Category Archives: World War 1 – 100 Years On

The One-Shilling Blanket [ Royal Welch Fusiliers, Palestine 1916 ]

Dear Mrs Williams

It is with heavy heart I write this note
Just to you his grieving mother
Your son before he died had smote
The foe, like many a brother.

But he has gladly died a hero’s death
Alike with many of his squad
And we have missed his manly breath
When recommending him to God.

But we’ve buried him here in Palestine
And at this point I have to say
There’s the cost of his blanket fine
So a shilling less in his pay.

I’m loath, so loath to add to your grieving
The blanket costing one shilling
Wrapped up your son for his leaving
Laid then to his rest, unwilling.

Well Dear Captain, in writing back to you
Tell me why was his shilling docked?
I’m alone with my heart in two
Grieved close unto death and so shocked.

So I’ve lost my dear son for evermore
And now also lost his shilling
May God above like me deplore
The deduction and his killing.

Oh, the shocking cruelty of the burial day
With the shroud deducted from the dead boy’s pay.

 


An imagined exchange of letters concerning this actual event. The Mother’s reply scalded with tears…… and from my eyes also, 102 years later. Was this deduction of pay typical of British Army practice at that time or perhaps peculiar to the Royal Welch Regiment?

 

Daniel Slaughterhouse WW1 1917

Daniel Slaughterhouse
As small as a mouse
Entered the fray
So small and grey
And licked his lips
Straightened his hips
As he peered about
Screamed a shout
At advancing Gerry
Coming in haste to bury
Daniel and all his mates
Flatten them to dinner plates.

Of a sudden, an arriving sound
Came sprouting all around
And shells like confetti fell
Introducing sickening Hell
Amid poor German Daniels
Screaming as mad spaniels.

While from the blooded smoke
Arose one enemy bloke
Reddened and just tottering
As if out garden pottering
Forward and towards us came
And even though it was a shame
We chopped him down all riddled
And from his corpse blood fiddled.

“Well, Danny, you’ve succeeded
Though soon you will be needed
So watch out smartish all around
Straining for the slightest sound
Of their last Daniels stumbling
Make sure you send ‘em tumbling.”

But timid Daniel dazed and shocked
His notion of the world unfrocked
Chastened to his quivering soul
Leant against the trench’s pole
Chattering and spouting drivel
A mate in fury, “Stop yer snivel!”
And caught Dan’s dishevelled head
Now crumpled, sobbing as he bled
Rumours of taking Bourlon Wood
Generals may help, if they could.

And on the horrid, deadly morrow
A bitter day awash with sorrow
Here is Daniel with his bandaged head
Yet a German sniper saw instead
Other boys and other souls
In other places, other holes
The sniper sent apace to heaven
Six lads of ours or maybe seven
But Daniel’s head survived the day
When impish Satan came to play.

And through the weeks of deadliness
Crucifying man’s manliness
Daniel led a blessed life
Where Death was loving as a wife
Until his Unit left the front at last
With friends of his left in the past
He had survived the fearful storm
In truth, a credit to his uniform
Yet he saw that Death had played
A Roulette game Hate had made.

Our Daniel cried, imploring mercy
With Ed and Jim and brother Percy
For dreadful deeds that they had seen
The world aghast at what had been.
“Mercy, mercy, Lord we pray
And drive foul devils far away
Take all our fallen brethren in
Freed from terror, freed from sin
Take in too our fallen foes
Freed like us as Heaven knows
And may those who caused this war
Remain bestained for evermore.”

A hundred years have sighed and passed
And all the boys have gone at last
None to set accusation flying
None to hear pained widows crying
But still a few, like me, will fight
To pierce the dark, let in fierce light
On rulers spewing out such madness
Igniting universal sadness
Who sidled past their fearsome crimes
Emerged as heroes of the times
And lived lives touched with luxury
Crushing white bones of history.

Let Christ bring true judgment to us here
Before we too are no longer near.


Bourlon Wood – at one point, our infantry had to cross open
ground in full view of the German defenders. Rather suicidal,
one might think.

The wood became infamous, to the British and Canadians as well
as the Germans, for the terrifying casualty rates on both sides.
Oh, the insanity of it all……. their Daniels and our Daniels.

When Last You Called My Name I Wasn’t There

When last you called my name I wasn’t there
My soul is flown, spread fine across the wind
Cast up towards the stars yet freed from pain
Lost to human life and blown beyond repair.

