Thursday, 5 November 2009

For Remembrance Day


By Menin Gate I hear the bugle blow
And wonder, should the call come would I go,
Knowing what none of these chiselled here could know
Before they were cheered as they volunteered,
Charging through No Man’s Land, and disappeared?
For I’m of a generation that’s crass
Enough to claim, in youth, “Life is a gas!”
And think myself ill served if fickle fate
Means my coffee’s cold or my bus runs late.
How, for those boys of puttees and dubbing,
Different the invitation to go clubbing,
And come the weekend they’d all get slaughtered:
Careless of the future, bellies bloated!
No troop train for me though, it’s Euro Star,
Seat reserved in an air-conditioned car,
Speeding with a whisper, travelling at ease:
No smoking and a seat near the front please.

I hear the bugle blow by Menin Gate,
And stand silently beneath the dread weight
Of all those huge, right-dressed blocks of limestone.
Could each be a cube of compounded bone
Engraved with names of all who surrendered
Life so comprehensively they ended
Their brief span with nothing else to show?
Except all who assemble here, they know
The value of a life is not bound
Up in a mess of flesh, a body found.
Nine decades later and what would we do?
Build a solemn memorial? Or sue
Someone for starting a shooting match
Without risk assessment? The safety catch!

At Langemarck the final bugle has blown,
Such sombre notes set into field-grey stone
Tablets laid in serried regular ranks.
So many students released from their pranks
And classrooms to lie after final games
Beneath these bleak plaques gilded with their names.
At least those who, having been overthrown,
Still had enough about them to be known.
Yet many more being so shell tossed
They were simply expunged, forever lost.
Their names etched on blocks around a pit
Of body parts collected bit by bit
And beyond recognition. Some bone there
For everyone, and with a few to spare
That maybe enfeebled history forgot,
Or perhaps belong in some enemy plot.
Far too many salting this Flanders’ earth
Where I stand never having proven my worth.

As I await the Last Post’s plaintive wail
It seems there are Germans in Passchendaele,
Visiting the cheese museum. In truth,
How might they do justice to their fallen youth
Who no doubt volunteered, fought, fell and died,
With no lack of fervour, courage or pride.
And, perhaps, they too for their mothers cried
Just one brief final time. 64A,
Ieper to Passendale, making its steady way,
Hourly service from the Cloth Market square,
And takes three and a half months to get there.
What a bloody journey, but those who stick it
Arrive back on a two-day return ticket.
Such a bloody journey! As I’ve wandered
Around Salient points, was life squandered,
I’ve thought, extinguished in vain? To believe so
Is to lose them all again, let them go
From History. Why recall fools who dared fight
And die? Simpletons believing in right
And wrong, prepared to make a difference.
I stand by the Menin Gate: such immense
Sacrifice I’ve never been asked to make
And could not bear it to be a mistake
If it had to be me before the guns,
Or so finely hewn a name was my son’s.
Too many names for one to count and yet
Together they amount to such a great debt.
As the buglers parade my conscience says,
“Commit to remembrance!” The Last Post plays.
                                                      Dave Alton