as Siegfried Sassoon captures so evocatively in 'The Hero', the truth may best be left unsaid.

The Hero

'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read,
'The Colonel writes so nicely,' Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the brother officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while she coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how Jack, cold footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

Great pride is rightly taken in parents, children or siblings who have served their country, whatever the outcome of that service. The ultimate price is paid by many, and heroes all will be remembered. The following is written by a proud Lancastrian daughter, and speaks volumes.

My Burma Star

Women and children waved sad goodbyes,
To virgin soldiers with innocent eyes.
Not knowing what fate held in store,
They headed for that troubled shore. 

At home in England children played,
Whilst wives and mothers wept and prayed.
God love them, keep them ever near,
Sons, husbands and lovers we hold so dear.

Through jungles of Burma they marched as one,
Cold wet nights – burning days in the sun.
Snake bitten, bullet riddled – wounds that don't mend,
What a way to lose a friend. 

Not wanting to harm or force attack,
Just hoping to keep the enemy back.
The ones that were known as the 'Chindit Chaps',
Head on they met and fought those Japs. 

Day and night their endless toil
To protect from evil our virgin soil.
Fighting and marching, never a rest,
Every young man gave his best. 

As old friends and new, before their eyes,
Wounded and bleeding – fell like flies.
Battle finally over – 'A Victory' is claimed.
'A Victory' – 'This'! But who can be blamed? 

Wise soldiers returning to a land they made free,
But memories of war quell feelings of glee.
We must always remember the total cost,
For freedom of England, was the lives that were lost. 

I'll always thank God for the help he gave,
When he stood by those 'Chindits', all so brave,
For amongst those heroes was one fine lad,
Who later returned and became – My Dad.

 Glenda Brown – 9/1995

This poem is dedicated to my wonderful father Albert Hore (1803385),
who served with 267 Battery, 69 Light AA Regt from 1941-1946

Personal reminiscences of those who served in our Armed Forces, and who recall the better times are also worthy of re-course to verse, as this ex WAAF "Ex girl in Blue – 660 Walker" who trained in Morecambe at the start of her service during the Second World War wonderfully demonstrates.

Those Girls in Blue

To Morecambe they came, those girls in Blue,
Do you remember? Of course you do!
With peaked soft caps, uniforms new,
Each leg so grey in a flat black shoe.

Along the Promenade they marched, 
on Sandylands too,Then off to the bus depot for some P.E. yet to do,
They swung their arms and other parts too,
They'll never forget just what they went through.

At the fifty bob tailors one day they did queue,
For injections and jabs which were then due,
Along past the Clock Tower for a welcoming brew
At a welcoming café selling fresh "wads" too. 

Back to the Ballroom they sank in a pew,
And listened to lectures on what NOT to do!
The weeks sped by and the training too,
Soon they left, those girls in blue.

Now they're returning their past to review,
And asking what's happened to the Morecambe they knew.
The pier's in shambles, the Clock's timeless too,
Thank God no man can alter the Bay's glorious views.

But memories are mixed of wartime service for those who returned, and "Remembrance Day" shows a very different mood from this same poet, being more reflective in style.

Remembrance Day

Whenever I see a poppy
I think of fields of corn,
Then I think of France as well,
Of No-Man's land, that living hell!

Fields of Corn all speckled Red,
I don't see Poppies, I see the Dead,
I see young men, covered in mud,
Lifeless bodies, splattered in Blood.

So on Armistice Night, as the petals fall,
In the Remembrance Service in the Albert Hall,
I'll think of those cornfields, and Poppies so Red,
And remember those mud fields, so Red with our Dead. 

This local tribute and reminder of the Remembrance Day tradition borrows the symbol of the Flanders Poppy from one of the most evocative of all First World War poems, written by John McRae who first expressed the notion of the poppies reflecting the lives lost.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved , and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

 Lancaster has especial need to rejoice in one of its finest poet sons. Laurence Binyon was born at No.1 High Street, Lancaster on 10th August 1869, and died in March 1943 at the height of the Second World War. Binyon was educated at Trinity College, Oxford where he won prizes for his poetry. In 1893 he was appointed to the Print Department of the British Museum where he remained until his retirement in 1933.

As well as being a poet, he also had a great knowledge of art. His whole life was quiet and gentle, and dedicated to the arts, yet he is remembered the world over. His words, written soon after the Battle of Mons in 1914, when the Great War had scarcely begun, are his compassionate response to the sacrifice and loss of life in that one battle. Today the fourth verse symbolises for everyone the Act of Remembrance 'For the Fallen'. Could anyone be unmoved by these stirring words.

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them. 

The Royal British Legion recently published this story verse to help our young understand the poppy tradition.

Wear a Poppy with Pride

"Please wear a poppy", the lady said,
And held one forth but I shook my head,
Then I stopped and watched as she held them there;
Her face was old and lined with care,
But beneath the scars the years had made
There remained a smile which refused to fade. 

A boy came whistling down the street,
Bouncing along on carefree feet,
His face was full of joy and fun,
"Lady", he said, "May I have one?"
When she'd pinned it on he turned to say,
"Why do we wear a poppy today?" 

The lady smiled in her wistful way,
And answered, "This is Remembrance Day,
And the poppy there is the symbol for
The gallant men who died at war.
And because they did you and I are free-
That's why we wear the poppy you see!" 

"I had a son about your size –
Golden hair and big blue eyes,
He loved to play and jump and shout,
Free as a bird he raced about.
As the years went by he learned and grew
And became a man – just like you." 

"He was fine and strong with a boyish smile,
But he seemed to be with us for a little while.
When war broke out he went away;
I still remember his face that day
When he smiled and said "Goodbye,
I'll be back soon Mum, do not cry". 

"But the war went on, he had to stay,
All I could do was sit and pray.
His letters told of an awful fight,
I can see it still in my dreams at night,
With tanks and guns and cruel barbed wire,
The mines and bullets, bombs and fire. 

Till at last the war was won,
And that is why we wear a poppy, son".
The small boy turned as if to go,
And then said "Thanks lady, I'm glad to know,
That sure did sound like an awful fight
But your son – did he come home alright"? 

A tear ran down each faded cheek,
She shook her head but did not speak.
I slunk away with a sort of shame,
And if you were me you'd have done the same,
For our thanks in giving is oft delayed,
Though our freedom was bought, and thousands paid. 

Let us reflect on the burden borne
By those who gave their very all
When asked to answer their countries call,
That we at home in peace might live,
Then wear a poppy - Remember and Give.

Now finally the famous words by John Maxwell Edmonds 1875-1958. He wrote them in 1919 as a suggested epitaph for inscription on War Memorials after the Great War.

When you go home, tell them of us and say
"For your tomorrow's, these gave their today". 

When the Burma Star Association was founded they took a version of this as their inscription.

This inscription exists on the Kohima Memorial. And is known as "The Kohima Epitaph"

When you go home, tell them of us and say
'For your tomorrow, we gave our today'

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