Canto 47: Dunkirk

To delight in conquest is to delight in slaughter


Lancashire’s Finest

And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,
Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks,
Reading the Sunday papers – I saw a fox
Alun Lewis

To Belgium’s border order’d the East Lancs,
The one word whisper’d in the mess was, “when?”
Amidst the chassis of Matilda tanks,
Captain Andrews reviews his tawny men;
Such hardy bunch
From Pendle’s rugged vale,
When coming to the crunch he knew his lads wunt fail.

Picking their spades up after tea,
Some small subsidence to mend,
Tom Sumner swivels to Billy,
His baby-faced schoolboy friend,
“All this diggin’ is plain silly,
These lines we shan’t defend,
As soon as Gerry turns himself hostile
We’ll leave these bloody trenches for the Dyle!”

They dug awhile & watch’d the sun
Conclude ephemeral,
The digging done, jigging his gun,
Tommy foresaw battle,
“There’s summat funny goin’ on… t’night… I sense trouble.”

St Amand-les-Eux
May 9th


The moon’s rays shiver in the branches.
Forest dark. Silence. Dug-outs.
How wonderful May nights are !
Georgii Suvorov

The racist faces the decadent West,
Spermatic as the coming of the Spring,
When leafy woods are at their loveliest,
& bowers vibrate with the blossoming,
When golden streams
Sol sends set on the scene,
When gorgeous glinting beams rebound off each machine.

Hitler boards the Amerika,
Under stars he trundles west,
Stirring strains of his dear Wagner
Lull him to a good hours rest,
Whirrs time by… train reaches bunker,
His bomb-proof Felsennest…
Praying before purpuric bloodshed starts,
“O God of Battles steel my soldier’s hearts!”

Facing the tranquil occident,
Rommel reclines with wines,
Cool, calm, content; his regiment
Should thunder thro’ the lines,
Flicking thro’ Sun Tzu, Von Clauswic & Charles DeGaulle’s opines.

May 10th


Under the white flag as he advanced
They say he stood bravely, never winced
As the first bullet pierced his lungs
Ruthven Todd

Aft shouts of war the shafts begin to fly,
No longer men must idle day-long days,
The sun was barely half-an-hour high
& all the Lowland Borders were ablaze;
Rushes across the sea,
The crooked Swastika denuding majesty.

Rules rewrit for modern warfare;
First possess total surprise,
Then wholly dominate the air;
Thro’ th’Ardennes a phalanx flies,
Cheval-de-frise embatter’d bare
Beneath the Stuka skies,
‘Rev–Rev–Rev,’ three lines of polish’d Panzer,
Wait as if with Nelson off Trafalgar.

King Leopold laments the end
Of proud neutrality,
Forced to defend, his German ‘friend’
Is ravaging freely –
Men learn from history they’ve nothing learn’d from history.

May 10th

Lightning War

War! The winds are sighing it,
The hill birds are crying it
To the valley’s uttermost bounds
WH Ogilvie

Deep amidst the forested Sedan Gap
Rommel’s panzers re-fuelling for free,
From some deserted garage steals a map
To guide them all thro’ champaign to the sea;
The tanks oil full
No time to hesitate,
Breakneck into battle, for waiting games vexate.

As pontoons creak beneath the tracks,
Blitzkreig rolls on guns blazing,
France buckling under wide attacks,
Morale ever descending,
At last ! the Gallic backbone cracks
Sedan’s surrendering –
Rommel photographs a ghostly fortress,
Whose scenes of slaughter sanities emboss.

Down daggletail, rag-taggling roads
Fox thrusts his lethal lance,
the air explodes as carts & loads
Crush’d by ceaseless advance,
Once more Prussian milit’rism galls Gallic arrogance.

May 14th


all dying isn’t sad
there is the dying that precedes the living
and that’s the secret kind
Ketty Nivyabandi

Defeat seems such a certain circumstance,
The Allies losing battleplans & pride,
The British cut off from the rest of France,
A state of siege upsetting ev’ry side;
Desperate wrench,
South of the Vimy Ridge,
Men surge towards the French to forge the vital bridge.

