We used to stand on street corners
watching old men, fit for the slag heap,
wondering if that were it: destined for the pit.
We’d smoke our shag, curse everything
and spit. Not give a shit. Bored, we gave our names,
signed up – it would be a laugh: adventures,
on the bounty of The Crown. Might as well!
‘Make yer parents praad lad. See tha world.’
That were the bonus. They bought us beer enough
to float fear downriver, brought on girls
to trumpet sounds: strumpets from the local town,
to see us on our way. Three cheers for us, hooray!
The sick that slewed about the wagon boards
was nothing, we had seen before, nor
would compare to that we spewed at sea.
But this was just a taster, acrid in the mouth
of open trenches, where rats shared their bread
with us, and the mealy mouthed were shot
with salutary aim. Their sweetheart mothers, ours,
denied the knowing of their passage
out from hell. While all around, the apparitions
we had known mocked back at us
who stayed our ground.
Then came noon, and shells: percussive blasts that shatter
eardrums, as they scatter gases to the wind.
And glad we were to gulp that rancid air,
that caustic balm: to bring us closer,
ever closer, to our mothers’ arms,
closer to the clays we should have hewn.
Image ‘File:Cheshire Regiment trench Somme 1916.jpg’ by John Warwick Brooke re-used here under a Creative Commons licence.