Tommy's War

WWI Poetry

MY UNCLE CHARLES, 1894-1915

by Tom East 

                  

I. Chocques: the Graveyard

       For thirty years I'd wanted to be here.
       You'd think I'd have felt more:
       at least a lump in the throat to go
       to this place where the brother my father never knew
       had left his lonely shadow.

       But no; my uncle's was only one in neat rows
       of well-tended white stones.
       One was to mark the short life of a boy
       who'd left his family, lying about his seasons;
       another was for an elder sergeant who'd left a widow
       by seeing his duty in simple visions.

       There were Indians and Chinese who'd toiled,
       with a shovel instead of a Lee-Enfield.
       They probably didn't know why they were there;
       if they even knew where they were.

       There were soldiers from England, Scotland, and Ireland.
       Even a stray German lay there as a friend.

       Only the family name
       gave my uncle's grave a different form.

II. Festubert: the Battlefield

       A potted plant duly placed,
       we went to see the green field
       where one day in a summerless May
       he was one of seven hundred who'd heard the whistle's sound
       and left their lives in the mud.

       It wasn't so green in the pre-dawn blackness when
       machine-gun bullets and shells
       whipped the ground and ripped through flesh
       for the prize of another hundred mired yards to be held.

                  

III. Béthune: the City

       The city is a reclaimed ghost;
       it looks rooted in centuries past.
       You wouldn't know the church where I lit the candle
       was once no more than a heap of rubble.

       It was there I asked 'why did he die?'


       For the King's Shilling? For ideas?
       For the Army tot of rum? Pro patria mori?
       For the crest of the Royal Welch Fusiliers? For his butties?

       No, it wasn't really for any of these
       that his was one of a million murders.


       He died because
       he was following the orders

       of someone who knew better,
       who was following the orders,
       of someone who knew better,
       and knew he was God's defender.

*

This poem records a visit that I made to the Pas-de-Calais in March, 2010. Events, both in 1915 and 2010, were exactly as I've set them out. I've written prose versions of the whole story

Other than this, there's not too much to say about the poem. I hope t speaks foritself.