As has been my custom for most of the near thirty years that I have been writing ‘Commentary’ what follows is a selection of poetry and some prose related to war – primarily in relation to the Great War 1914-18 and the Second World War 1939 -1945. Unfortunately, due to either a serious error either on my part or that of a gremlin on my PC, whilst checking through and making any final necessary alterations just now, I have somehow proceeded to lose the whole collection that I had put together for Remembrance Sunday 2022. Thus unfortunately, with one single exception that I have managed to incorporate and that had been sent to me very recently, what follows is I am afraid a repeat of what I had originally put out in November 2020. My sincere apologies for this but I am sure that you can imagine my frustration at ‘losing’ what had taken many hours to put together! Although I have in the past included poems written by Canadian and of course, many British poets, my tradition over many years of choosing poetry for this day and that commemorates all those British, American, Australian, New Zealand, Canada, India, South Africa, Poland and many other Allied and Commonwealth Nations, many of whose people lost their lives fighting for freedom during the two great wars of the twentieth century, while most of poems included are by British writers I have increasingly been including works written by Canadian and US writers. This year (2022) I am including the very first piece of prose which came to be via Rick Peacock Edwards and to whom I am extremely grateful, Finally, as I have always done, there are repeats of three small poems written by John Pudney and which have particular meaning for me along also with one written by John Masefield which has also become a regular feature. The Cenotaph – Charlotte Mew Not yet will those measureless fields be green againWhere only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an inward sword have more slowly bled,We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head.And over the stairway, at the foot – oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spreadViolets, roses, and laurel with the small sweet twinkling country thingsSpeaking so wistfully of other SpringsFrom the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred.In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothersTo lovers – to mothersHere, too, lies he:Under the purple, the green, the red,It is all young life: it must break some women’s hearts to seeSuch a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!Only, when all is done and said,God is not mocked and neither are the dead.For this will stand in our Market-place -Who’ll sell, who’ll buy(Will you or ILie each to each with the better grace)?While looking into every busy whore’s and huckster’s faceAs they drive their bargains, is the FaceOf God: and some young, piteous, murdered face. Memorial for the War Dead – Yehuda Amichai Memorial Day for the war dead. Add nowthe grief of all your losses to their grief,even of a woman that has left you. Mixsorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourningon one day for easy, convenient memory. Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.”Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”No use to weep inside and to scream outside.Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding. Memorial Day. Bitter salt is dressed upas a little girl with flowers.The streets are cordoned off with ropes,for the marching together of the living and the dead.Children with a grief not their own march slowly,like stepping over broken glass. The flautist’s mouth will stay like that for many days.A dead soldier swims above little headswith the swimming movements of the dead,with the ancient error the dead haveabout the place of the living water. A flag loses contact with reality and flies off.A shopwindow is decorated withdresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.And everything in three languages:Hebrew, Arabic, and Death. A great and royal animal is dying all through the night under the jasmine tree with a constant stare at the world. A man whose son died in the war walks in the streetlike a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.”Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”
Dulce et Decorum Est – Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! —An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
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.
The Soldier – Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
In Flanders Fields – John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The Soldier – David Ferry
Saturday afternoon. The barracks is almost empty.
The soldiers are almost all on overnight pass.
There is only me, writing this letter to you,
And one other soldier, down at the end of the room,
And a spider, that hangs by the thread of his guts,
His tenacious and delicate guts, Swift’s spider,
All self-regard, or else all privacy.The dust drifts in the sunlight around him, as currents
Lie in lazy, drifting schools in the vast sea.
In his little sea the spider lowers himself
Out of his depth. He is his own diving bell,
Though he cannot see well. He observes no fish,
And sees no wonderful things. His unseeing guts
Are his only hold on the world outside himself.
I love you, and miss you, and I find you hard to imagine.
Down at the end of the room, the other soldier
Is getting ready, I guess, to go out on pass.
He is shining his boots. He sits on the edge of his bunk,
Private, submissive, and heedful of himself,
And, bending over himself, he is his own nest.
The slightest sound he makes is of his being.
He is his mother, and nest, wife, brother, and father.
His boots are bright already, yet still he rubs
And rubs till, brighter still, they are his mirror,
And in this mirror he observes, I guess,
His own submissiveness. He is far from home.
