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Poetry about the Second World War


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THE WAR
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Recent poetry about the First World War

There are many writers today who are still deeply immersed in the experience of the First World War. Here are some of their poems.


Four Poems by Jan Theuninck who describes himself as an artist for peace, justice and civil liberties. He lives near Ypres, Belgium (as he says, "in Flanders Fields"). He has also written about the Second World War.
Twenty six poems about the First World War by S J Robinson, with the author's introduction. Poems inspired by a lifelong interest in the First World War, visits to the battlefields and an interest in the pioneering psychologist who treated shell shock victims of the war.

Diners by John Bird

 A poem about Passchendaele

 Greg Harper Three poems about the First World War which Greg Harper performs as songs

John Bird

DINERS

The rats dined well at Passchendaele,

meat on the menu every day,

a limb, a torso, a tasty entrail,

served fresh in the Trench Café.

For wine they had a vintage red

with a bouquet of acrid water,

lifeblood of the newly dead,

in this consummate place of slaughter.

 

The brass-hats dined well at Command HQ

in a fine house well back from the front,

men of breeding accepting their due,

recalling good times with the hunt.

Cigars in hand, they passed the port,

raised their glasses for the toasts

to battles they had boldly fought

from secure headquarters posts.

 

The politicians dined well back in Blighty,

talked of a war to end all wars,

never doubting that God Almighty

was committed to the allied cause.

A minister, fortified with scotch,

at a recruitment rally in Poole,

insisted that Haig was top notch,

not, as some thought, a stubborn fool.

 

The troops did not dine well at Passchendaele

from a menu written in blood.

Each day they were served the same cocktail

of  bullets, privation and mud.

But no complaints from the Trench Café

as the diners gathered en masse

to savour once more the human entrée,

seasoned with cordite and gas.

John C Bird
2006

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26 Poems about the
First World War 

by S J Robinson

Author's introduction

The reason that I write poetry about aspects of the Great War is in itself simple. I believe people should not forget what happened, that we should have learnt so much from it. Unfortunately, that's something us humans rarely manage:- taking the lessons left by those who 'went before.' So many soldiers on both sides thought they were fighting for a better world: the fact that this has not necessarily been the case does not mean their efforts should be ignored. 

Born in 1977, I started writing aged eight but had been interested in the Great War from a very young age. In fact I'd had dreams about it since I was two years old. When asked aged three if I'd like to go to Disney Land like my cousins, I replied I'd rather go to the Somme! I was 17 when I finally got my wish and, at a site where the trenches were preserved, I was given my first poem. I say 'given' because that was how it felt--the poem arrived in my mind intact. Most of them do, as do the illustrations I draw on the same subject.

The important thing is, my work is original. I never read a 'real' war poem until I was at least twenty and then it was only because my interest in the War Psychologist W H R Rivers had led me to the works of Sassoon and Owen. The only fragment I knew by heart from the early days of my interest was the last two lines of MaCrae's 'In Flanders' Fields.'

"If Ye break faith with us who die

We shall not rest

Though poppies grow

In Flanders' Fields."

That gave me my rationale.

S J Robinson

OLD FRIEND'S LAST REQUEST

Do you see those footprints in the snow?

That young child's sledge? The rose-red glow?

They once were ours, and memories lend

Of age-long friendship, never end.

She has no grief: attends no worries:

My time stands still-for her it hurries...

That lad, with the tree-climbers' graz-ed knee

--He once was you: he once was me.

That girl, joining footballers, just for fun

--Thing's haven't changed since we were young.

Youth and Innocence, our Own Small World,

'Til evil snaked around us, curled

Now young men boast of loves, careers

For them the future holds no fears.

Made bomb-proof, shell-proof by decades' retort

War's again an adventure; killing, sport.

So, they, like us, drawn by battle-sun's glory

Won't heed an old man's tragic story

We who, once, a healthy, lively, strong

Cannot help but sleep beneath the Somme

But, you, the Left, can tell, must warn

Of stormy threat to spring's new dawn.

