Tommy's War

July, 1914

DESERTER

Winifred M. Letts

       There was a man,- don't mind his name.
       Whom Fear had dogged by night and day.
       He could not face the German guns
       And so he turned and ran away,
       Just that- he turned and ran away,
       But who can judge him, you or I?
       God makes a man of flesh and blood
       Who yearns to live and not to die.
       And this man when he feared to die
       Was scared as any frightened child,
       his knees were shaking under him,
       His breath came fast, his eyes were wild,
       with throbbing heart and sobbing breath.
       But oh! it shames one's soul to see
       A man in abject fear of death.
       But fear had gripped him, so had death;
       His number had gone up that day,
       They might not heed his frightened eyes,
       They shot him when the dawn was grey,
       He stood there in a place apart,
       The shots rang out and down he fell,
       An English bullet in his heart.
       An English bullet in his heart!
       But here's the irony of life,-
       His mother thinks he fought and fell
       A hero, foremost in the strife.
       So she goes proudly; to the strife
       Her best, her hero son she gave.
       O well for her she does not know
       He lies in a deserter's grave.

*

It would be stretching a point to say this was a great poem. But Winifred Letts comes as near as it is possible to do in honouring the dishonourable. And, as the poem says, 'who can judge him, you or I?' We might like to think we'd act more bravely, but fortunately the great majority of us won't be put to the test in a similar way.

It might be too easy for us to forget that half of the populations of the belligerent nations were female. They may not have fought in the front lines but they did many other things like keeping the wheels of industry turning, nursing, and mourning the lost. One of the results of this last was that more than the usual half of the UK's population was female by 1918.

Winifred M Letts began her literary career as a playwright. She is equally, or better known as a children's writer and novelist. It wasn't until 1972 that she died, so her work is still in copyright. If the copyright holder objects to the use I have made of Deserter, then perhaps he or she would contact me.