War and conflict

Wootton Bassett
The glossy green leaves
turn amber and red,
leaving bare branches,
fall.

In desert dust, men,
for deranged dreams of
distant democrats,
die.

The glossy black cars
bear soldiers softly
on their return, to
lie.

Filcombe Wood in Spring
Bluebell blanketed wooded knapp,
oversees a marshy mere,
tadpole-teeming with new-freed life.

White-flowered wild garlic
spreads its seamy scent
over the fresh ferment of spring’s new wine.

You sit and sketch, at ease,
as passers-by can’t peer behind you,
curious at your creation.

I, too, sit, and read, and
Owen’s tortured silk
wraps me in a word-woven
deathly tapestry.

Thank God the mud that
mires our green glades,
unstained in blood,
was produced in peace.

Owen’s end
In blood and words, he gave his all.
He found new way to tell.
And then it came so late, his fall,
Claimed by that vicious hell.

Open Fire
A poppy-breasted robin
Hops down from the trench-top.
Mines the mud,
Finds food.
A worm wriggles in his beak.
He eyes me,
Tempts me with a taste.
“No thanks, little robin.
Bumper rations arriving today."

A new silence, only
Exhausted snores.
No shells, no guns, no whistle,
To drive us into lead rain,
Or, if we’re lucky,
Into muddy craters.
Just the camp stove burning,
The tea-water boiling.
I scratch last night’s new bites.

The robin finishes the worm,
Looks at me. “Where’s my pudding?”
I dig the biscuit tin from my pack.
Today, who cares who’s looking.
“Here, little one!”
I offer an ancient biscuit corner,
He leaps on to it and is off.
I call out,
“What, no ‘thank you’?”

My voice rouses Frank.
“What’s up?”
“Nothing, go back to sleep,
Unless you want a cuppa.
I’m lighting a fire to warm us.”
“No, the smoke…”
Then he remembers,
No need to worry,
It ‘s November the twelfth.
Dorset in World War 2
Lest we forget, Dorset was not just about D-Day, though famous for embarking half a million soft-marching, brown (not black) booted, rubber-soled GIs, and the Lyme Bay disaster. Dorset featured strongly throughout. It was front-line. At the beginning, sailors and airmen were fully engaged. The navy kept us fed and safe. Warmwell’s Spitfires and Hurricanes were vital to the defence of the South, including naval establishments. From Warmwell, Churchill flew to Paris just before the fall of France. In Dorset, we interned George Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers for his Fascist sympathies. We were critical in scientific research, whether in tank development, radar or bombing trials on the Fleet.

Not all went smoothly. A German bomber ditched at West Bay between high and low tide was so fiercely guarded by the Home Guard that scientists could not access the experimental radar equipment that a few days later helped guide bombers over Coventry. When the equipment was analysed, it was found that British radar jamming of German beam shad been wrongly tuned, and very quickly afterwards, this information was used to save Derby and the Rolls Royce aero-engine works – the bombs fell on Nottingham instead! It was said at the time, “Someone in Dorset should be shot.” Our country style allowed a German airman, shot-down, to wander around in full uniform desperately trying to surrender, instead being greeted cheerily by a soldier, having a level-crossing gate opened for him until he stopped a civilian to ask for help. Sherborne was bombed by mistake – the Dorset and Somerset weather defeated bomb aiming, and bombs meant for the Yeovil aircraft factory rained on Sherborne, killing many.

Dorset filled with refugees after Dunkirk and evacuees during the blitz. But we still had beauty, not just from the many Land Girls. A Bridport woman, Miss Eileen Bishop, won Miss NAAFI, ahead of 28,000 contenders in 1941. And we had wealth too, due to the influx of salaried servicemen and all their support, particularly when the build up to D-Day began. Meanwhile, Dorset men performed gallantly against the Japanese, and against the Germans in Africa and Italy, and in covering the retreat from the ill-fated Arnhem raid.

In this poem, I highlight a particularly sad memorial to an unknown Dorset soldier, in a corner of France that is forever England, in a small Normandy village, Chouai, whose neighbour Audrieu contains La Place du Dorset Regiment.

The Jerusalem Cemetery, Chouain, Normandy
Here he lies,
“known only to God”,
deeply loved by his kin.
Now they too have gone.

"A Dorsetshire Regiment soldier",
carefully carved in stone
as white as Portland.
He trained on Golden Cap and Chesil,.
The planners said. “Just like Normandy beaches.
And it was, save the bullets were real,
but he made ii to that final field,
through Dorset-like hedges and banks,
so hard to attack,so easy to defend.

As usual, they were to distract,
handle counter-thrusts or protect the Yanks’ flank.
Here they fell, raked by guns of a foe
whose strength was born of despair.
Two padres lay, when fighting finished,
with fifty men, just one from Dorset.

The farmer interred them,
while villagers wept and
gave thanks for their lives.

The War Graves people said
“This plot’s far too small,
We must centralise."
The village resisted.
“They died for us, we will care for
every one of them.

So the Jerusalem Cemetery, tiny,
survived to be the smallest of all.

And here he lies,
“known only to God”,
deeply loved by his kin,
and they too have gone.

Pierrepoint at Nuremberg
He knows the rope is strong enough,
But needs to check it’s long enough,
And so he does the calculation
That ensures no strangulation.

For as he said, they have the right,
After their final, fearful night,
To leave this world in dignity
And not to sense our enmity.

Maiden Castle
Vespasian sits watching drenching rain
Ballista bolts are singling out their prey.
Then brutal Roman soldiers fight their way
Inside the deep and grassy rows of pain.
The Durotriges find they can’t defend,
Just one more tribe that suffers a defeat.
A force they can’t resist invades their seat.
Ten thousand years’ tradition meets its end.

A few more forts to crush, some roads to lay,
And Pax Romana’s slowly tightened hand
On Britain’s rolling, green and muddy land.
From north to south, from east to west, their way
Four hundred years usurps this island home,
A language, culture, way of life, all owed to Rome.

Last train from Waterloo to Hampton - burning July
Late up from Axminster, overheated rail delays,
I catch my breath at Clapham, board the train
from Waterloo to Hampton.

It's full. Theatre-goers leaven the young,
whose drink-filled laughs and happy yelps
assault my tired brain.

Long-legged girls flick hair, look round,
shoot steamy glances at young men, who think
of sex and cricket.

The crowd thins. I get a seat, open my bag,
extract my book, about a Tommy forced
to work at Auschwitz.

Twice he swaps a day's life with a Jew, to bear
full witness to evil so far only partly seen.
It's all he fears and more.

The world takes sixty years to credit him. Most of
those he helped are dead, if not killed then. He gets
a British medal and a German cheque.

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