So when you in tears sit choking on the stair
And press my image to your faltering heart
Think not that I, willing, have flown from you
When having called my name, I am not there.

Fevered, floundering mud the dying clawed
No more clogs my annihilated, boyish limbs
Since I from you am parted, freely leaping
Unbodied now and formless, seek the Lord.

A soldier boy was I at Passchendaele
Now vapour in a moistly spattering hail.

 

(This boy was unmade at Passchendaele and is no more.)

 

The Day The Dead Passed By

Out from the shadows the marching men
Thumbs up and laughing passed by
But I feared as I lived I’d not see ’em again
They’d been sent to this place just to die.

For these were our boys in youthful blush
With ammo strapped hard to their chests
Marching as one they passed in a rush
While Death smiles and never protests.

In alarm came the rattle of returning souls
Death prodding onward his charred brigade
This is the place where the scythe patrols
And I wept for I was sore dismayed.

Then Death returned and spat bile in my face
In triumph at the betrayal of our human race.

 


The Third Battle of Ypres, now known as Passchendaele, followed the Somme
into inglorious annals for the fearful killing and wounding of so many of
our boys* and young men serving on the Western Front exactly 100 years ago.

Ten battalions of The King’s Regt [Liverpool] fought at Passchendaele, along
with so many other regiments of the British Army.

The battle involved millions of troops from both sides fighting for Passchendaele
Ridge and surrounding areas from 31st July until 10th November 1917.

Casualty figures were truly appalling, with the British and Germans together losing
In excess of 500,000 troops killed and wounded. Virtually nothing was gained
yet so many were lost.

May those who perpetrated this vile horror, from both sides, be swathed in guilt
and infamy for evermore.

* Many 14-year-olds served at the Front, including the father of a family friend
who was trained, sent to the front, received a shrapnel head wound
and was repatriated home all before his 15th birthday!

 

Singly And By Multitude The Poppies Come

[Monday, 10th November 2014 – at the Tower of London]

On finding you
Standing proud
A single, scarlet poppy
Quite ceramic
Not waving
At the loving crowd
Who come but tenderly
In droves, remembering
With inward tears
Lost youth
The splintered age
Still jabbing accusation
At such monstrous waste
Of precious souls.

Today through misty rain
We shuffled by
In dense, wet thousands
With shallow smiles
For those close to
Yet cut and severed
In a sorrow borne
Across this century
Of flinty years
Redeeming us
By thoughts for those
Shaped quite like flowers
Yet sightless
As our shattered boys.

The stricken, weeping Tower
With seeping wound
Spills rushing blood
Below us
That does an ocean make
Of our most fearful loss
And searing pity
Transforming now
This sea of bloody red
To come alive
And make these lads
Spring boyishly
From lifeless form
To vivid, glorious life.

 

Albert of Liverpool

Poem 1 Uncle Albert – The Unlived Life

We called him ‘Uncle’ although he wasn’t that
For he lived next door and wore a trilby hat
And for fifty years being the fast-walking dead
He walked all day with a shell-shocked head.

He’s absent from any war memorial stone
Although no memorial could ever atone
For the shell-shocked Hell of a life imploding
Immense percussions of close shells exploding.

Unlooking eyes with unwavering gaze
And seeming trapped in a deadly daze
He stared ahead, quite straight ahead
The staring stare of the living dead.

Poor Albert marched each day around our City
And in many broken hearts there welled up pity
This tall, unseeing ghost in trilby hat and gabardine
Silent witness to a war that should never have been.

While I as a child with my unseeing eyes
Never aware of Albert’s hidden cries
As he daily marches for fifty long years
Only now I see, through a veil of tears.

 

Albert of Liverpool

Poem 2 The Staring Man

From his sister’s house steps out the staring man
Shocked speechless by the juddering shells
Some fifty years before
Seeing not the playing child
Who, studying the ramrod man but fleetingly
Sees him marching ahead and only ahead
Towards his daily, unconnected world again.

Only now does the former child
Sense perhaps the fearful prison
That held poor Albert
In its savage grip
For fifty years.

And the child of those far distant days
Now weeps for him.

Amen.


Should Bobby, Margery or Raymond read these two poems about their uncle, I would love to hear from them. Ric.

 

The Dark Lord Cometh [1914]

And the Dark Lord cometh
Across the heavens
Vaulting empires
Across mountains
Burning cultures
Seeking peaceful people
Unaware
Of the arrival of ravening Death.