Long, too long America – Walt Whitman
Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’ d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children en-masse really are,
For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)
IF We Must Die – Claude MCKAY
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Love among the Ruins – Robert Browning
Where the quiet-coloured end of evening smiles,
Miles and miles
On the solitary pastures where our sheep
Tinkle homeward thro’ the twilight, stray or stop
As they crop—
Was the site once of a city great and gay,
(So, they say)
Of our country’s very capital, its prince
Held his court in, gathered councils, wielding far
Peace or war.
Now the country does not even boast a tree,
As you see,
To distinguish slopes of verdure, certain rills
From the hills
Intersect and give a name to, (else they run
Where the domed and daring palace shot its spires
Up like fires
O’er the hundred-gated circuit of a wall
Made of marble, men might march on nor be prest
And such plenty and perfection, see, of grass
Such a carpet as, this summer-time, o’er-spreads
Every vestige of the city, guessed alone,
Stock or stone—
Where a multitude of men breathed joy and woe
Lust of glory pricked their hearts up, dread of shame
Struck them tame;
And that glory and that shame alike, the gold
Bought and sold.
Now—the single little turret that remains
On the plains,
By the caper overrooted, by the gourd
While the patching houseleek’s head of blossom winks
Through the chinks—
Marks the basement whence a tower in ancient time
And a burning ring, all round, the chariots traced
As they raced,
And the monarch and his minions and his dames
Viewed the games.
And I know, while thus the quiet-coloured eve
Smiles to leave
To their folding, all our many-tinkling fleece
In such peace,
And the slopes and rills in undistinguished grey
That a girl with eager eyes and yellow hair
Waits me there
In the turret whence the charioteers caught soul
For the goal,
When the king looked, where she looks now, breathless, dumb
Till I come.
But he looked upon the city, every side,
Far and wide,
All the mountains topped with temples, all the glades’
All the causeys, bridges, aqueducts, —and then
All the men!
When I do come, she will speak not, she will stand,
On my shoulder, give her eyes the first embrace
Of my face,
Ere we rush, ere we extinguish sight and speech
Each on each.
In one year, they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.
Dreamers – Siegfried Sassoon
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny, they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things, they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
A Typical Battle of Britain Pilot
(Emanating to them from Battle of Britain historian, Paul Davies, what follows is a very poignant and interesting article kindly sent to me by Christopher Hodgkinson and Rick Peacock Edwards who I am sure many of you know)
There is no such thing as a typical Battle of Britain pilot. Many we read
of, or met whilst they were alive, were so very different to each other,
perhaps the word: individual, springs to mind?
They were different for many reasons-Not just in terms of Nationality,
class, rank, upbringing, experience but also in humour, intelligence,
because possibly of the post war shaping of their character, or through
family, work or RAF post war career influence? This could be added to any
trauma they suffered- or witnessed, in what was a terrible war for some of
Some of the survivors had been burned, wounded, lost limbs, or suffered
mental trauma because of their experiences, either from being shot down and
nearly killed- or from seeing the death of friends, going down in flames,
crashing or seeing their own actions resulting in the death of enemy
aircrew. Tom Neil once told me about the reality of the job: “We were hired
assassins, old boy!”…. ” It was our job”, he told me, “….to kill the
Tom Neil also once confided to me that he felt a sense of guilt at
surviving, which he knew was irrational but could not help it. He had
thought every day of friends who did not survive and could not enjoy the
sort of life he had with family, career and the succeeding years of peace.
Geoff Wellum, spoke to me about still having nightmares, most nights, even
as late as 2015, due to his war experiences and that he had been an
alcoholic, which broke up his marriage, due to stress, what we now call Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder, but was then little understood and easily
labelled as cowardice, he told me. He said he bottled it up, never sought
help and that in writing his book he hoped to make peace for himself, as
well as paying tribute to many who had passed on in war or subsequently,
like Brian Kingcome. Geoff could be telling a humorous story one minute,
the life and soul of the room and the next deadly serious on remembering
something he was talking of or in trying to make me understand the
importance and the danger of the moment or the threat, on seeing many
hundred enemy aircraft coming towards him. They were an utterly ruthless
foe, he told me and had to be stopped, he said.
Some retired as relatively low ranked pilots despite their illustrious war
career. For example James Harry “Ginger” Lacey, as one of the top RAF aces
with 28 victories-18 gained in the Battle of Britain and being the top
scoring pilot for 1940 with 23 and 2 shared, retired as a Squadron Leader.
