Canto 37: Wings of War

Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detachd itself from the skull.

Siegried Sassoon


American Incunabula

Now you are one of us, you know our tears,
Those tears of pride & pain so fast to flow;
You too have sipped the first strange draught of woe
EM Walker

“Deutschland ganzlich einzukeisen!” throats wail,
Submerging terrors reverse the blockade,
Lusitania… Old Head of Kinsale…
Torpedoes… hopes of peace noyantly fade;
One explosion
Back-echoes to New York –
Ship lists, hiss-slips, is gone… the World’s press flock to Cork.

To Jerkwater the news soon spread,
Hank hock’d a hooch with Harry,
Shocking ink columns shaking read,
“I have German ancestry,
But those poor American dead
Have rais’d the beast in me!”
“It is was it is, Hank, don’t get involv’d!”
“But Buddy, how else could this be resolv’d?”

“Call off your wolves!” Kaiserwards went,
Wise, by Woodrow Wilson,
Threat keenly meant, the President
Frets at word from London.;
“Zepp’lins have bomb’d our capital…” sacred causal fusion.

Washington
May 10th
1915


The Last Grenadier

The corn was turnin’, hairst was near,
But lang afore the scythes could start
A sough o’ war gaed through the land
Charles Murray

An old man hobbl’d with his great-grandsons,
Breath’d in the dust of a past century,
The growls & the howls of the young Hun’s guns
Awakening his vivid memory;
Tho’ barely sane,
Half driven blind by age,
He shuffl’d his frail frame onto that famous stage.

Tween Hougoumont & La Haye-Saint
His raging nostalgia veer’d,
Tward a panoramic lion
All his stumbling footsteps veer’d,
Fifty thousand phantoms upon
Hades horison reer’d,
Dogs braying fearfully from nearby farms,
All round resounds the mighty clash of arms.

He saw his father hard impal’d
Upon the scarlet square,
& as he wail’d the Gaurdsmen fail’d,
His Grand Pa-Pa led there,
Shielding his cowering grand-child whilst bayoneted bare.

Waterloo
June 18th
1915


Gallipoli

They seek to bring us under
But England lives, & still will live –
For we’ll crush the despot under
Alfred Tennyson

Kitchener’s Churchillian conjecture
Battle brings before Constantinople,
Champagne thrill of Achaean adventure,
The Gentle, savage; the Savage, gentle;
“Where are you from?”
“Melbourne…” “Why are you here?”
Senses of soldiers numb, led captive to the rear.

The soul of Rupert Brooke releas’d,
Packs poetry for the trip,
Byronic sortie to the East
But mosquito punctures lip,
By volumes his visions increas’d,
Death climbs aboard the ship,
For what seem’d a tayle, epic & Trojan,
Now slowly sluiced with tragical poison.

From sandy cliffs to hills jagged
Sloping from Chunuk Blair,
Up ridge ragged, long trail hagger’d,
Thro’ hot, wilderness air,
Bluce Slater from Australia spat bullets ev’rywhere.

Turkey
August
1915


Rommel

My strength is the strength
Of ten young things: I am with you:
In that first moment of delight
Roethke

The French assault is driven from Alsace,
Initiative is passing from the Blues,
Unto the German greys, pushing en masse
In fire-fight sporadic to the Meuse;
The Jaws of Hell
Chewing Foret d’Argonne,
Where young Erwin Rommel warfares like a falcon

Upon these five poor sons of France
Vigorously rapidly,
Three shot down in one keen instance,
With his magazine empty,
Fix’d bayonet, a hawkish glance
As native bravery
Gut-quelled by bullets brushing past the eye,
His foemen flee, “Come back & fight!” the cry.

For this he’ll win the Iron Cross
While contreemen bog down,
Held at a loss before the schloss
Defending Verdun town,
A sunken vauban rampart, a Tricolour on its crown.

Fort Douamant
September 24th
1915


East Lancashire’s War

I saw him stab
& stab again
a well-killed Boche
Herbert Read

Give some fella a gun, ‘ees an ‘ero,
Give ‘im a conscience, ‘ee gets thrown in jail!”
“Charlie,” said Rose, “I wunt want yer to go!”
“Now why would I wanna leave you?” a wail
Strays down the street,
With his next door neighbour,
“Put summat on yer feet & go get yer mother!”

