by Robert Nichols
It is midday; the deep trench glares….
A buzz and blaze of flies….
The hot wind puffs the giddy airs….
The great sun rakes the skies.
No sound in all the stagnant trench
Where forty standing men
Endure the sweat and grit and stench,
Like cattle in a pen.
Sometimes a sniper's bullet whirs
Or twangs the whining wire,
Sometimes a soldier sighs and stirs
As in hell's frying fire.
From out a high, cool cloud descends
An aeroplane's far moan,
The sun strikes down, the thin cloud rends….
The black speck travels on.
And sweating, dazed, isolate
In the hot trench beneath,
We bide the next shrewd move of fate
Be it of life or death.
Softly in the silence the evening rain descends….
The soft wind lifts the rain-mist, flurries it, and spends
Itself in mournful sighs, drifting from field to field,
Soaking the draggled sprays which the low hedges wield
As they labour in the wet and the load of the wind.
The last light is dimming. Night comes on behind.
I hear no sound but the wind and the rain,
And trample of horses, loud and lost again
Where the wagons in the mist rumble dimly on
Bringing more shell.
The last gleam is gone.
It is not day or night; only the mists unroll
And blind with their sorrow the sight of my soul.
I hear the wind weeping in the hollow overhead:
She goes searching for the forgotten dead
Hidden in the hedges or trodden into muck
Under the trenches or maybe limply stuck
Somewhere in the branches of a high, lonely tree -
He was a sniper once. They never found his body.
I see the mist drifting. I hear the wind, the rain,
And on my clammy face the oozed breath of the slain
Seems to be blowing. Almost I have heard
In the shuddering drift the lost dead's last word:
Go home, go home, go to my house,
Knock at the door, knock hard, arouse
My wife and the children - that you must do -
What d' you say? - Tell the children too -
Knock at the door, knock hard, and arouse
The living. Say: the dead won't come back to this house.
Oh… but it's cold - I soak in the rain -
Shrapnel found me - I shan't go home again.
No, not home again - The mourning voices trail
Away into rain, into darkness… the pale
Soughing of the night drifts on in between.
The Voices were as if the dead had never been.
O melancholy heavens, O melancholy fields!
The glad, full darkness grows complete and shields
Me from your appeal.
With a terrible delight
I hear far guns low like oxen, at the night.
Flames disrupt the sky. The work is begun.
'Action!' My guns crash, flame, rock, and stun
Again and again. Soon the soughing night
Is loud with their clamour and leaps with their light.
The imperative chorus rises sonorous and fell:
My heart glows lighted as by fires of hell,
Sharply I pass the terse orders down.
The guns stun and rock. The hissing rain is blown
Athwart the hurtling shell that shrilling, shrilling goes
Away into the dark to burst a cloud of rose
Over their trenches.
A pause: I stand and see
Lifting into the night like founts incessantly,
The pistol-lights' pale spores upon the glimmering air…
Under them furrowed trenches empty, pallid, bare….
And rain snowing trenchward ghostly and white,
O dead in the hedges, sleep ye well to-night!