War conjures many emotions and drives many actions. Remembering the sacrifice of those that died is an honest and noble thing for society to do. It is important that war is not glorified and that we also remember the horror and the enduring shadow it leaves. The euphoric jingoistic concept of glory, adventure and defending the right, is merely a swirling leaf in the tornado war creates. The destruction of the participating individuals, their communities and families is its true legacy.
The Church bells peal in salute as they parade.
The bunting red, white and blue,
clad the road side walls in a cry of fond farewell.
A blackbird serenade shrills from hidden perch,
unseen deep within the sprawling Copper Beech.
Bright Forget-me-nots pin blue on grass.
The vibrant waving throng makes them swell with pride,
as they march toward the railway station,
a little puffing billy waiting to carry them away.
Tom feels such a man, standing five feet two.
He’d fooled the sergeant as he signed nineteen,
not a clue he’d added two, seventeen the week before.
Now he’s marching off to war,
an adventure beyond the river and the sea.
In the crowd he sees brother Harry (twelve).
Baby faced, adoring eyes and waving hand
makes Tom stand tall , “A Man”;
he’d grown another inch it seemed.
Lost, unseen, his mother bent and weeping,
beating blaming hands on father’s chest
as he passes, away from sight.
One week’s drudge, marching out the line,
bayonet practice, kit and drill.
Corporals bellowing loud commands
while they stand in the cold and mud,
hearing in the distance big guns retort.
Bunked in four all eager souls,
Tom and Taffy, John and Sprout,
waiting for their turn at Boche.
Morning wakes, “It’s on”, “We’re in”.
The shout is out; they’re on their way,
“Quickly now!” They pass up the line.
In reserve trench packed … they wait
like fattened beast, in frost, they stamp their feet,
The morning mists by shadows parted,
Silent wraiths drift amongst them.
Warriors returning from the line, but not tall with pride.
Heads lolling, sunken black the orbits of the eye,
Husk like, hollow, burnt deep
from seeing sights that can’t be seen.
Left hooded ghosts, shadowed on eyes once bright,
minds shocked so deep that only faint etched memories remain.
Echoes that still bend adolescent frames,
makes them old!
One taps a fag, and they move on and then are gone.
The four watch as they drift once more into fog.
Unaware that these men are manacled
by shared memories that shallow cheeks and mute their tongues.
Memories not repeated.
Constrained and held in minds so recent young,
to resurface and bind these men as slaves
to these muddy bloody fields forever.
These champing four see not the churning souls,
but tired noble comrades, who’d seen action.
Who in going, are giving them their turn,
their chance at glory.
An eager march to trench front line.
The corporal shouting, “Heads down boys”.
As they unleash the Morning Hate,
bang and crash, thunder shaking,
immediate a resonating reply.
Tom looks at John, crumpled pile!
Blood red spit from wretching mouth,
gasping gurgles from riddled lungs
and the butcher’s boy is gone.
Tom sees the joy of glory dance away
led by death in a leering jig.
The sounds, the bangs they deafen,
shells shake the ground and roar.
Screams of horror, the last gasps of the falling.
Manic mutterings of maddened minds,
closing ears, so they don’t hear.
The flash of light,
the conflagration of explosive sight.
Watching men around him broken.
Bodies ripped asunder by the fury of bloody war,
that over weeks makes eyes not see.
“Don’t look”; then no forgetting needed.
Six months and Sprout the costermonger’s son,
dead and gone, ground torn apart.
A hole where he had been,
not a piece left, to bury him for mum.
The cold that stiffens fingers,
the gnawing of long hunger,
the warm glimmer of home comfort,
as Taffy makes the tea.
No milk, No sugar, still a memory grasped.
The rain turns the ground to mud,
fills the boots where feet once were.
Glory gone, just despair, no end.
Hoar frost on barbed wire,
frozen crystals, wild patterns in the mud.
The smell of death in gun smoke hangs
acrid air robs taste and smell.
The muddy bloody fields of war
that muddle men like candy floss.
Enemies like brothers just across the way,
both reading Christmas cards from home.
Fireflies of hope shining in the dark,
singing carols to a God they share.
Playing football side by side;
then Full Time.
The whistle blows!
The captain shouts with pistol raised,
and over the top they go again.
Machine gun fire, shouts and screams,
comrades fall like dominoes, twitch like chickens,
then lie still in undignified repose.
Brave Eton loses yet another son.
Lights flash, smoke chokes, erupting roar.
Sight bright, sound loud.
The smell, the stench of human kind,
souls milked, bound in mud, hung on wire barbed.
Crash concussive swell, earth rises all around,
Taffy falls; a splash across Tom’s face.
Taffy’s brains in his eyes, he wipes them clean
and into open trench he dives.
There huddled, white faced, hands on ears; Boche;
frightened, childlike, lost in Dante’s well.
The echoes of the corporals words; “no prisoners today”!
The memory of Taffy, just gone, he rages in the loss,
Death sits upon his shoulder and loudly cheers him on.
Driving bayonet deep, twisting, ripping, tearing.
Pleading eyes look up, do they welcome quick release?
Disembowelling, steaming guts burst upon the floor.
The glaze of death fogs the stare,
Tom sees young Harry there.
He looks too long and from the dark a shadow drives,
bayonet into shoulder; Tom falls!
Too late to see the corporal shoot.
Waking he sees an angel looking down,
starched linen and smiling face,
human warmth not seen along.
He falls back into a wildly troubled sleep,
wakes in terror as the memories rise
and tear his soul to tatters.
He huddles in a corner,
in a pool of shit and piss.
Wiping Taffy’s brains from his face,
he stares down at Harry’s guts.
Steaming slop spread out before him.
He holds his head and SCREAMS!
Kathy of angelic face lifts him,
with words so soft she comforts him.
Guides him back to bed,
wipes his arse, redresses him.
Then with mop and bucket clears up the mess.
She turns and looks to see the shaking wreck;
like twenty more that week alone;
she shakes her head and murmurs,
“Best that they forget”.
The poetry tells the story of a boy, Tom, from a farming community who joins the army to fight in the First World War; he just wants to have an adventure and return a hero. He befriends three other young men who have the same zeal and enthusiasm. Even in the face of men returning from the trenches they can’t see the true horror awaiting them. Then they are thrown into the mix, the realisation of death, the lack of humanity and the torrid conditions of the trenches, where the only links to normality are the thoughts of home. Gradually he is worn down by the constant pressure and overwhelmed by despair. Then he kills a young German soldier (like himself) and in that young boy’s face he sees his own brother. This breaks him and he becomes a victim of shell shock; the unmarked and unnamed causalities of that war, a condition that Kitchener described as “a flaw in moral character”. The story is a reflection on horror of war and the waste of so many young lives.
The sculpture shows the face of Tom screaming, the barbed wire of the battlefield piercing his head and the blood of despair oozing between his fingers. In front of him are the squelching guts that he sees in his dreams falling from the German soldier he bayoneted, beside them are three red poppies alluding to his three chums killed before his eyes.
Next to the main piece is a fused glass image of Tom, anger gone and now riddled with despair. This is being swept up in a Red Cross dustpan, reflective of the way men with shellshock were just thrown on a rubbish heap. On the wall behind above the main piece is a picture of a limber (artillery shell carrier) returned from France for repair, behind the second piece a fully repaired limber. This brings into contrast firstly the effort made to repair material goods compared with that made to treat shell shocked men, secondly how relatively easy it is to repair material objects and how difficult to mend a damaged mind.
Compassion – these men were denied recognition as casualties of war; making compassion itself a casualty of war.