On this day, the 99th anniversary of the Armistice, a day and in this case, a weekend in which we come together to remember those who gave their lives in both the Great War, the Second World War and in subsequent wars in order that we all may live in freedom, may I once again provide you with poetry that reminds the sadness of war, of those no longer at our side and who made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. Yesterday, the 10th of November 2017, also marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the ending of the Battle of Passchendaele, a battle during which spread over five months in 1917 over half a million Allied and German soldiers were killed, wounded or missing. I will begin this act of dedication with a poem/song that in my humble view so well fits the tragedy that was Passchendaele:
This Song For You – Chris de Burgh
Hello darling, this is the Army, I’ve just got the time to write,
Today we attack, there’s no turning back, the boys they’re all ready for the fight.
Yes, I’m well but this place is like hell, they call it Passchendaele,
In nineteen seventeen the war must be ending,
The General said this attack would not fail;
So I’m writing down this little melody, when you play it my love, think of me…
We’ll be together in this song for you, and it goes Lalala…sing it darling…Lalala…
They have got old Bill and the Sergeant is still out there wounded in some shellhole,
They say this war will end all wars, Oh God I really hope it will.
Oh how’s old England, are they still singing those songs that we loved to sing,
When all this is over, we’ll go sailing in Dover, catching fish like we used to with a string.
Oh I miss you, I miss you, I miss you so, if they get me my love you will know…
We’ll always be together in this song for you…
And it goes Lalala…I have to go now…take care of yourself my love.
This second section of chosen poems includes three taken from those written by Sergeant Jim Brookbank, a member of the Royal Air Force who served as a Bomb Aimer with IX Squadron Bomber Command between 1944 and 1946. As some of you know, I retain a close personal attachment with IX (B) Squadron based at RAF Marham and I am proud of this. These are taken from a collection of Brookbank war poems entitled ‘Before The Dawn‘ and are a sequel to his earlier collection entitled ‘The Moon Shines Bright’ which had been published in 1984:
Aircrew (Jim Brookbank)
We flew, they said, into the hostile sky
And gallantly were not afraid to die.
But I, for one, refuse to live a lie
Some said we saw no danger, I knew no fear;
Undaunted superman in flying gear.
Yet when Johnny died I shed a tear
So let’s be honest, put the record straight,
We all knew well the fear and death and hate,
But fought the war and left the rest to fate.
Too Soon To Die (Jim Brookbank)
Too soon to die, “I haven’t lived,” I said. “I chose to Fly, so why am I now Dead?
I volunteered to take up arms and fight and never feared the peril of the night.
At twenty years ‘twas good to be alive. No Grief, no tears….But I did not survive.
‘We fly by night’, or so the motto said. By day or night our blood will still run red.
We were so young. We battled in the sky. What can be done when it’s too soon to die?”
Bomber County (Jim Brookbank)
The stillness, wreathed in misty folds from Coningsby to Elsham Wolds,
Is shattered now as the engines roar and Lincolnshire ‘stands by’ for war.
From Fiskerton to Donna Nook the coughing Rolls-Royce Merlins shook
The frozen silence of the night as bomber crews prepared to fight
Fast spinning ‘props’ disturb the earth at Bardney and at Faldingworth.
They’re ready too with all checks done at Skellingthorpe and Waddington
At Wickenby and Woodhall Spa the ‘heavies’ start to role; and far North east
At Binbrook, one by one, they climb into the setting sun.
At Kirmington, East Kirkby too, bomb laden ‘Lancs’, with throttles through the ‘gate’, lift off.
Droning fills the air at North Killingholm and Spilsby.
With ‘hundred octane’ in their tanks Hemswell and Fulbeck join the ranks.
Whilst Ludford Magna flashes ‘morse’ to start the aircraft on their course.
Now Scampton signals ‘Group’ to say they’ve sent their squadrons on their way.
At Strubby they are grim and tense as aircraft skim the bound’ry fence.
Metherington has not delayed to brief its squadron for the raid;
They also join the bomber stream as Lincolnshire lies down to dream.
These villages well remember the airfields that took their name.
Their forebears knew marching Roman feet where Ermine Street and Fossway meet.
But now the legions of the sky carve their transient roads on high, yet leave no evidence
To say that they had ever passed this way.
Whilst in the woods below, perhaps a stealthy poacher sets his traps. The Barn owl swoops
And talons drawn, in search of prey before the dawn.
Jack, busy with his rabbit snare, will maybe pause awhile and stare.
Eventually the droning fades and quietness floods the Lincolnshire glades.
Lincoln Cathedral’s shrouded towers stand patient watch throughout the hours of darkness.
Tall and noble still, promising peace on Lindum hill.
Holland, Lindsey, Kesteven sleeps once more.
The frozen silence creeps again across the fens and wolds as stillness spreads its misty folds.
This final section repeats some of those that I included in past years and, as always by tradition, the wonderfully evocative ‘For Johnny’ and ‘Missing’ – both of which came from the pen of John Pudney and that are two of my favourite WW2 poems:
The Old Front Line – John Masefield (1917)
All wars end: even this war will someday end, and the ruins will be rebuilt and the field full of death will grow food, and all this frontier of trouble will be forgotten…
In a few years’ time, when this war is a romance in memory, the soldier looking for his battlefield will find his marks gone.
Centre Way, Peel trench, Munster Alley and these other paths to glory will be deep under the corn and gleaners will sing at Dead Mule Corner.
RETURN – Edward H. Young
This was the way that, when the war was over, we were to pass together. You, its lover, would make me love your land, you said, no less, its shining levels and their loneliness, the reedy windings of the silent stream, your boyhood’s playmate, your childhood’s dream.
The war is over now: and we can pass this way together. Every blade of grass is you: you are the ripples on the river: You are the breeze in which they leap and quiver. I find you in the evening shadows falling, athwart the fen, you in the wildfowl is calling: And all the immanent vision cannot save, my thoughts from wandering to your unknown grave
YEARS AHEAD – Guy N Pocock
YEARS ahead, years ahead, who shall honour our sailor-dead?
For the wild North Sea, the bleak North Sea, threshes and seethes so endlessly.
Gathering foam and changing crest, heave and hurry and know no rest. How can they mark our sailor-dead in the years ahead? Time goes by, time goes by.
And who shall tell where our soldiers lie? The guiding trench-cut winds afar, miles upon miles where the dead men are. A cross of wood, or a carven block, a name-disc hung on a rifle-stock. These shall tell where our soldiers lie, as the time goes by.
Days to come, days to come but who shall ask of the wandering foam, the weaving weed, or the rocking swell the place of our sailor-dead to tell?
From Jutland reefs to Scapa Flow tracks of the wary warships go, but the deep sea-wastes lie green and dumb all the days to come.
Years ahead, years ahead, the sea shall honour our sailor-dead! No mound of mouldering earth shall show, the fighting place of the men below but a swirl of seas that gather and spill and the wind’s wild chanty whistling shrill shall cry ” Consider my sailor-dead! ”
In the years ahead.
‘For Johnny’ – by John Pudney
Do not despair for Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound as Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud for Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears for him in after years.
Better by far for Johnny-the-bright-star,
Keep your head and see his children fed.
Missing – by John Pudney
Less said the better, the bill unpaid, the dead letter,
No roses at the end of Smith, my friend.
Last words don’t matter and there are none to flatter.
Words will not fill the post of Smith, the ghost.
For Smith, our brother, only son of loving mother,
The ocean lifted, stirred, leaving no word.
‘We will remember them’
CHW (London 11th November 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785