Our rose-red fades, grazed knees now rot

But our message must live, ne'er be forgot

From us make them learn, let then receive

The legacy those before them leave

Tell them of reality, of loss, of pain

That war is fruitless, of who remain

If not for them, then speak for us

For what we fought for, died and lost

Let their spring, let their skies stay fine

Let not clouds of fourteen spoil thirty-nine...

S J Robinson

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NOW POPPIES GROW

Here, once, a soldier died in stalemate slow

Now where he fell, bright poppies grow.

Once horror reigned and death was rife, 

Missing comrades haunted soldier's life

The shells, the noise, the battle throng,

A whistle foretold sleep eternal long;

For, over the top, he rejoined dead friends

In that sweet peace which never ends

Eighteen or twenty, maybe less,

Soldier's age of death, upon that crest.

A wasteful loss, a generation flown-

There, lie many, still Unknown

A chilling hush fills the mourning air

They rest here, safe, without age or care

Beneath long grass, under air so still

Peace hides their graves, in trench, on hill

The most worthy monument? A poppied field.

To the carnage? The Iron Harvest yield

But from where the birds in war have flown,

The ghosts of Ypres and Somme live on..

 S J Robinson

VISIT TO MENIN

"Mother, what's that gate for?

It's stone, and big, and strong.

It's got so many names on-

The list is very long.

On top of it's a lion

And beneath the arch does play

A man upon a bugle-

So sad-What does it say?

That tune, it makes me shiver

And read those names once more.

O Mother, please do tell me:

What is that big gate for?"

"I'll tell you what that gate's for,"

Mother thoughtfully replied.

"It's a monument to your daddy

And all his mates who died.

Some, well, they couldn't find them

See-those are all their names-

Came up this road to go to war,

And ne'er came home again.

They fought and died like Daddy

So many, many more...

And so we don't forget them, 

That's what that big gate's for."

S J Robinson

(At the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, the traffic and people stop at 8 o'clock as the Last Post is played beneath the arch. This has happened everyday since the town was rebuilt apart from during the Second World War. The road that passes under the gate took each troop who went to the Salient to his fate at the Front. 55,000 were never found.)

FALLEN IN ACTION

They said he had fallen, fallen from grace: 

Deserted the line, without a trace

They said he was a Coward, deserving to die

We know he was ill, so you tell us why

He'd fought at Wipers, Mons and The Somme:

Won medals for bravery, slogged on and on:

Lost friends, lost a brother, but not once at all

Shirked from his duty, let courage stall

Then last night in a barrage, the Germans advanced

HE blocked their way, gave comrades a chance,

Ran back to the lines to call for some aid

So more senseless slaughter could be allayed

But he couldn't run, couldn't move, couldn't speak

When he saw his mate, blown to bits in a breach.

Should have been used to it? Been Prepared?

He was only nineteen-no wonder he's scared

They say he ran, deserted his station

A total disgrace to battalion and nation

No trial was given, 'Shellshock' dismissed

Though they'd never even tried to enlist

They'll shoot him at dawn, it'll say on his grave

Not mention the number of lives that he saved

But could they later, go to that place

And swear that he'd fallen, fallen from grace?

S J Robinson

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LAMENT OF THE FALLEN

"TYNECOT"

We don't want your pity

We don't want your love

We don't want no sympathy

That is not enough

We just want you memory

So we did not die in vain,

So what we lost was worth it

So none must suffer again

We don't want no pity

We've had that enough

We want you to learn from us

So we can rest above

S J Robinson

(Tyne cot is the largest War Grave Commission cemetery in the world and holds around 12,000 allied graves, plus 3 German causalities. On the surrounding walls are engraved the names of 35,000 unknown soldiers lost in the Ypres Salient, Belgium, in the latter stages of the conflict)

REMEMBER, REMEMBER

Remember, remember 11th November.

Gunpowder, Whizzbangs and blood..

S J Robinson

ON YONDER HILL

On yonder hill, the poppies sway

In chilled, yet friendly wind today

Their petals drift like young men's lives

Taken far from root, to fall 'neath skies

Their petals grew, fell, fade away

As if they have a line to say

To teach us all that glory brief

To often ends in soldier's grief

On yonder field, furrows score the ground

That once so clamoured, emits no sound

Each bay a story long could tell,

Of laughter sapped in youth's own hell

Of dreams unrealised, futures strewn, 

Of pipe and Drums last defiant tune,

Of Ordered slaughter, new hopes lost.

