Let the Poetry Begin!
In 1981, after a brief but exhilarating career as an opera singer, I started to work in residential care with elderly people. It was then sixty-six years after the end of the First World War. Many of the men I met during these years had fought in the war, as had my grandfather. Unlike my grandfather, they had survived, had cheated death.
One of the residents of Laburnum Lodge in Littleport, near Ely, was called Bill Waddington. He was a charming man, who had lost a leg in the First War but made little fuss about it, even though it made his life as an old man much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. He was the first old soldier I looked after and his situation made me think, for the first time, about the legacy of war on our old people. Bill was able to tell me about the trenches and his injuries. He expressed his amazement to me that he had survived. Another old gentleman I met was six feet four tall and had survived four years in France in the trenches, with the Suffolk Regiment. He, laughingly, said it was a miracle that he hadn’t been picked off by a German sniper and had spent most of the war bent double!
In 1914 men such as these, held out against an army five times their size, until the British were able to form a line of defence after the first battle of Ypres at the close of 1914. These men were said to have been described by Kaiser Wilhelm as ‘a contemptible little army’. The name stuck and these brave soldiers have been known ever since as ‘the old contemptibles’. Most of them died in the early years of the war.
Sadly, after the war, the survivors, many of them missing limbs, or suffering from ‘shell shock’ or damaged lungs from the gas attacks, were left to their own devices, like other soldiers before and since. Surviving the peace became their next battle.
By 1984, when I wrote this poem, it was all ancient history, as was the Second World War. Countless books had been written and the two wars had become subjects of academic discussion. The few surviving soldiers were still there, though, largely forgotten, except on Armistice Sundays, when a few were still able to parade and remind us of past conflicts. Otherwise, they were on their own. They had sacrificed years of their lives, of their youth, lost family and friends and lived
with the sort of memories no one other than the serving soldier can ever experience.
I wrote this poem in November 1984, thinking of the plight of all old soldiers who have served their country before and since the Great War and who have been forgotten with the passing of time.
Old age has wearied him,
His face condemned by years,
Bob Jobbins, old, contemptible,
Stands blinking through his tears.
His thoughts are shattered friendships,
And broken, rotting boys,
When fallen youth lay dying,
Wide-eyed in battle’s noise.
He clasps synthetic poppy,
That even time can’t fade,
And gazes in memoriam
As wreath by wreath is laid.
The tears creep on, relentless,
As years that line his face.
His mind grows lost and lingers
In some dark, mud-spattered place.
He hears the bugle moaning
In his dreams and far away,
And he weeps, but not for soldiers-
For himself and for today.
For the knotty bones and body,
That stands with mourners grim,
For the quick, sharp death of the soldier,
For the end that was not for him.
And most of all, he sorrows
For the years of love he gave,
To a world which now rejects him -
For his own inglorious grave.
I was born in England soon after the war. I moved , with my family to Australia in 1966, where I was a soldier (briefly), a public servant, an opera singer, and an English teacher.