To Durham’s footlite Infantry
Roars the battle’s lion’s share,
Lacking aircraft, artillery,
But Matildas everywhere,
They’ll slaughter trucks of enemy
(‘Revenge’ the SS swear),
When penetrating Panzers & their hides,
They’ve found themselves surrounded on three sides.

Tho’ tested hard no soldier cracks:
The Luftwaffe take flight,
Counter-attacks, worn-down tank-tracks
Erodes the English fight,
Whose duty done, whose point proven, fall back all thro’ the night.

May 23rd

Britain Stirs

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars
Louis Macneice

German Arms form an arm-like corridor,
Fist punching up thro’ Flanders to the coast,
Not wheel’d to Paris, as lost Bismarck’s War,
Tho’ given up is Galleini’s ghost;
Spirit thought fled
Seizes the Cinque ports,
The ghoul-songs of the dead blew thro’ abandon’d forts.

Adm’ral Ramsey climb’d Henry’s keep,
With a Nelsonian stance,
Gazes across the hoary deep
To the distant dark of France,
Where brave embattl’d Britons heap
Slim chips upon one chance…
Slipping back to Blighty via Dunkerque…
It’s crazy, but I’ve got to make it work!”

For once the British do not reel
Before the German gale,
From Grand Fort Phillipe, down to Lille,
Let fresh defence prevail,
From now each deep, bloodletted inch be fought for tooth & nail.

May 27th


A deadly bullet gliding through my side
Lies heavy on my heart. I cannot live.
I feel my liver pierc’d & all my veins
Christopher Marlowe

Ninety-nine of the Norfolks surrounded,
Sick of France, the French & the Luftwaffe,
Endurance & ammo nigh exhausted,
Bullet-bitten… hon’rable surrender…
Not welcome here,
With fresh, scourging duress
Fensmen filling of fear, the infamous S.S.,

Disgusted at how well they fought,
Rifle home with hammer-butts,
Upsprunging crude kangaroo court,
With falsest dum-dum bullets,
Finding the long, the tall, the short,
Guilty; by bayonet
Them march’d off into line, promis’d no harm,
With hands-on-heads they file by Duries Farm.

Twin barrels of two maxim guns
Shoot murd’rous swathes of lead,
Hot scarlet runs, England’s brave sons
Now sweet & fitting dead,
Or groyners stick’d like old, sick pigs, or pistol’d thro’ the head.

La Paradis
May 27th

Fall of Belgium

Disconsolate I go,
The summer looks as cold to me
As winter’s frost & snow
John Clare

With the line along Lys lying broken,
Leopold calls General Derousseaux,
Best seek a ceasefire for beleagured men,”
Then pell-mell breaks for the Anvaing Chateaux;
All hope is gone
As a gladsome Fuhrer,
Offers only unconditional surrender.

As Belgium’s capitulation
Ends the bloody killing spree,
Twenty miles of unmann’d’ station,
Between Wipers & the sea,
Opens up to devastation
& Hitler’s infantry,
Coming as a most terrible surprise
To these medieval-minded Allies.

Of his stubborn neutrality
The King now counts the cost,
But dares not flee while his country
To providence is toss’d,
“I have decided to remain, the Westeren cause is lost.”

Wynendale Chateaux
May 28th


That wretched wire before the village line
Rattles like rusty brambles or dead bine,
& there the daylight oozes into dun
Edmund Blunden

All hope was burn’d by Belgium’s bare defeat,
The onus falls on one to save the day,
Retrieving lines of severing retreat,
Night falls, & he ingages at Roublaix:
Twenty-five miles
Travers’d thro’ anxious night,
Now safe behind earth-piles awaiting dawn’s own light.

The Wehrmacht push, & how they push,
Impassionate with killing,
Against a rock that rides the rush,
Oblivious to shelling,
Monty inspires his men to crush
All that bloody schnelling –
The gifts of victory soon his to reap,
Those very precious twenty winks of sleep.

In one short hour the courier
Predicts a coming rout,
“Do not bother me…” “But sir!”
His patience snaps in shout,
Yells, “Tell that blasted brigadier to turf those rascals out.”

May 29th

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