Saturday, 2 July 2016

A Star My Soul To Mend

Yesterday saw First World War soldiers wandering the streets of Britain like ghosts from 100 years ago, back to the future. They drifted around singly and in groups, mingled with commuters at railway stations, strollers on promenades and shoppers in high streets and malls, but not one of them uttered a single word all day. Each soldier represented a specific individual. They handed out cards to passers-by. The cards simply stated the name, rank, regiment and age of the soldier they represented plus the legend: Died at the Somme on 1st July 1916. There were 19,240 of them, all killed on that one disastrous day. They screamed in unison at 6pm and were gone.

This week's theme is supposedly science-fiction but yesterday's theatre and the event it commemorates deserve to take precedence, so today's blog is about that war and more specifically the Battle of the Somme. To begin with, an excerpt from a song by the American band Semisonic. This is from 'Star', recorded in 1995. I would have liked  to include a link to an audio recording as it is a beautiful and moving performance, but I could find nothing online. (Track them down if you can, copies on request.) The lyrics are ambiguous but I've always taken them to refer to the last thoughts and hopes of a dying soldier. See what you think...


Star
I wandered in the moonlight
A ghost without a friend
All around me starlight fell on lost and wounded men
I know that I took some damage
I wanted to be home again
So I waited for a star my soul to mend
I waited for a star my soul to mend.

Star you're a beautiful sight,
Bring me your lovely light.
I'll be your satellite, satellite.

(Semisonic, 1995, from the album 'Pleasure')

A while back I wrote and blogged a poem about Winter at War. Here below is its companion piece, Summer At War, which I just completed on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Yesterday's soldiers may have preserved a ghostly silence but I've built this poem out of words and phrases extracted from a whole raft of contemporary eye-witness accounts. These are the voices and thoughts of the men of the Somme from a century ago. I hope that the way I have incorporated, shaped and extended them preserves their power and resonance.


Summer At War
For a week before, the whole land heaved
As ponderous masses of machinery roared.
Shells droned overhead like giant bumblebees,
Spiralled away and the air closed in with thunderclaps behind.
Then came the crashing, smashing, boring down
As they tore into the quivering earth of enemy lines.

Each night, star shells lit up the trenches bright as day.
Infernal fires flashed, flickered with swift tongues of flame,
The rosy smoke-cloud sky ablaze with lightning,
Screaming with artillery,
As the very ground beneath us shook.
This was the softening up.

When dawn broke it was beautiful. Larks were singing.
You knew it was coming and you wished to God
That it was over and done with, the last big push.

When the little hand of a wrist watch said 'it is now'
Then the whistles would blow
And over the top we would go,
Wave after wave of British infantry
Walking right on to Berlin and victory.

The signal was given at seven-thirty
And out of the trenches we soft machines poured.
They had told us to walk towards enemy lines
But we were met with barbed wire and machine-gun fire
And it wasn't like the practice at all.
Men were falling as skittles bowled over.
We were walking across but we couldn't get through.
Tangled bodies were caught up in the wire,
Naked torsos spiked, black stubble on pale, haggard faces
With machine-gun bullets whipping them round
Like washing hung on a line,
Only they were shrieking and their bowels were hanging down.

It was stupid, absolutely stupid. Mad charge after mad charge
And the machine-guns just mowed us all
Like so many pieces of wood.
Tall men got it through the jaw, shorter men through the eyes.
Machine-guns filled the shell-holes, the hell-holes,
With heaps of blinded, wounded, dead.
Flies in the face of adversity.

It was a frightful horror of fire and smoke and stink,
Of young lives with all the blood oozing out of them,
Nobody there to lift their head, not one,
Nobody there to care;
And men who couldn't die although they wanted to,
Condemned to painful hours of lingering, hopeless life,
Trembling as the terrible sound of death roared around,
Giving themselves up to the supreme importance
Of holding on tight to every yard of ground.

How pitiful and pitiless this war - actually more horrible
than words can describe.
And how to make sense of it all?
Twenty thousand dead in a single day.

Respect their sacrifice. Respect their memory.

Children, be proud of your fathers.
Mothers, be brave for your sons.
Everyone thinks they understand what this earth cost,
But the only people who really know
Are the ones who are lost.
They lie beneath it now.


Never forget! Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S ;-)
Reactions:

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Stunning.

Lady Curt said...

Every sentiment captured in your words. My paternal grandfather was wounded at the Somme..bayoneted in the neck...so it must have been close contact conflict too. He survived but unfortunately he died when I was a toddler and I don't remember him.

Annie Walton said...

I too am stunned Steve.....and feel too emotional to say much more at the moment....I hope you wont mind .....I know you will understand . x

Richard Booth said...

My grandfather survived that day, and the rest of that war. When I was young he showed me the scars in his leg where a German bayonet had gone through. I was too awed to ask what happened immediately afterwards. He went on to serve in the British expeditionary Force in the Second World War, and after making it back to Britain was given lighter duties, as he suffered from shell shock. As he was entitled, he made a claim for his condition. The government refused to pay up. He was one of the lucky ones.