He lay stretched out on the narrow iron framed bed
Idly staring at the cracked and blotchy ceiling,
Its surface resembling a map of no man’s land,
A senseless wilderness of craters and barbed wire.
Unthinking, his mind was empty of all feeling
Other than a sense of utter futility,
A weariness that had seeped into his marrow
Like the water bleeding from the walls of the trench
Whose narrow confines had become his entire world,
A place of despair, stealing the light from his soul.
He lit a Woodbine, and watched the skeins of blue smoke
Drifting upwards to add their yellow residue
To the stains left by countless other cigarettes
Smoked by other soldiers in this room, on this bed.
Lifting his head to look round the squalid little room,
Taking in the broken chair with his brown tunic
Carelessly slung over the back, his revolver
Lying on the dirty floor where it had fallen.
Looking the other way he could see the nightstand
With its cracked ewer and basin, and the mirror,
On the wall behind, where the eyes of a stranger
Had blankly stared back at him from the mottled glass,
When he had laid out his razor and shaving brush.
Christ he was tired,
So God-almighty fucking tired.
He woke up with a start,
“Look sharp lads,” he shouted, at
“Get the fuck into the dugouts,”
Realising the crump of exploding shells was
Just a door banging shut somewhere in the hotel.
“Shit,” he thought,
“I need a good fuck with a cheap whore,
A few sweet moments of blessed oblivion,
Anything to wipe out the memories of death,
Anything to make me feel alive.”
He slept again, dreaming of that golden summer
In Oxford, in another world, before this hell,
Punting on the Isis, the laughing girls and boys,
Oh they were so innocent in that far off time,
Blissfully, carelessly unaware that their world
Was soon to end in a welter of mud and gore,
Men blown into smithereens, the beauty of limbs
Shattered by uncaring shells, or ripped to pieces
In a hail of bullets spewed out by faceless guns.
He remembered one particular girl, sister
Of his closest friend John, who died a year ago,
In his arms, murmuring through mangled lips, of England,
Of home and beauty, green meadows and waving corn,
His lifeblood seeping into the cold foreign soil
Of Flanders, just one of thousands to die that day,
June nineteen sixteen,
The first battle of the Somme,
Sacrificed on the altar of stupidity,
The folly of politicians, blinded by pride,
And fat generals still fighting yesterday’s wars,
Immune to the effects of hot metal on flesh,
Safe in the luxury of their plush headquarters.
Charlotte was her name, Charlie to her closest friends,
Eighteen years old when he first met her, three years ago
When he was invited to spend Christmas with John
And his family at their home in Gloucestershire,
A warm and friendly thatched cottage of Cotswold stone,
In a picture postcard village, beside a green,
Just across from the parish church, and country inn.
He remembered the very first time he saw her,
A heart shaped face framed by tumbling auburn tresses,
With a welcoming smile, and a mischievous laugh,
Vivacious and so full of life,
Stealing his heart.
They had made tender love many times that summer,
In his college rooms, lying naked on his bed,
Gloriously happy in the first flush of love,
Laughing with happiness, suspended in time,
Oblivious to the threatening clouds of war
Spreading their malevolent blight over Europe,
So soon to destroy for ever their innocence,
The beauty of youthful limbs trampled underfoot
Beneath the jackboots of anonymous armies,
Marching robot like across the ravaged landscape,
Of their dreams, the end of a golden age of hope.
Best of all were those afternoons when in a rowboat
They would escape to some secluded backwater
Where, lying in the long grass of the riverbank
He would enter into the mystery of her soul
In a joyful dance of mutual ecstasy,
Radiant with the light of consummated love.
And afterwards, laughing with delight, they would bathe
Naked, playing like children in the cool water,
Only returning home as last rays of the sun
Sent long shadows across the gently flowing stream.
The last time they spent together was in London,
The night before he embarked for France, and glory.
John was there too, with his current girl on his arm.
They went to the Savoy, dinner first, then dancing,
Resplendent in their uniforms, second lieutenants,
In the Gloucestershire Regiment, badges polished,
And boots shining, ready to serve King and Country.
He told Charlotte, better not to upset herself
By seeing them onto the train in the morning,
As he kissed away her tears after making love,
No need to make a fuss, much too embarrassing,
Besides, he said, it would be over by Christmas,
And when he returned they could think about marriage,
A summer wedding would be nice, with all the frills,
With a long honeymoon on the Riviera,
Antibes was particularly nice he’d been told,
Less crowded than Nice or Monaco in summer..
