No thorny crown, only a woollen cap
He wore—an English soldier, white and strong,
Who loved his time like any simple chap,
Good days of work and sport and homely song;
Now he has learned that nights are very long,
And dawn a watching of the windowed sky.
But to the end, unjudging, he’ll endure
Horror and pain, not uncontent to die
That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure.
He faced me, reeling in his weariness,
Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear.
I say that he was Christ, who wrought to bless
All groping things with freedom bright as air,
And with His mercy washed and made them fair.
Then the flame sank, and all grew black as pitch,
While we began to struggle along the ditch;
And some one flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: “O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!”
Shaken from sleep, and numbed and scarce awake,
Out in the trench with three hours’ watch to take,
I blunder through the splashing mirk; and then
Hear the gruff muttering voices of the men
Crouching in cabins candle-chinked with light.
Hark! There’s the big bombardment on our right
Rumbling and bumping; and the dark’s a glare
Of flickering horror in the sectors where
We raid the Boche; men waiting, stiff and chilled,
Or crawling on their bellies through the wire.
“What? Stretcher-bearers wanted? Some one killed?”
Five minutes ago I heard a sniper fire:
Why did he do it?... Starlight overhead—
Blank stars. I’m wide-awake; and some chap’s dead.
“Pass it along, the wiring party’s going
And yawning sentries mumble, “Wirers going out.”
Unravelling; twisting; hammering stakes with muffled thud,
They toil with stealthy haste and anger in their blood.
The Boche sends up a flare. Black forms stand
Stock-still like posts; then darkness, and the clumsy ghosts
Stride hither and thither, whispering, tripped by clutching snare
Of snags and tangles.
Ghastly dawn with vaporous coasts
Gleams desolate along the sky, night’s misery ended.
Young Hughes was badly hit; I heard him carried away,
Moaning at every lurch; no doubt he’ll die to-day.
But we can say the front-line wire’s been safely mended.
There seemed a smell of autumn in the air
At the bleak end of night; he shivered there
In a dank, musty dug-out where he lay,
Legs wrapped in sand-bags,—lumps of chalk and clay
Spattering his face. Dry-mouthed, he thought, “To-day
We start the damned attack; and, Lord knows why,
Zero’s at nine; how bloody if I’m done in
Under the freedom of that morning sky!”
And then he coughed and dozed, cursing the din.