Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Tommy Rot: WWI Poetry They Didn't Let You Read

by John Sadler and Rosie Serdville
The History Press, December 1, 2013
David Beer, Reviewer

The General inspecting the trenches
Exclaimed with a horrified shout,
"I refuse to command a Division
Which leaves its excreta about.

I admit I picked up this small paperback some time ago with the expectation of enjoying some spicy poetry by ordinary soldiers of World War One. However, the only slightly "naughty" piece in the whole book is the quite well known "The General Inspecting the Trenches" by A.P. Herbert, where we meet that personification of poop, General Shute.

But the book wasn't a disappointment. Its 160 pages contain poems and doggerel by a few noted poets but mostly anonymous soldiers, plus some interesting and humorous prose and a few color plates as well as black and white illustrations. The authors give brief background sketches of major events and situations as they go along. The book's six chapters are arranged by year, with each year described by one word: 1. Expectation, 2. Resignation, 3. Death, 4. Mud, 5. Home Front, and 6. Victory.

At the outbreak of war, anticipation was high. John Oxenham could confidently begin a poem with

As sure as God's in his heaven
As sure as he stands for right,
As sure as the Hun this wrong hath done,
So surely we win this fight!

It didn't take long for reality to set in, as we all know. Soon an anonymous recruit would ruefully write:

I heard the bugles callin' an' join I felt I must,
Now I wish I'd let them go on blowin' till they bust!

Parody was always fair game, often based on popular songs. Several men described trench life using this model, entitled "My little dry home in the wet:"

I've a little wet home in a trench
And the rainstorms continually drench
There's the sky overhead, clay or mud for a bed
And stone we use as a bench
Bully beef and hard biscuits we chew
It seems years since we tasted a stew
Shells crackle and scare, yet no place can compare
With my little wet home in the trench.

Consideration for others and nostalgia for some of the comforts of home are shown in these 12 lines, found written on the wall of a rest billet by the Durham Pals:

Harken all ye whom duty calls
To spend some time within these friendly walls,
Others will sojourn here when you have passed,
You were not the first and will not be the last, Therefor take heed and do what ye may,
For safety or comfort while ye stay!
Just put a sandbag here, a picture there
To make a room more safe, a wall less bare,
Think as you tread the thorny path of duty,
Of comfort, of security, of beauty,
So your successors when they come shall say
'A fine battalion we relieved today.'

From Tommy Rot

Death isn't avoided by these amateur poets. Brief and to the point are these lines by an anonymous writer:

We've served with you for near a year And shared your woes and joys
We shall miss your lengthy shadow
And so will all the boys
But when we're digging trenches, Jim
We shall always think of you.
Instead of digging four feet six,
We'll dig them six foot two!

Some doggerel by Private Wiles of the Middlesex Regiment express his insight into the ultimate meaning of rank:

There's many a private soldier,
Who walks his humble way
With no sounding name or title
Unknown to the world today,
In the eyes of God is a hero
As worthy of the days
As any mighty general,
To whom the world gives praise.

A handful of longer poems in this anthology are perhaps the most striking and, in my opinion, come close in skill and quality to the work of the better-known war poets. They compare not only in their depth and expression of feeling but also in their controlled tone and structure. "Close of Play" requires a slight knowledge of cricket as it threads its way through the end of a game in England and the end of a life in the trenches. "The Wattle, Ivy and Gum" inspires an Australian soldier to movingly contemplate on a "three leaved spray" he has received. In it he sees and feels home, patriotism, tenacity, liberty, and sacrifice.

On the Menin Road Looking Toward Ypres

An anonymous elegy of four stanzas entitled "ILIUM" weaves a haunting parallel between the ancient ruins of Troy (Ilium) and the fighting at Ypres. I think it's well worth showing here for its elegance and historic texture, its effective rhyme scheme, and as evidence of what an educated and sensitive Tommy could create:

Fair was your city, old and fair
And fair the hall where the kings abode,
And you speak to us in your despair,
To us who see but ruins bare,
A crumbled wall, a shattered stair,
And graves on the Menin Road.

It was sweet you say, from the city wall,
To watch the fields where the horsemen rode,
It was sweet to hear at even fall,
Across the moat, the voices call.
It was good to see the stately hall,
From the paths by the Menin Road.

Yea, citizens of the city dead,
Whose souls are torn by memories goad,
But now there are stones in the Cloth Hall's stead,
And the moat that you loved is sometimes red,
And voices are still and laughter sped.
And torn is the Menin Road.

And by the farms and the House of White,

And the shrine where the little candle glowed,
There is silence now by day and night,
Or the sudden crash and the blinding light,
For the guns smite ever as thunders smite,
And there's death on the Menin Road.

Perhaps this book is mis-titled in that it contains plenty that can be informatively enjoyed and that is by no means "rot." Also, since each entry is short, the book can be picked up and put down easily after reading just a page or two. Above all, Tommy Rot gives us insight into the feelings and attitudes—and in many cases creativity—of some of the "Tommies" who made up the rank and file of the British Army in World War One.

David Beer