He was disturbed from his reverie by a knock,
For a moment forgetting where he was, drowsy,
Unwilling to wake and return to reality,
Better to dream of those far off halcyon days.
“Come in” he called, then remembering, “Entrée vous,
“La porte est pas verrouillé,” and he sat up,
Because one still had to preserve appearances,
Especially in front of servants, don’t you know.
The door opened to admit a mousy haired girl,
In a grubby dress, with a jug of hot water,
“Le dîner sera prêt dans vingt minutes,” she said,
And left, clumsily slamming the door behind her.
“Fuck you!” He thought, “Fuck me, fuck this whole goddam world,”
But then, chastened, he wearily rose from his bed,
And after scraping the week’s stubble from his face,
Dressed slowly and carefully in his uniform,
And after retrieving his revolver from the floor,
Followed her downstairs, every inch the officer.
Another time, another place, another bed,
White walls and ceiling, the muffled sounds of moaning,
And the sweet pungent smell of carbolic, and blood,
But remote, as if it was far away, like a dream.
He shook his head, trying to clear his clouded mind,
And then the screaming began, inescapable,
Burning through his brain in a shriek of agony.
“Shut up,” he thought, “shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”
And then, dimly, through the sharp blinding fog of pain
That was his body, he realised the screams were …
His, his agony, Christ! His pain. Shit, what the fuck!
And then he remembered, or didn’t remember;
All that he could recall was a shrill shrieking noise,
Shouted voices, and then a flash, and … nothingness,
Just silence and darkness, sweet comforting darkness.
“Wake up Major;” a voice out of the white darkness,
“It’s time to check your dressings, this might hurt a bit,
But be a brave soldier, it will soon be over,
And then you can go to sleep again. Sleep will help.”
He looked up into the whiteness, towards the voice,
And saw a vision of loveliness … an angel?
Was he dead? Was this heaven? But then, why the pain?
“What,” he croaked, “where am I? Water, I need water.”
And then a sharp prick in his arm, and oblivion.
Later, how much later? He didn’t know … hours, days?
Slowly he returned to consciousness, looked around,
And finally recognised the truth … where he was.
Hospital. Just another body on a bed,
Another piece of wreckage of this endless war.
And he cried, tears of self pity and hopelessness.
“Good morning Major,” that voice again, the angel!
This time he could see her, no angel, just a nurse.
“Well Major, your war is over now,” the voice said,
Kindly, concerned, soothing, but something else. What?
The voice sounded familiar, a voice from the past,
From the time before the horror, the blood, the pain.
Familiar, but different … older and wiser.
“It’s alright Major, you’re safe now, home in England,
They’re coming tomorrow to measure you for your …
“My what?” he cried like a child, alarmed, frightened.
“For your leg,” she said, “you’ll soon be up and walking,
Right as rain, a new man. You’ll be as good as new.”
“What happened?” He asked, I can’t remember a thing,
Just a shriek, and a flash, and then nothing, nothing.
“You were caught in a shell burst,” she replied gently,
“In the final push on the Somme. It’s all over,
The war is over and we are at peace at last.”
Weeks later he finally mastered his new leg
With the devoted care and help of his angel,
His Charlotte. She had followed him to war, signed up
As a nurse, and by some strange miracle of fate
She had been there beside him in his darkest hours.
You really couldn’t tell the difference … the leg …
Not much anyway when he was properly dressed.
He was alive, unlike too many of his friends,
And there was hope, a better future, no more war.
They were married early in the New Year, in church,
In Gloucestershire, surrounded by family and …
And also the ghosts of those who hadn’t survived.
He was resplendent in his full dress uniform,
The hard earned ribbons of sacrifice on his breast,
Among them the Military Cross , for bravery,
She in white, not the plain uniform of a nurse,
But floating down the aisle in a shimmer of silk,
Truly like an angel. No longer innocent,
They were older, and sadder, but also wiser,
And determined in their joy to make a future,
A better future in a brave new world of hope.
We know better now, and it took another war
Before Europe finally came to its senses.
But we will remember them and their sacrifice,
And pledge to constantly work for peace and concord,
For that will be their only fitting memorial.