To lie there, yonder, under wooden cross

 S J Robinson

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PASSCHENDAELE

Tree stump glistens like its wet

Tree stump glistens but it's red

Tree stump glistens where soldier bled

Early in the morning 

Water shimmers in the heat

A heavy pack meant his defeat

No solid ground beneath his feet

Mud and doom was yawning

Branches stick up from the ground

Darkened twigs before a mound

A hand thrust up as soldier drowned 

Just as day was dawning

Yellow stinking, sinking mud

Ground that's covered with soldier's blood

And at home as flowers bud

Another widow mourning

S J Robinson

THE WAR MEMORIAL

A war memorial, standing straight

And proud against the sky

Issues this challenge, demanding still

Of those who pass it by

Do you recall men went to war?

These bodies that I guard?

Did you learn the lesson that they left?

Or legacy discard?

Most men fought and some men died

Some wounded, some remain

By ignoring that, you're not saving lives

You're killing them again!

They suffered long-in trench and pit

For principles they believed-

That sacrifice prevents repeat

--And were they all deceived?

I am not here to glorify war

Or justify it's right;

I am just here because men believed

Their death could make your future bright

S J Robinson

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To a Friend

THE 'EMINENT' PSYCHOLOGIST

(W.H.R. Rivers 1864-1922)

Sanity, Friend, who understood

The turmoil of our minds

Who gained insight where none could see

Untwist where other wind

Mentor, teacher, who never judged

Who failure took away

Made all feel normal if he could

And kept our pain at bay

Though tired, he performed his task

Of making others well

While their condition, in his heart

Was putting him through hell

My dear friend, Rivers, where 'ere you are,

My thanks I grateful send

--For each time you gave your all

Still now as well as then

 S J Robinson

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I WAS YOUNG

(We must remember with compassion those who survived the War

as well as those we lost-they suffer too)

I was young when I went to war...

Young and bold and strong

But what I saw, it made me old

My time seemed very long

'T was the War that made me old

Felt woe beyond my years

It was the War that tore my heart

With death of all my peers

'Til, like an old man, I was left

To cope alone, no friends

To grow, to fight, to carry on

While their youth never ends

S J Robinson

ELEVEN, ELEVEN, ELEVEN

I woke and it was morning

The guns at last were dead

An Armistice signed yesterday

Had took away that dread

The nurses all were smiling,

The lads were giving cheers

As the great news of that signing

Still rang about their ears

Eleven, Eleven, Eleven!

It should be wrought in song

Eleven! Eleven! Eleven!

That moment waited long

 S J Robinson

TOUR OF THE CAMP

13TH CCS

(OC)--welcome to our new recruits

Come to settle world disputes

Resplendent in your shiny boots

To have you here, we're awf'lly proud

On victory's front there is no cloud

By Christmas you'll be cheering loud!

(SA) Far ahead like tiny buns

Encased in concrete are the guns

(Tommy) But not enough to kill the Huns....

(SA)-If a look behind you'll toss

(Tommy)-See an array of cross on cross

This is the censorship's 'light loss'

Of battle they're the only fruits

And, despite what staff reputes

The General couldn't give two hoots

OC = Officer commanding

SA=Sub-altern/ second lieutenant

 S J Robinson

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WHEN GLORY CAME TO THE TRENCHES

When glory came to the trenches

--As an officer, shining bright-

Said He'd go over the Top for us

Then offered us a light

Reckoned our war would soon be over

And, at first, we jeered

But He told us of His battle plan

And took away our fear

He promised to always be near us

And try to keep us safe

Didn't believe in us killed and sacrificed 

In this dark forsaken place

He explained that to die was His job

And that we must be content

To tell others of His coming here

As o'er the Top he went

When Glory came to the Trenches

We said, of commanders, He was alone

"Well, they only came here to send you," He said

"I came to take you all home "

 S J Robinson

MISSED AND PRESUMED DEAD

I miss the days when light stayed long

When comrades' dreams stood bright and strong

I miss the friend that I once had

Companionship through good and bad

When marching was a chance to sing

Of joys of home that memories bring:

Camp-fires, a chance to talk of plans

And haul together all life's strands

I long for smells of Harvest new,

The cleanliness of morning dew,

A Marbles game-we still are young

But winter's here-Our summer's done

Debris of guns and carnage flay

What once was warmth to cloudy day

And now you lie where grasses green

Have given o'er to muddy sheen

I miss the days when life was fair,

When naught but bird call rent the air

But you are gone, and I am sad

I miss the friend that I once had...

