The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition

He Went for a Soldier

He marched away with a blithe young score of him

With the first volunteers,

Clear-eyed and clean and sound to the core of him,

Blushing under the cheers.

They were fine, new flags that swung a-flying there,

Oh, the pretty girls he glimpsed a-crying there,

Pelting him with pinks and with roses

Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Not very clear in the kind young heart of him

What the fuss was about,

But the flowers and the flags seemed part of him --

The music drowned his doubt.

It's a fine, brave sight they were a-coming there

To the gay, bold tune they kept a-drumming there,

While the boasting fifes shrilled jauntily --

Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Soon he is one with the blinding smoke of it --

Volley and curse and groan:

Then he has done with the knightly joke of it --

It's rending flesh and bone.

There are pain-crazed animals a-shrieking there

And a warm blood stench that is a-reeking there;

He fights like a rat in a corner --

Billy, the Soldier Boy!

There he lies now, like a ghoulish score of him,

Left on the field for dead:

The ground all around is smeared with the gore of him

Even the leaves are red.

The Thing that was Billy lies a-dying there,

Writhing and a-twisting and a-crying there;

A sickening sun grins down on him --

Billy, the Soldier Boy!

Still not quite clear in the poor, wrung heart of him

What the fuss was about,

See where he lies -- or a ghastly part of him --

While life is oozing out:

There are loathsome things he sees a-crawling there;

There are hoarse-voiced crows he hears a-calling there,

Eager for the foul feast spread for them --

Billy, the Soldier Boy!

How much longer, O Lord, shall we bear it all?

How many more red years?

Story it and glory it and share it all,

In seas of blood and tears?

They are braggart attitudes we've worn so long;

They are tinsel platitudes we've sworn so long --

We who have turned the Devil's Grindstone,

Borne with the hell called War!