“It’s time to roll the barbed wire out, boys!”
said the sergeant’s raspy singsong voice —
his Aberystwyth accent sending chuckles
down the line of threadbare, rain-soaked soldiers
(all around them potholes hissly smoulder)
scrambling in the mud with clouding breath.
[That day 3000 lads or more had met their death].
Old dirt buried in the etched-out wrinkles on his face
which glimmered like a stroboscope in tracer fire,
he played his part in loading up the funeral pyre.
With officers all dead, the sergeant was in charge
until the reinforcements had arrived to take
their place (they never did, as you shall shortly see).
He hadn’t slept for days and nor had we.
We pitched the wooden stakes deep in the mud
then wound the barbed wire round them carefully.
It’s strange how when your mind is broken down
that everything you see can take on suddenly
a meaning that you never in your life had seen before.
The barbed wire seemed just like a featherbed —
a prickly hammock stretched above the ground instead
A stutter from machine guns on the distant ridge
produced some thudly rendezvous in worn-out coats.
I knew that sound so well. Where once it fostered
fear and fright (especially so at night), it now became
a welcome friend, a lover even, sent to end the pain.
And here, under the rain, my best friend’s throat
was made into a sanguine work of art of note.
Still to this day I suffer shame for what I felt as
Matthew lay there writhing on that spikely bed —
his neck a sylvan gurgling brook of foaming red.
Instead of grief, my soul was filled with envy
that my dearest friend had been relieved of duty
for I wished that it was me — yet not so lovely he
would thus be free from death. I eyed him jealously!
Oh why should he be taken from this wretched plane
never to make love again or freeze or cry or smile
or question why or crack a joke about the mould
or rat shit in our food or act out lewdsome scenes
from music hall revues or write a fevered letter to
a girl who long since had forgotten how, inebriated,
they had danced on village greens at dawn, elated?
By then, I’d had enough of being a pawn on boards
drawn up by spies and generals sipping Vermouth
on the lawn at garden parties raking in the loot
from family shares in companies who made the wares
of war and more. You’ll find no valid glory here.
That’s merely made-up jingoness to hide the gore.
For those who truly run this world and make its laws
perpetuate the lie that soldiers fight for freedom
when there is none and there never was. Of that
they will make sure (though just to make you think
it’s true they’ll let you vote for vain assemblies on
some hill and tell you that’s “democracy” and you’ll
believe them — yes, you will!) And here, amidst the
litany of penile guns and futile tunnelled ratruns,
I am jealous of my friend who took one in the neck.
When sunrise comes, the magpies at his eyes will peck.
The charred and blackened bodies in the trench
were like the dirt embedded in the sergeant’s face
and everywhere the stench of rotting flesh
comingled with the fumes from bodies freshly
roasted on the sacrificial stone of war and there,
with blood and food and head lice in my hair,
I wondered what it all was for and longed to die.
I faced their guns and “Madness!” was my battlecry.
No reinforcements came that night nor ever did.
Our company was wiped out — all, save me.
We simply slid down deep into the dormant mud,
where things once lived and would again, though
something in me died that day with Matthew’s
screaming spurtling form which lay on barbed wire’s
featherbed — his tattered uniform his shroud, which
one day would be ploughed into a field with walls
as if no crime had ever happened there at all.
© Alan Morrison, 2014