The Great War

from Poems of the Great War, an electronic edition

The First Battle of Ypres1

Grey field of Flanders, grim old battle-plain,

What armies held the iron line round Ypres in the rain,

From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river?

Merry men of England,

Men of the green shires,

From the winding waters,

The elm-trees and the spires,

And the lone village dreaming in the downland yonder.

Half a million Huns broke over them in thunder,

Roaring seas of Huns swept on and sunk again,

Where fought the men of England round Ypres in the rain,

On the grim plain of Flanders, whose earth is fed with slaughter.

North-country fighting men from the mine and the loom,

Highlander and lowlander stood up to death and doom,

From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.

London men and Irish,

Indian men and French,

Charging with the bayonet,

Firing in the trench,

Fought in that furious fight, shoulder to shoulder.

Leapt from their saddles to charge in fierce disorder,

The Life Guards, mud and blood for the scarlet and the plume,

And they hurled back the foemen as the wind the sea spume,

From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.

But the huge Hun masses yet mounted more and more,

Like a giant wave gathering to whelm the sweet shore,

While swift the exultant foam runs on before and over.

Where that foam was leaping,

With bayonets, or with none,

The cooks and the service men

Ran upon the Hun.

The cooks and the service men charged and charged together

Moussy's cuirassiers, on foot, with spur and sabre;

Helmed and shining fought they as warriors fought of yore --

Till calm fell sinister as the hush at the whirlwind's core,

From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.

Lo! the Emperor launched on us his guard of old renown,

Stepping in parade-march, as they step through Berlin town,

On the chill road to Gheluveldt, in the dark before the dawning.

Heavily tolled on them

Mortal mouths of guns,

Gallantly, gallantly

Came the flower of the Huns.

Proud men they marched, like an avalanche on us falling,

Prouder men they met, in the dark before the dawning.

Seven to one they came against us to shatter us and drown,

One to seven in the woodland we fought them up and down.

In the sad November woodland, when all the skies were mourning.

The long battle thundered till a waxing moon might wane,

Thrice they broke the exhausted line that held them on the plain,

And thrice like billows they went back, from viewless bounds retiring.

Why paused they and went backward,

With never a foe before

Like a long wave dragging

Down a level shore

Its fierce reluctant surges, that came triumphant storming

The land, and powers invisible drive to its deep returning?

On the grey field of Flanders again and yet again

The Huns beheld the Great Reserves on the old battle-plain,

The blood-red field of Flanders, where all the skies were mourning.

The fury of their marshalled guns might plough no dreadful lane

Through those Reserves that waited in the ambush of the rain,

On the riven plain of Flanders, where hills of men lay moaning.

They hurled upon an army

The bellowing heart of Hell,

We saw but the meadows

Torn with their shot and shell.

We heard not the march of the succours that were coming,

Their old forgotten bugle-calls, the fifes and the drumming,

But they gathered and they gathered from the graves where they had lain

A hundred years, hundreds of years, on the old battle-plain,

And the young graves of Flanders, all fresh with dews of mourning.

Marlborough's men and Wellington's, the burghers of Courtrai,

The warriors of Plantagenet, King Louis' Gants glac├ęs --

And the young, young dead from Mons and the Marne river.

Old heroic fighting men,

Who fought for chivalry,

Men who died for England,

Mother of Liberty.

In the world's dim heart, where the waiting spirits slumber,

Sounded a roar when the walls were rent asunder

That parted Earth from Hell, and summoning them away,

Tremendous trumpets blew, as at the Judgment Day --

And the dead came forth, each to his former banner.

On the grim field of Flanders, the old battle plain,

Their armies held the iron line round Ypres in the rain,

From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.

Notes

1. Author's Note. -- In the first Battle of Ypres, which was fought in October-November, 1914, a thin line of British, supported on each wing by small bodies of French, stopped the push of an immense German army on Calais. The allusion in the latter part of the poem is not to "the angels of Mons," but to a story received from a very competent witness. On three occasions the Germans broke through our line, then paused and retired, for no apparent reason. On each of these occasions prisoners, when asked the cause of their retirement, replied: "We saw your enormous Reserves." We had no Reserves. This story was incidentally confirmed by the remark of another officer on the curious conduct of the Germans in violently shelling certain empty fields behind our lines.