The Great War

from A Treasury of War Poetry, an electronic edition

Between the Lines

When consciousness came back, he found he lay

Between the opposing fires, but could not tell

On which hand were his friends; and either way

For him to turn was chancy -- bullet and shell

Whistling and shrieking over him, as the glare

Of searchlights scoured the darkness to blind day.

He scrambled to his hands and knees ascare,

Dragging his wounded foot through puddled clay,

And tumbled in a hole a shell had scooped

At random in a turnip-field between

The unseen trenches where the foes lay cooped

Through that unending battle of unseen,

Dead-locked, league-stretching armies; and quite spent

He rolled upon his back within the pit,

And lay secure, thinking of all it meant --

His lying in that little hole, sore hit,

But living, while across the starry sky

Shrapnel and shell went screeching overhead --

Of all it meant that he, Tom Dodd, should lie

Among the Belgian turnips, while his bed...

If it were he, indeed, who'd climbed each night,

Fagged with the day's work, up the narrow stair,

And slipt his clothes off in the candle-light,

Too tired to fold them neatly in a chair

The way his mother'd taught him -- too dog-tired

After the long day's serving in the shop,

Inquiring what each customer required,

Politely talking weather, fit to drop...

And now for fourteen days and nights, at least,

He had n't had his clothes off, and had lain

In muddy trenches, napping like a beast

With one eye open, under sun and rain

And that unceasing hell-fire...

It was strange

How things turned out -- the chances! You'd just got

To take your luck in life, you could n't change

Your luck.

And so here he was lying shot

Who just six months ago had thought to spend

His days behind a counter. Still, perhaps...

And now, God only knew how he would end!

He'd like to know haw many of the chaps

Had won back to the trench alive, when he

Had fallen wounded and been left for dead,

If any!...

This was different, certainly,

From selling knots of tape and reels of thread

And knots of tape and reels of thread and knots

Of tape and reels of thread and knots of tape,

Day in, day out, and answering "Have you got"'s

And "Do you keep"'s till there seemed no escape

From everlasting serving in a shop,

Inquiring what each customer required,

Politely talking weather, fit to drop,

With swollen ankles, tired...

But he was tired

Now. Every bone was aching, and had ached

For fourteen days and nights in that wet trench --

Just duller when he slept than when he waked --

Crouching for shelter from the steady drench

Of shell and shrapnel...

That old trench, it seemed

Almost like home to him. He'd slept and fed

And sung and smoked in it, while shrapnel screamed

And shells went whining harmless overhead --

Harmless, at least, as far as he...

But Dick --

Dick had n't found them harmless yesterday,

At breakfast, when he'd said he could n't stick

Eating dry bread, and crawled out the back way,

And brought them butter in a lordly dish --

Butter enough for all, and held it high,

Yellow and fresh and clean as you would wish --

When plump upon the plate from out the sky

A shell fell bursting... Where the butter went,

God only knew!...

And Dick... He dared not think

Of what had come to Dick... or what it meant --

The shrieking and the whistling and the stink

He'd lived in fourteen days and nights. 'T was luck

That he still lived... And queer how little then

He seemed to care that Dick... perhaps 't was pluck

That hardened him -- a man among the men --

Perhaps... Yet, only think things out a bit,

And he was rabbit-livered, blue with funk!

And he'd liked Dick... and yet when Dick was hit,

He hadn't turned a hair. The meanest skunk

He should have thought would feel it when his mate

Was blown to smithereens -- Dick, proud as punch,

Grinning like sin, and holding up the plate --

But he had gone on munching his dry hunch,

Unwinking, till he swallowed the last crumb.

Perhaps 't was just because he dared not let

His mind run upon Dick, who'd been his chum.

He dared not now, though he could not forget.

Dick took his luck. And, life or death, 't was luck

From first to last; and you'd just got to trust

Your luck and grin. It was n't so much pluck

As knowing that you'd got to, when needs must,

And better to die grinning...

Quiet now

Had fallen on the night. On either hand

The guns were quiet. Cool upon his brow

The quiet darkness brooded, as he scanned

The starry sky. He'd never seen before

So many stars. Although, of course, he'd known

That there were stars, somehow before the war

He'd never realised them -- so thick-sown,

Millions and millions. Serving in the shop,

Stars didn't count for much; and then at nights

Strolling the pavements, dull and fit to drop,

You didn't see much but the city lights.

He'd never in his life seen so much sky

As he'd seen this last fortnight. It was queer

The things war taught you. He'd a mind to try

To count the stars -- they shone so bright and clear.

One, two, three, four... Ah, God, but he was tired...

Five, six, seven, eight...

Yes, it was number eight.

And what was the next thing that she required?

(Too bad of customers to come so late,

At closing time!) Again within the shop

He handled knots of tape and reels of thread,

Politely talking weather, fit to drop...

When once again the whole sky overhead

Flared blind with searchlights, and the shriek of shell

And scream of shrapnel roused him. Drowsily

He stared about him, wondering. Then he fell

Into deep dreamless slumber.

He could see

Two dark eyes peeping at him, ere he knew

He was awake, and it again was day --

An August morning, burning to clear blue.

The frightened rabbit scuttled...

Far away,

A sound of firing... Up there, in the sky

Big dragon-flies hung hovering... Snowballs burst

About them... Flies and snowballs. With a cry

He crouched to watch the airmen pass -- the first

That he'd seen under fire. Lord, that was pluck --

Shells bursting all about them -- and what nerve!

They took their chance, and trusted to their luck

At such a dizzy height to dip and swerve,

Dodging the shell-fire...

Hell! but one was hit,

And tumbling like a pigeon, plump...

Thank Heaven,

It righted, and then turned; and after it

The whole flock followed safe -- four, five, six, seven,

Yes, they were all there safe. He hoped they'd win

Back to their lines in safety. They deserved,

Even if they were Germans... 'T was no sin

To wish them luck. Think how that beggar swerved

Just in the nick of time!

He, too, must try

To win back to the lines, though, likely as not,

He'd take the wrong turn: but he could n't lie

Forever in that hungry hole and rot,

He'd got to take his luck, to take his chance

Of being sniped by foes or friends. He'd be

With any luck in Germany or France

Or Kingdom-come, next morning...

Drearily

The blazing day burnt over him, shot and shell

Whistling and whining ceaselessly. But light

Faded at last, and as the darkness fell

He rose, and crawled away into the night.