The Great War

from A Treasury of War Poetry, an electronic edition

The Road to Dieppe

[Concerning the experiences of a journey on foot through the night of August 4, 1914 (the night alter the formal declaration of war between England and Germany), from a town near Amiens, in France, to Dieppe, a distance of somewhat more than forty miles.]

Before I knew, the Dawn was on the road,

Close at my side, so silently he came

Nor gave a sign of salutation, save

To touch with light my sleeve and make the way

Appear as if a shining countenance

Had looked on it. Strange was this radiant Youth,

As I, to these fair, fertile parts of France,

Where Cæsar with his legions once had passed,

And where the Kaiser's Uhlans yet would pass

Or e'er another moon should cope with clouds

For mastery of these same fields. -- To-night

(And but a month has gone since I walked there)

Well might the Kaiser write, as Cæsar wrote,

In his new Commentaries on a Gallic war,

"Fortissimi Belgæ." -- A moon ago!

Who would have then divined that dead would lie

Like swaths of grain beneath the harvest moon

Upon these lands the ancient Belgæ held,

From Normandy beyond renowned Liège! --

But it was out of that dread August night

From which all Europe woke to war, that we,

This beautiful Dawn-Youth, and I, had come,

He from afar. Beyond grim Petrograd

He'd waked the moujik from his peaceful dreams,

Bid the muezzin call to morning prayer

Where minarets rise o'er the Golden Horn,

And driven shadows from the Prussian march

To lie beneath the lindens of the stadt.

Softly he'd stirred the bells to ring at Rheims,

He'd knocked at high Montmartre, hardly asleep,

Heard the sweet carillon of doomed Louvain,

Boylike, had tarried for a moment's play

Amid the traceries of Amiens,

And then was hast'ning on the road to Dieppe,

When he o'ertook me drowsy from the hours

Through which I'd walked, with no companions else

Than ghostly kilometer posts that stood

As sentinels of space along the way. --

Often, in doubt, I'd paused to question one,

With nervous hands, as they who read Moon-type;

And more than once I'd caught a moment's sleep

Beside the highway, in the dripping grass,

While one of these white sentinels stood guard,

Knowing me for a friend, who loves the road,

And best of all by night, when wheels do sleep

And stars alone do walk abroad. -- But once

Three watchful shadows, deeper than the dark,

Laid hands on me and searched me for the marks

Of traitor or of spy, only to find

Over my heart the badge of loyalty. --

With wish for bon voyage they gave me o'er

To the white guards who led me on again.

Thus Dawn o'ertook me and with magic speech

Made me forget the night as we strode on.

Where'er he looked a miracle was wrought:

A tree grew from the darkness at a glance;

A hut was thatched; a new château was reared

Of stone, as weathered as the church at Cæn;

Gray blooms were coloured suddenly in red;

A flag was flung across the eastern sky. --

Nearer at hand, he made me then aware

Of peasant women bending in the fields,

Cradling and gleaning by the first scant light,

Their sons and husbands somewhere o'er the edge

Of these green-golden fields which they had sowed,

But will not reap, -- out somewhere on the march,

God but knows where and if they come again.

One fallow field he pointed out to me

Where but the day before a peasant ploughed,

Dreaming of next year's fruit, and there his plough

Stood now mid-field, his horses commandeered,

A monstrous sable crow perched on the beam.

Before I knew, the Dawn was on the road,

Far from my side, so silently he went,

Catching his golden helmet as he ran,

And hast'ning on along the dun straight way,

Where old men's sabots now began to clack

And withered women, knitting, led their cows,

On, on to call the men of Kitchener

Down to their coasts, -- I shouting after him:

"O Dawn, would you had let the world sleep on

Till all its armament were turned to rust,

Nor waked it to this day of hideous hate,

Of man's red murder and of woman's woe!"

Famished and lame, I came at last to Dieppe,

But Dawn had made his way across the sea,

And, as I climbed with heavy feet the cliff,

Was even then upon the sky-built towers

Of that great capital where nations all,

Teuton, Italian, Gallic, English, Slav,

Forget long hates in one consummate faith.

Notes

[Concerning the experiences of a journey on foot through the night of August 4, 1914 (the night alter the formal declaration of war between England and Germany), from a town near Amiens, in France, to Dieppe, a distance of somewhat more than forty miles.]