The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition

Field Ambulance in Retreat

Via Dolorosa, Via Sacra


A straight flagged road, laid on the rough earth,

A causeway of stone from beautiful city to city,

Between the tall trees, the slender, delicate trees,

Through the flat green land, by plots of flowers, by black canals thick with heat.


The road-makers made it well

Of fine stone, strong for the feet of the oxen and of the great Flemish horses,

And for the high wagons piled with corn from the harvest.

And the laborers are few;

They and their quiet oxen stand aside and wait

By the long road loud with the passing of the guns, the rush of armored cars and the tramp of an army on the march forward to battle;

And, where the piled corn-wagons went, our dripping Ambulance carries home

Its red and white harvest from the fields.


The straight flagged road breaks into dust, into a thin white cloud,

About the feet of a regiment driven back league by league,

Rifles at trail, and standards wrapped in black funeral cloths. Unhasting, proud in retreat,

They smile as the Red Cross Ambulance rushes by.

(You know nothing of beauty and of desolation who have not seen

That smile of an army in retreat.)

They go: and our shining, beckoning danger goes with them,

And our joy in the harvests that we gathered in at nightfall in the fields;

And like an unloved hand laid on a beating heart

Our safety weighs us down.

Safety hard and strange; stranger and yet more hard

As, league after dying league, the beautiful, desolate Land

Falls back from the intolerable speed of an Ambulance in retreat

On the sacred, dolorous Way.