S J Robinson 

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DR. RIVERS

Seated at his desk

On a bow-backed wooden chair

Glasses on his forehead

Sunset in the air

A patient sits before him

A trembling, stutt'ring lad

A product of the horrors

Of trench and warfare mad

The man, he listens silently

Absorbing ev'ry word

Remembering each grimace,

Each shocking case he's heard:

The terrors formed in battle,

Plaguing nightmares of the fight,

Hallucinations, shuddering....

His task? To put it right

This man, who sat so quietly

His patient understands

And riles against 'Authority'

That fits humans into strands

'Authority' was ashamed of them

But he listened and judged not:

Worked hard and ever trying 

To halt 'Coward' label's rot

This man was William Rivers

With a patient in his care

And oft, when I am troubled

I've wished that I'd been there

S J Robinson

(Rivers pioneered sympathetic treatment of shellshock in the Great War. Many of his methods are used in the treatment of similar illness today.)

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THE HOUR OF GRACE

(Christmas 1914)

A tree stuck out in Flanders

Adorned with candles, bows

A voice starts off the carols

A song that both sides know

And then, a gestured kindness;

A man treads o'er the ground

To offer Christmas greetings

To 'enemies' counting rounds

One Tommy, then another

Responds to Fritz's gift

Rose, went out in snowbound mud

The gloom of war to lift

* * * *

A song rang out in No man's -land

Through Flanders, France and Ypres;

Above the soldiers' laughter-

The silent song of Peace...

S J Robinson

THE LOST CAUSE

(Accompanied by tune of 'The Lost Chord')

Stand-ing one day

In the Front line,

Wa-ter up to ~

Our knees

Germans strafing light~ly

From the opposing trees

And scatter-ed hails of shrapnel

With mud that it put to flight-

Knock-ing the dugout roof~in

So the Sergeant was cold at night

Knocking the dugout roof~in ~

So the sergeant was cold at night....

S J Robinson

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THERE'S A RAT

(Accompanied by tune of 'The Quarter master's Stores)

There's a rat, rat

Big an' bloomin' fat

Rules our wars

Rules our wars

There's a rat, fat,

Staying at the back

While he tries to 

Rule our wars

(Chorus) O' Haig's so dim, he cannot see,

Machine guns will our ending be

Machine guns will

Our ending be

We must hop, hop

Straight ov-er the Top

By his laws,

By his laws

And we're shot, shot,

If we'd rather not

While he tries to

Rule our wars....

Chorus...

 S J Robinson

NIGHT GHOULS

Men.

With half their faces hanging open

Men;

with both their limbs torn from one side

But this was no childs' story,

of a ghosting:

This was real, a place where young men died

This .was no child's dream 

of panicked nightmare.

These were men 

you picked up from the ground;

These had wounds,

no face paint could supply there:

These were men who bled without a sound

These. were men you carried,

and who waited, 

Treatment , 

in the gutt'ring Aid-post's light;

These- the men who crawled,

when fire abated:

Or lowly quivered pain into the night

These fields

no product of a childish fervour:

No tin-soldiers' paint

Begins to peal;

These were men alive

inside the terror.

These were men who felt the nightmare real

(Although not the intended theme of this poem, shell-shocked men often found their symptoms more haunting at night, when alone in the silence)

S J Robinson

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Langemarcke

'DIE WACHTER'

Just because they came -

Doesn't mean they're not the same:

Had no want to fight as well-

They were not souls of Hell

These men were just like you;

They were human too

An enemy downtrodden?

Shouldn't mean a life forgotten

Do you think they didn't feel?

Shouldn't they have chance to heal.