Beneath the rugged Hamildon,
Marching by a brown canal,
Pass morosely top o’ Hapton
As at some dour funeral,
Reeling, at length, thro’ Accrington,
To hear of their own Pal…
Upon the Town Hall notice boards they’ll see,
‘Patrick Sumner has died for his country.’

Freda broke down, felt in her heart
An ache to never die,
Charlie’s thoughts dart, world wrench’d apart,
“Revenge! Revenge!” he’ll cry
Racing to add his signature to Gen’ral Haig’s supply.

Lancashire
October
1915


Verdun’s Vernality

Verify every fear. But there is warmth
In this sudden desire to sleep,
To surrender to our common condition
Phillis Levin

Der Kaiser’s son goes tripping off to war,
Finding marches harsh & melancholy,
Reaching the rock-face of an ancyent shore,
Casting his gaze oer wide-wooded country;
From leafy shades
Vast lines of flames upvent,
About the barricades, a famous salient.

“Mon Dieu!” “Mon Dieu!” “Mon Dieu!” again,
Men plunder’d from their dreaming,
A four-hour seastorm raged, & then
The silence wades thro’ screaming,
To arms!” a gas-mask’d tide of men,
Splice the em’rald streaming,
On every side flinders a fatal threat;
A bullet, bomb-blast, brick or bayonet.

Death-vicious frays even apall
The harden’d legionnaires,
A madman’s maul ’til fortress fall
Verdun will soon be theirs,
Or say pin-headed generals sate safely in their chairs.

Fort Douamont
February 25th
1916


Deserter

I want to go home. I want to go home.
The whizzbangs they rattle, the cannon they roar,
I don’t want to go to the Front any more!
Anonymous

There is a madness in the mind of man,
The water torture of a constant war,
Always up fighting, always in the van,
Frank phantasizes of his native shore
Scarpers his trench,
This war for him’s over,
Pretending to be French all the way to Dover.

He ran home to his early life
From man’s terrors travels far
& ravages his pretty wife,
Trousers mingle with her bra,
But then there comes the cruel knife
To open up the scar,
Cold knock-knock at door, two stone-faced Sergeants
Have come to fetch this white feather to France.

His family’s tearful farewell
Still haunting all the while
He paced the cell, a living hell
& barely legal trial,
Shot at the wall… some sprawl’d ‘deserter’ sporting insane smile..

France
March
1916


All Quiet on the Western Front

The candle stumps stand there staring solemnly.
Across the nocturnal vault of the church
Moans go drifting & choking words
Wilhelm Klemm

T’was just another day in the trenches,
The ‘stand to’ bugler blew before the dawn,
From this heatless zee-catching he wrenches;
Slugs, frogs, bats, rats & beetles flee the yawn;
Breakfast before
Shelling begins at eight,
Less murder, more the bore men call the ‘Morning Hate.’

Those walking with the Lord worship’d,
Others played or talk’d instead,
The gaunt are by despair oft gripp’d,
Some stand up & lost their head,
The ‘stand-to’ call’d as sunshine slipp’d
In bed of rosy red;
The ‘Evening Hate’ has cool’d as fades the light,
Both sides prepare patrols to pass the night.

Some flick thro’ books, some capture mice,
Some requisition rest,
Some pick at lice, some lose at dice,
Some gaze out to the West,
Watching a crimson streak that might have issued from Christ’s breast.

France
April
1916


Jutland

On the strength of one link in the cable
Dependeth the might of the chain;
Who knows when thou mayest be tested?
Captain Ronald Hopwood

From the Firth of Forth to the Scapa Flow,
Ready to greet the gaze of Adm’ral Scheer,
London’s Grand Fleet gifted to Jellicoe,
As draws decisive action ever near;
Collision course
All thro’ a nervous night,
A day ready for force, the ocean kimberlite.

Alarum bells by sharp lookouts,
Smooth, grey seas roll foreboding,
Aburst in mighty water spouts;
Range gauged, a swift reloading,
Gigantic sounds drown frantic shouts
Massive ships exploding,
Superdreadnaughts & Battle Cruisers,
Into what monstrous clash this day fuses.

God’s fog, Man’s smoke encoats the foam
Trafalgar’s broken spell,
Thro’ thick’ning gloam two fleets limp home,
Drift bodies in the swell,
The sea still loves his mistress, but the victor who can tell?

The North Sea
May
1916

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