War Poetry

The marching band came down along Main Street
The soldier blues fell in behind

O it was sad enough, weak enough, mad enough,
Light in their loving as soldiers can be.
First to risk choosing them, leave alone losing them
Now, in far battle, beyond the South Sea!

Rain came down drenchingly; but we unblenchingly
Trudged on beside them through mirk and through mire,
They stepping steadily – only too readily! –
Scarce as if stepping brought parting-time nigher.

I looked across and there I saw Billy
Waiting to go and join the line
And with her head upon his shoulder
His young and lovely fiancee

Great guns were gleaming there, living things seeming there,
Cloaked in their tar-cloths, upmouthed to the night;
Wheels wet and yellow from axle to felloe,
Throats blank of sound, but prophetic to sight.

Gas-glimmers drearily, blearily, eerily
Lit our pale faces outstretched for one kiss,
While we stood prest to them, with a last quest to them
Not to court perils that honour could miss.

From where I stood I saw she was crying
And through her tears I heard her say
Billy, don’t be a hero, don’t be a fool with your life
Billy, don’t be a hero, come back and make me your wife
And as he started to go she said, Billy, keep your head low
Billy, don’t be a hero, come back to me

Sharp were those sighs of ours, blinded these eyes of ours,
When at last moved away under the arch
All we loved. Aid for them each woman prayed for them,
Treading back slowly the track of their march.

Someone said: “Nevermore will they come: evermore
Are they now lost to us.” O it was wrong!
Though may be hard their ways, some Hand will guard their ways,
Bear them through safely, in brief time or long.

Yet, voices haunting us, daunting us, taunting us,
Hint in the night-time when life beats are low
Other and graver things . . . Hold we to braver things,
Wait we, in trust, what Time’s fulness shall show.

The soldier blues were trapped on a hillside
The battle raging all around
The sergeant cried, We’ve got to hang on, boys!
We’ve got to hold this piece of ground
I need a volunteer to ride up
And bring us back some extra men
And Billy’s hand was up in a moment
Forgetting all the words she said

I heard his fiancee got a letter that told
How Billy died that day
The letter said that he was a hero
She should be proud he died that way
I heard she threw
that letter

With apologies to Thomas Hardy, Mitch Murray and Peter Callander, this is a mix of “The Going of the Battery”, which I studied a long time ago in Eng. Lit. O Level, and “Billy Don’t Be A Hero” which charted for Paper Lace significantly before that, and which I cheerily danced to at parties, oblivious to the lyrical content.

About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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