But the Dark Lord is amongst them
Joyous
Sated
Wading in the grotesqueness
Of his overwhelming hatred
And Satanic will
To lay waste the trembling bodies
Of the youngest, early-dying boys and men.

What joy, what satisfaction has this Lord
That the fifty fools who rule
Old Europe
Are so held
In the palms of his avenging claws
That their horrid pride and pomp
Execute so sweetly
The Dark Lord’s will.

Armed with ploughshares heated
Twisted, riveted, re-formed
And darkened
Into terrible implements of war
Men still hoarsely call
For blessings from the Dear Lord Jesus
That they may slip untouched
Through the biting, thirsty, bullety steel
That seeks to make nothing of what has been
Annihilating utterly, utterly
Any continuation of life itself.

Drink deep, mighty Lord
Thy time is now
Thy time has come
When men shall be swept
Into the pit of Annihilation
And junketing madmen
Clad as generals, kings and marshals
Tolerate no thought of pause
No thought other than victory
Whatever, whatsoever
The cost in human souls.

May this nightmare damn such fools
And warn the present brazen madmen
That the Dark Lord is never
Gone forever, only absent
Quieted in our present thoughts.

The Dark Lord cometh
And he may come again.

 

 

We Had To Go To War [1914]

Let all those historians now abroad
Telling us this Great War was just
Take note
I’m sending you to represent us
In the field, so to speak.

Except, of course, the field has disappeared
Along with every tree and hedge and nearly every rat
So you’ll do well to land heavily on a plank
And not in an oozing waste of mud and membrane
Just fancy that!

You said yourself that this Great War just needed to be fought
So it’s only right that you yourself shall fiercely risk
Your soft and puny body, oh so easily pierced
By Spandau or savagely speeding shrapnel
Rendering all your earnest thoughts missing in action.

Presumed dead.

 

The Dead Don’t Count

The piled up sandstone names
Carved there, glaring
Aghast at how their sacrifice
Is wasted, profligately.

Their sandstone voices shunned
Their calls unheard
Barking condemnation
At the shallow makers
Of national policy
Who, unmindful of them
Steer our country towards
Rocks of madness.

And yet with honeyed words
And sleeky mouthings
Our politicians
Duck, bow and bob
Their creaking, glassy shoes
Immaculate
Twinned with gloating suits
Parading opulence.

Polished faces feign reverence
Of our youthful dead
For sly policy, lies and betrayal
Nullify past sacrifice and love.

 

Blind Faith: 1914

 

[Condemning the Guilty Hierarchy of One Hundred Years Ago]

 

When I at last surmount the top in hasty, tumbling terror

And perish in a screaming hail of hurtling, furious steel

I trust my General weeps at my devastating, fatal error

As he witnessed me, but how sadly did he generally feel?

 

You fool! Do you think your General generally acts heroic?

And casts his precious body uncomplaining in line of fire?

He keeps aloof from fiery Death because he acts the Stoic

For blood, mud and body parts would soil his grand attire.

 

He is retired a couple of dozen miles in some sweet Chateau

Attended by splendid, fully fledged moustaches by the dozen

Never thinks Old Nick schemes to entertain him down below

Who hopes to learn the General’s secret and call him ‘cousin’.

 

That secret being a steely, unquenchable belief in sacrificing men

To grind a hundred yards of ground that bleeds the blood of boys

Baleful with Staff, alive to croissants and Champers by half-past ten

Still marshalling regimental remnants to execute other crazy ploys.

 

Our Tommies told many times of their churning, burning passions

Of lice and rats and officers, targets of their bitter, everlasting fury

But not the German boys who, like ours, fodder in princely fashions

Waved off to handclasp Death in a cycle still not examined by a jury.

 

 

An Aftermath of Tears

Present arms! The spectral sergeant of the drill echoing across the punished land

As rustlings of grim murmuring sprang like odour from the choking, weeping grass

Then add our legs, our knees, our feet, our eyes and ears and much more to hand’

 

The dead, fragmented whisperers said.

 

And so, this army of the dead heaved sighs and blindly shuffled as it came to pass.

 

[ Visiting a WW1 battlefield and discerning the whisperings ]

.

From This World to the Next: 1917

Ripped from shoulder to waist by villainous shrapnel

Lay the lad

In his own cooling pool of blood, pleading to be shot

Prayed the lad.

 

As I watched, Death absorbed him as many another

But not before his call of surprise and joy for ‘Mother!’

Cried the lad

As he understood she waited there, quite beyond us

Beyond us here in the rampaging terror of awful war.

