Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lest we forget


Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, - still warm, - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

Wilfred Owen
I first heard the following in a remembrance assembly when I was teaching at Oxted School; it has haunted me ever since.
Henry Gregory of 119th Machine Gun company was interviewed after the war about life in the trenches:

When we arrived in the trenches we got a shock when the other soldiers in the hut took their shirts off after tea. They were catching lice. We had never seen a louse before, but they were here in droves. The men were killing them between their nails. When they saw us looking at this performance with astonishment, one of the men remarked, 'You will soon be as lousy as we are chum!' They spent the better part of an hour in killing lice and scratching themselves. We soon found out that this took the better part of an hour daily. Each day brought a new batch; as fast as you killed them, others took their place.

One night, as we lay in bed after doing our two hours' sentry - we did two hours on and two hours off - my friend Jock said 'damn this, I cannot stand it any longer!' He took off his tunic - we slept in these - then he took off his jersey, then his shirt. He put his shirt in the middle of the dug-out floor and put his jersey and tunic on again. As we sat up in bed watching the shirt he had taken off and put it on the floor it actually lifted; it was swarming with lice.

from spartacus.schoolnet
British 55th (West Lancashire) Division troops blinded by tear gas during the Battle of Estaires, 10 April 1918.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

- Wilfred Owen, from Dulce et decorum est

Fallen leaves

Each year with the falling of the leaves we shall remember them,
As the years drift into the silence of longing -
The longing for the ones who never came back.

A photograph, dimmed by time, is all that remains;
A lock of hair, a memory, a name, each evoking
A man that lived and breathed and laughed.

Poets and dreamers, craftsmen and lovers
Farmers and ploughmen, boys from the shires
Fallen leaves in the autumn, returning to the soil.

Yvonne Aburrow


kathz said...

Do you know the Oxford site with Owen manuscripts? It's at and there are useful links to the Hydra, etc. (You may have known it for ages.)

Your poem recalls Housman's "The Lads in their Hundreds" from A Shropshire Lad - was that in your mind? The Butterworth setting almost always moves me to tears, thinking of the contrast between the words and music and the reality of war. I tried to find the music on-line and instead found something equally poignant - a film clip which ends with a home movie of George Butterworth demonstrating a morris dance, four years before his death on the Somme. It's at

Yvonne said...

Thanks for the links, I hadn't seen either of those. Very poignant.

I think my poem does owe something to Housman - I wrote it in about 1993 or 1994, but I was certainly familiar with A Shropshire Lad back then, though not with any specific poem in the cycle.