We'll protect our friends-

You may need their like again

(Langemarcke homes a cemetery near Ypres, containing bodies of an unknown number of German soldiers-many in an enormous mass grave in the centre although possibly no grave on the site holds just one body, The cramped conditions were due to reluctance towards honouring the remains of the 'invaders'-the 'evil Hun'. At the rear of this site, overlooking the black grave plaques are four sombre statues, as if guarding their people because those of the place they are resting might not-these are the watchers of the title)

 S J Robinson

THE CULT OF THE HERO 

' Eroes? Ha!You don't know the 'arf of it!

Sittin' at 'ome, thinkin' war's a game!

most of us wouldn't be 'ere, we wasn't conned

"By Christmas" is gettin' lame...

"Don't want t' lose you--we think you ought t' go"?

Huh! You want this hell f' your son?

Think the Fritz's are runnin' scared?

Or the enemy's the side we're not on?

P'rhaps y' mean the officers?

Them what carry little while we trudge,

What live in dug outs: proper food an' roofs?

We sleep in sludge

Or is it 'The Glorious Dead'?

They got it cos orders was cruel:

Came out cos it was 'duty'

Else face the fire Squad's bitter rule

'Eroes?! D' you include the shell-hocked lad?

Nah--you fix him 'Coward' by your score

Yet he's the one that "'ero" can address--

he stood that line 'til he could take no more

"Gallant warriors? Glorious! Ha- you mock

Each wave of blokes that filed past here t'day!

To sons role models you would 'ave us be--

Well tell 'em --take our word an' stay away!

S J Robinson

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SHADOWS

They understood not when memories came

Borne here by sounds and images; moods

That draw our minds to summers done 

When golden life was just in bloom

Look at them who feel not sorrow

Pick at tear drops in your eye;

They've not feared what comes or follows,

Nor the many cross-ed lines

Now and then the seas are breaking

Spilling forth the holy flood:

Mem'ries numb set our hearts aching:

Flowers swept away in blood

With our eyes, we see the morrow

Learn-ed from all winter's past

We have sights: they'll never see them--

Visions painful, still set fast

Leave us in our war-life stranded,

Ye who've never understood:

You will never see their shadows--

You will only see the wood.

 S J Robinson

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THE CALL OF THE PIPES

The call of pipes o'er batlle's storming

Draws together Highland blood

Hails the straggling from the trenches

Drags the wounded from the mud

Whirling out of gritty gases:

Pipers breathe the deadly air

Telling friends of trickling water

Mem'ries of a land so fair

Soon the dying see the thistles

Calling them to loved-ones home--

Where the rain clouds hold no shrapnel,

Where a laddie's ne'er alone.

 S J Robinson

BROKEN PROMISES

Betrayed was I who called

to take the cause

Sought refuge in accepting

Rich men's laws

When with the Rank man

I would make my stand

As with them all my

life bled for my land

Authority blames but will

not heed their fault

Nor stand with rankers in

this world's assault:

Believe not in the promise 

grand men made

For each who does is

one more man 

betrayed

S J Robinson
 
 

EPITAPH

They tried:

What more can be asked

By us who in their lost freedom bask?

So we must fight and, willing,

Face the task

So they,

Our forebears,

May take rest at last

S J Robinson 

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Poems by Jan Theuninck

Yperite

late at night

a mist

fills the valley.

without knowing

it suffocates 

like a dark power.

on the fields

our dead bodies

and under the grass 

a brown soil

Jan Theuninck

Tyne Cot

when you left

for the front

you were 

living heroes

and now

you're on top

of the hill

where only

poppies

blow..........

Jan Theuninck

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Polygon Wood 

 like a shrine

you lie 

in the middle 

of the wood

and  warn 

of  those

who preach 

peace

and make

war 

Jan Theuninck 

Hill 60

poppies blood

on the green grass

on the hills of mud

away they pass...