God Bless, my lad.

 

 

(Inspired by a passage in Harry Patch’s ‘Last Fighting Tommy’; P94)

Sgt Harold Slocombe RHA

Sgt Harold Slocombe RHA

 

Great-Uncle Harold, who lived until two weeks before his 106th birthday, recounted his experiences on the Western Front.

 

It was he who told us of the troops’ three main hatreds in the terrifying conditions in which they found themselves in the trenches or with the artillery to the immediate rear.   Surprisingly, the German troops were not in the top three!   As with Harry Patch in his outstanding autobiography ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, Harold’s mates saw the German lads as being in the same dreadful position as themselves.   Of course, they had to fight but their fury was directed at targets on our side of the barbed wire; the lice, the rats and their own officers.

 

A sergeant in the Royal Horse Artillery, Harold, along with others, was called upon to crawl up to the front-line trenches when communications with the Artillery were damaged, dragging replacement wire. Usually he and the others were told to go away in the choicest language by their own troops, as any detected movement brought more shelling.   Although wounded himself three times, Harold still referred to the boys in the trenches as the PBI, – poor, bloody infantry.

 

Born 1892 in Liverpool, he was a Territorial undergoing manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain when war was declared in August 1914.   His RHA unit immediately returned to Liverpool and were housed in tents in one of the City’s parks. As their guns were those of the Boer War, the Unit didn’t reach the front line until they were re-equipped, early in 1915.   Once there, Harold survived everything until the end of the War.

  

In common with so many other soldiers who saw terrible things, he remained quiet and modest about his exploits.  Until his unexpected death in 1998, he had a crystal clear mind and possessed great dignity   I say his death was unexpected as a loving tribute to him, for he had been in excellent health and appeared indestructible.   Harold, along with such as Harry Patch, were voices surviving to shout accusation at those responsible for the appalling decision to go to war, condemning millions of our countrymen to fight in what became known as The Great War, the most terrifying in European history.  We are all aware that those who took the decision to wage war were those who remained furthest from the field of battle!

 

Harold’s third close encounter with the Grim Reaper was in 1918.   By then, the Germans had perfected their technique for identifying British gun positions and quickly destroying them.  The British countered by hastily moving their guns to new positions after a short period of shelling and to do this they required the horses to quickly re-position the guns.   On one occasion, Harold was on the lead horse of thirty-six horses and in sole charge!   He heard the shell coming over, the explosion and of being hit by shrapnel.  The horse he was riding sensed that Harold had been hit, panicked and bolted, dragging the other thirty-five horses along.   Amazingly, none of the horses was hit, just Harold.   Fortunately, pals managed to restrain the horses and Harold was shipped back to hospital in Canterbury and was still in hospital when the cease-fire was declared.   As he recovered, he was informed that he would be returning to France in charge of a gang of Chinese labourers to help clear the battlefield!   He complained that as he had spent most of the War on or near the front line, it was unreasonable to ask him to do this.   His resentment, along presumably with many others, resulted in a change of heart by the ridiculous authorities, who then decreed that clearing the battlefields was to be undertaken only by men who had not served at the Front.      

 

Harold’s 105th Birthday Party

 

In October 1997, the North West Section of the WW1 Veterans’ Association arranged Harold’s 105th Birthday Party, inviting four veterans along with other guests.  The  combined years of the five veterans came to more than 500!   All five were glittering company and enjoyed recounting their stories for the assembled guests at the care home where Harold lived.   One of them was Mick, also from Liverpool, who had been a sniper.   It so happened that the home’s dog, Heidi, was an Alsatian cross, a lovely gentle dog much loved by the residents.   A male care-worker at the home whispered to me that on no account was anyone to tell Mick that Heidi was German, otherwise Mick would shoot her!   In cold print this might not appear as hilarious as it did at that moment, when we had with us five inspiring survivors of the trenches.

 

Each of the veterans told of horrifying experiences but the story I most remember concerned the night before the cease-fire.   An officer told a particular Company that in all likelihood the cease fire would come in the morning but that still meant some men would have to patrol in no-man’s land that night.   He called for volunteers but no one would.  One of our veterans was selected by the officer to go out on patrol.  With his mate, he slithered out and they made their way to a crater where they hid.   For some reason they didn’t feel safe and decided to move to another crater.   As they kept low in their new position, the German artillery fired some of the final shots of the War, hitting the cratered area they had just left.  A fantastic last minute escape that he was able to recount at Harold’s party, 79 years later.