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

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Wilfrid Gibson’s “Breakfast”

Prewar British Soccer Club

By David F. Beer

If you’ve spent much time in England you may be aware of the intense competition, name-calling, and even enmity that can exist between rival football (soccer) teams and their fans. A visiting team is likely to be referred to as “rubbish,” while a player or referee can field a storm of insults and profanity from the crowd. Feelings run high, sometime resulting in fights. 

So it’s not unusual for a fan like Ginger to get highly indignant when it’s suggested that his team, Halifax, could lose a match if a certain player is substituted for another. On top of this his very name implies he is a feisty fellow (as in “getting one’s ginger up,” meaning to make a person angry). The result is ironically tragic: Ginger’s impulsive reaction to a bet causes his death.

There’s more to the poem than this, of course. Several soldiers are taking what cover they can while eating breakfast by lying low—apparently no shelter is available. Ginger raises his head—probably no more than a few inches—and is shot dead. The sheer chance and utter randomness of the event shocks us. But perhaps more shocking is the absence of a reaction from Ginger’s pals. This is brought home to us by the first two lines of the poem also being the last two. The terrible, the inconceivable, has become the commonplace, nonchalantly accepted, and they continue to eat their breakfast. Could we do the same, with a dead person next to us?  Here’s the poem:


We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,

Because the shells were screeching overhead.

I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread

That Hull United would beat Halifax

When Jimmy Strainthorpe played full-back instead

Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head

And cursed, and took the bet; and dropped back dead.

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,

Because the shells were screeching overhead.

Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878–1962)

Wilfrid Gibson began writing poetry in 1902 and was a close friend of Rupert Brooke. Several of his poems were included in anthologies of the time and he produced a play, Daily Dread, in 1910. He enlisted in the army in 1917 and was a private, serving as a driver and a clerk. According to editor Tim Kendall, Gibson was probably the first poet to describe the horrors of trench warfare while still a civilian, basing his material on reports and imagination. After the war he continued to write and publish poetry, his last work appearing in 1950.