Jan Theuninck


Greg Harper

Greg Harper is a singer/songwriter based in Sussex, UK. More information can be found on his website: www.gregharpermusic.com

Three song-lyrics/poems about the
First World War

SO LITTLE GAIN

The city moved on as it always did
The old man stood face barely lit
The autumn chill matched the one in his heart
So many years since he played his part
He thought of the war and his friends who were slain
So much lost for so little gain

In a Flanders field in the rain she stood
Her tear stained face under her hood
She placed the flowers on the sodden grave
In memory of one fallen brave
It was a stone inscribed with no one’s name
So much lost for so little gain

So each November we ring the bell
Fewer people march less stories to tell
Of the friends brothers husbands fathers and all
Who answered but never returned from the call

Humanity lay broken as the ending came
For a few miles lost and a few miles gained
The eleventh hour of the eleventh day
And a whole generation blown away
So the guns fell silent to the devil’s disdain
So much lost for so little gain

And each November we ring the bell
Fewer people march less stories to tell
Of the friends brothers husbands fathers and all
Who answered but never returned from the call

So they sat in class as the teacher told
Of the brave the fallen and days of old
And the old men faded one by one
Just a poppy to remind us of what they’d done
And time rolled on like a runaway train
So much lost for so little gain

And each November we ring the bell
Fewer people march less stories to tell
Of the friends brothers husbands fathers and all
Who answered but never returned from the call

So the years have passed and we’ve been taught
Of the wealth and power that oil has brought
And our young folk die in a foreign war
As the country’s askin’ what it’s for
As we lose our brave to the government’s shame
So much lost for so little gain

And each November we ring the bell
Fewer people march less stories to tell
Of the friends brothers husbands daughters and all
Who answered but never returned from the call
Who answered but never returned from the call
Who answered but never returned

Copyright © 2007 Greg Harper.
All Rights Reserved.


DELVILLE WOOD

Nothing moved
In Princes Street
Nobody there
No one to greet you
No piercing screams
No metal clang
Just the sound of the birds
As they chattered and sang
Nothing moved
Nothing should
All lay quiet
In Delville Wood

In Regent Street
No shoppers there
Just a couple of silent
Grazing deer
In the morning light
In a wooded glade
Laying quietly
Upon the brave
Nothing moved
Nothing should
All lay quiet
In Delville Wood

A careless footprint
In Rotten Row
At the sudden noise
They turn they go
Across the gentle furrows
That in the soil remain
Which belie the carnage
The suffering the pain
Then nothing moved
Nothing should
All lay quiet
In Delville Wood
Nothing moved
Nothing should
All lay quiet
In Delville Wood

Copyright © 2007 Greg Harper.
All Rights Reserved.



BIRDSONG

My name is Bertram Arthur Cain
I live outside of town
I work from sunrise rising
Till the sun is sinking down
Each day I walk along a lane
That runs beneath the downs
It rings with birdsong sweet and true
It’s a pretty and peaceful sound

It weren’t my fight I didn’t see
That I should go abroad
To fight the enemy of our land
By the government I was told
I left my love I left my home
And all my thoughts behind
Of a world of love a world of care
And I crossed to the other side

No more to hear the birdsong
I could recognise every tune
No more to see the morning dew
A glistening on the corn
No more to hear my dearest call
As I return late at night
Just to rest my head and sleep my dear
Until the morning light

My name is Bertram Arthur Cain
And I’m a simple man
I’ve never caused nobody pain
I’d always help them if I can
But now I stare ‘cross no man’s land
With a gun sight before my eye
Just waiting to kill a man like me
Across on the other side

No more to hear the birdsong
I could recognise every tune
No more to see the morning dew
A glistening on the corn
No more to hear my dearest call
As I return late at night
Just to rest my head and sleep my dear
Until the morning light

For four years hell on earth did rain
And many brave men died
The high explosive shells that flew
The only singing in the sky
The land now cultivated
By the shell and not the plough
And the only men remaining are
Devoid of caring now

No more to hear the birdsong
I could recognise every tune
No more to see the morning dew
A glistening on the corn
No more to hear my dearest call
As I return late at night
Just to rest my head and sleep my dear
Until the morning light

My name is Bertram Arthur Cain
The name etched on my grave
The 1914-18 war
Was a travesty of the brave
So if you ever walk along
That lane beneath the Downs
Be sure to listen to the birdsong there
It’s a pretty and peaceful sound

Copyright 2005 Greg Harper.
All Rights Reserved

Note. The Downs is a 100 mile long line of hills that run from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex and are the main feature of a newly designated National Park. (2010)


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