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The Working Party -- Siegfried Sassoon

Guest poem submitted by Anustup Datta:
(Poem #535) The Working Party
 Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
 Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
 Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
 With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
 He couldn't see the man who walked in front;
 Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
 Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
 Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.
 Voices would grunt "Keep to your right -- make way!"
 When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
 White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
 Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
 And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
 Swallowed his sense of sight;  he stooped and swore
 Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.
 A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
 And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
 And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
 Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
 The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
 And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
 And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
 Would split and crack and sing along the night,
 And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
 To burst with hollow bang below the hill.
 Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
 Now he will never walk that road again:
 He must be carried back, a jolting lump
 Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.
 He was a young man with a meagre wife
 And two small children in a Midland town,
 He showed their photographs to all his mates,
 And they considered him a decent chap
 Who did his work and hadn't much to say,
 And always laughed at other people's jokes
 Because he hadn't any of his own.
 That night when he was busy at his job
 Of piling bags along the parapet,
 He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
 And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
 He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
 And a tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
 In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
 Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.
 He pushed another bag along the top,
 Craning his body outward; then a flare
 Gave one white glimpse of No Man's Land and wire;
 And as he dropped his head the instant split
 His startled life with lead, and all went out.
-- Siegfried Sassoon
(one of a series of war poems submitted by Anustup; see poem #481 and
poem #503 for two previous instances; there are more to come - t.)

What can one say about these poems? Any poor words that I may construe are but
woefully inadequate beside the stark reality of these pictures of war and
suffering in the trenches. The impulse to string together some of these was
triggered by re-reading Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" (Poem #280 on the
Minstrels) - a soulful evocation of fighting and dying for one's country. The
wistful melancholy of that poem is in sharp contrast to the dark underbelly of
war portrayed by Sassoon and Owen.

The first poem is by Sassoon, as grisly as any that Owen wrote - for instance,
one is forcibly reminded of "Dulce et Decorum est" (Poem #132 on the Minstrels).
A worthy poem for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier anywhere - far more
appropriate than "For the sake of their tomorrows". But great poetry
nevertheless - see for instance the craftsmanship of the last two lines, how
that freeze-frame of the fatal bullet is captured against the backdrop of the
flare's harsh light.

Anustup.

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Anonymous said...

A beautiful, poem.

Three hours ago.. life is so ephemeral

His use of adjectives 'groping with his boots', a word normally used for hands (his hands have been reduced to useless 'pawing' like a animal). Later the comparison with 'nimble' rats.

He was a young man with a meagre wife....... not the hero the tabloids present when a young soldier dies, just a very ordinary bloke.

He thought how slow time went.... time would soon stop altogether for this young man

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