The Great War

from A Treasury of War Poetry, an electronic edition

The White Comrade

(After W. H. Leatham's The Comrade in White)

Under our curtain of fire,

Over the clotted clods,

We charged, to be withered, to reel

And despairingly wheel

When the bugles bade us retire

From the terrible odds.

As we ebbed with the battle-tide,

Fingers of red-hot steel

Suddenly closed on my side.

I fell, and began to pray.

I crawled on my hands and lay

Where a shallow crater yawned wide;

Then, -- I swooned....

When I woke, it was yet day.

Fierce was the pain of my wound,

But I saw it was death to stir,

For fifty paces away

Their trenches were.

In torture I prayed for the dark

And the stealthy step of my friend

Who, staunch to the very end,

Would creep to the danger zone

And offer his life as a mark

To save my own.

Night fell. I heard his tread,

Not stealthy, but firm and serene,

As if my comrade's head

Were lifted far from that scene

Of passion and pain and dread;

As if my comrade's heart

In carnage took no part;

As if my comrade's feet

Were set on some radiant street

Such as no darkness might haunt;

As if my comrade's eyes,

No deluge of flame could surprise,

No death and destruction daunt,

No red-beaked bird dismay,

Nor sight of decay.

Then in the bursting shells' dim light

I saw he was clad in white.

For a moment I thought that I saw the smock

Of a shepherd in search of his flock.

Alert were the enemy, too,

And their bullets flew

Straight at a mark no bullet could fail:

For the seeker was tall and his robe was bright;

But he did not flee nor quail.

Instead, with unhurrying stride

He came,

And gathering my tall frame,

Like a child, in his arms....

Again I swooned,

And awoke

From a blissful dream

In a cave by a stream.

My silent comrade had bound my side.

No pain now was mine, but a wish that I spoke, --

A mastering wish to serve this man

Who had ventured through hell my doom to revoke,

As only the truest of comrades can.

I begged him to tell me how best I might aid him,

And urgently prayed him

Never to leave me, whatever betide;

When I saw he was hurt --

Shot through he hands that were clasped in prayer!

Then, as the dark drops gathered there

And fell in the dirt,

The wounds of my friend

Seemed to me such as no man might bear.

Those bullet-holes in the patient hands

Seemed to transcend

All horrors that ever these war-drenched lands

Had known or would know till the mad world's end.

Then suddenly I was aware

That his feet had been wounded, too;

And, dimming the white of his side,

A dull stain grew.

"You are hurt, White Comrade!" I cried.

His words I already foreknew:

"These are old wounds," said he,

"But of late they have troubled me."