Some retired as Flt Lt whilst some men, such as Sir Denis Crowley-Milling
would rise to high rank becoming an Air Marshal. Fred Rosier became Air
Chief Marshal and others achieved this rank also. Some stayed on in the post
war RAF whereas Douglas Bader retired as a Group Captain to carry on his
career with Shell. Many left the service due to cut backs or for reasons of
economics; not being able to support a family or for other considerations,
such as no longer being allowed to fly. One told me that after flying
fighters in combat, with no ATC restrictions and in excess of 400 mph in
wartime he felt he could never cope with all the changed rules and control
Some of these men you may have met in person or seen in TV documentary or
News media interviews or heard in radio broadcasts such as I have shared to
this site over the past three years. Each one told a light-hearted version
of what was often a near-death experience. Each man was different. Most
lightened the story of their war with humour, rather than telling the grim
reality of what they went through and shrugged off the attention paid to
them, preferring the attention and accolade of: “Hero” to be reserved for
the fallen Few.
Some men were quiet, reserved, never spoke of their war, hid away from the
cameras and publicity, got on with their post war lives at work and with
family. These never wrote a book, told their children or work colleagues of
their experiences. Part of this keeping everything hidden is the family
nature of the squadron they were with; a band of brothers, all relying on
each other, which outsiders could never understand. I know part of this
feeling from being a member of a flying club and trying to relate why I flew
to friends or family and work colleagues. One reason some pilots took to me
and opened up was that they knew I was a pilot and so understood a little
bit more of how hard their work had been in all weathers, attitudes and
Some men I met were pure fighter pilots, aces, leaders, noisy, telling funny
stories, laughing, slapping others on the back. Some sat quietly further
back. One man told me he felt an imposter sat next to a great fighter ace as
his Battle of Britain experience was only a few missions before being shot
down. Another told me had had done nothing special and I had to wait to read
about him in various books later. Because of this reticence to share their
story, many of The Few listed in the book which details each and every one
of them (Men of the Battle of Britain by Kenneth G. Wynn) has very little
information for some and hopefully, one day, their log books or diaries will
add to this information. Sadly, a lot of log books were destroyed some years
A lot of our impressions of these men are from seeing them in later life,
much changed from their 20 year old selves, due to the later experiences.
One Spitfire pilot said to me that the war was only, a few years of his
early adult life which was then 70 odd years ago and that it was like
looking back the wrong way through a telescope due to the many memories and
experiences since then in post war flying and with work career and family.
One overriding impression, if you could class the group of Battle of Britain
aircrew as one type of personality, was their discipline, manners, courtesy
to others, which ran through them like the letters in a stick of Blackpool
rock-it was part of their makeup.
This training as officers came to my notice when I was in Farnborough at an
event (Churchill`s Few), I was helping with over two days in May 2010.
Despite all the meals and drinks being paid for by the organisers I decided
to buy them all a round of drinks, as I would never get the opportunity to
drink with these men again. This was in the morning around 11 AM. I was
amused to see each man, when asked what he wanted to drink, shoot out his
wrist from his jacket cuff and look at his watch before answering. They all
had Gin and Tonics (Bombay Sapphire) at that hour apart from Geoffrey
Wellum, who asked for a large Whisky! I sometimes look at the back of a
print I bought, signed by these men: The Few. On the back of it is fastened
my bar receipt in memory of these men.
Some of you reading this will be the sons, daughters or relatives and
friends of these men and many have told me that their parents never told
them of their deeds. Thinking back over the years, I recall speaking to the
daughter of P.H “Dutch” Hugo, a fighter ace of around 20 victories who said
she learned more about her father from a post I did in 2010 than anything
she had been told by him. Some knew these men as simply their dad, and
learned more about them after they passed over. This reluctance to speak to
their children, even in their adult life, comes from the reasons outlined
above as well as the inherent RAF tradition of not “Talking shop” or
“Shooting a line”, as much as for sparing the gory details of the reality of
Some just needed to forget and put the past behind them.
I can understand that.
The only thing these men collectively wanted was for their fallen friends to
be remembered and for their deeds to be appreciated in saving Britain in
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.
And Finally, three poems written by John Pudney in 1941/2 and which by tradition I always include on Remembrance Sunday:
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,
To keep your head, and see his children fed.
Smith, living on air, your astral body, a mechanical wonder,
Your anger an affair, of fire and thunder.
Smith, who puts down fear, whose young heart, grapples with pity,
Whose spirit holds life on earth so dear, and death no merit.
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.
CHW (London – 12th November 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785