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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Martin Armstrong poem 'Before Battle'


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Only just discovered this poem from 'The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry ' edited by George Walter. The writer Martin Armstrong served with the 28th btn of the London Regiment (Artsitic Rifles) as a private, then gained a commission in the Middlesex Regiment. He was on the Western Front, but that's as much as I've found about his war service so far.

This poem was featured in his 1929 anthology 'The Bird Catcher and other Poems' .Became a prolific writer after the Great War.


Michael Bully

Before Battle
Here on the blind verge of infinity

We live ard move like moles. Our crumbling trench

Gapes like a long wound in the sodden clay.

The land is dead. No voice, no living thing,

No happy green of leaf tells that the spring

Wakes in the world behind us. Empty gloom

Fills the cold interspace of earth and sky.

The sky is waterlogged and the drenched earth

Rots, and the whining sorrow of slow shells

Flies overhead. But memory, like the rose,

Wakes and puts forth her bright and odorous blooms

And builds green hanging gardens in the heart.

Once, in another life, in other places,

Where a slow river coiled through broad green spaces

And sunlight filled the long grass of the meadows

And moving water flashed from shine to shadows

Of old green-feathered willows, bent in ranks

Along sun-speckled banks,

Lovely remembered things now gone for ever;

I saw young men run naked by the river,

Thirty young soldiers. Where the field-path goes,

Their boots and shirts and khaki lay in rows.

With feet among the long warm grass stood one

Like ivory in the sun,

And in the water, white upon the shade

That hung beneath the shore,

His long reflection like a slow flag swayed

And at a trembling of the water frayed

Into a hundred shreds, then joined once more.

One, where the river (when the willows end)

Breaks from its calm to swirl about a bend

Strong swimmer he wrestled against the race

Of the full stream. I saw his laughing face

Framed by his upcurved arm. Another, slim,

Hands above head, stood braced upon the brim,

Then dived a brother of the curved new moon

And came up streaming soon

Ten feet beyond, brown shoulders shining wet

And comic face and hair washed sleek as jet.

Farther upstream I saw a gay young fellow

Climb stealthily into a leaning willow,

And perch there, hidden, crooning like a dove,

Till from the pool below a voice was heard:

"'Ere, Bert! Where's Bert?" And Bert sang out above:

"Up here, old son, changed to a bloody bird!"

And dived through leaves and shattered through the cool

Clear watery mirror, and all across the pool

Slow winking circles opened out, till he

Rose and in rising broke their symmetry.

Their shouts and laughter filled the sparkling air:

White flakes of shining water everywhere

Splashed from their diving. Hosts of little billows

Beat on the shores, and the boughs of the hanging willows

Glittered with glassy drops. Then, bright as fire,

A bugle sounded, and their happy din

Stopped, and the boys, with that swift discipline

With which keen life answers the heart's desire,

Rushed for the bank. And all the bank grew white

With bodies swarming up out of the stream.

From the water and the trees they came to sight:

Across dark leaves I saw their quick limbs gleam.

Then brandished towels flashed whitely everywhere:

They dried their ears and scrubbed their towzled hair:

One, stepping to the water, carefully

Stretched a bare leg to rinse a muddy foot:

One sat with updrawn knee,

Bent head, and both hands tugging on a boot.

And gradually the bright and flashing crowd

Dimmed into sober khaki. Then their loud

Laughter and shouts and songs died at a word:

The ranks fell in. No sound, no movement stirred.

The willow boughs were still, the blue sky burned.

The party numbered down, formed fours, right-turned,

Marched. And their shadows faded from the stream

And the dark pool swayed back into its dream:

Only the trampled meadow-grass reported

Where all that gay humanity had sported.

The dream has dimmed. 1 wake, remembering how

Many of those smart boys no longer now

Cast running shadows on the grass or make

White tents with laughter shake,

But lie in narrow chambers underground,

Eyes void of sunlight, ears unthrilled by sound

Of laughter. Round this post on every hand

Stretches a dim, charred sepulchre of land

Where ruined homes and shell-torn fields are lost

In one great sea of clay clay seared by fire,

Battered by rainstorms, jagged and scarred, and crossed

By gaping trench-lines hedged with rusted wire.

The rainy evening fades. A rainy night

Sags down upon us. Wastes of sodden clay

Fade like a mist, and fade all sound and sight,

All broken sounds and movements of the day,

To emptiness, to listlessness, a grey

Unhappy silence tremulous with the poise

Of hearts intent and fearful expectation

And secret preparation,

Silence that is not peace, but bated breath,

A listening for death,

A breathless prelude to tremendous noise

O give us one more day of sun and leaves,

The laughing soldiers and the laughing stream,

And when at dawn the loud destruction cleaves

This silence, and, like men that move in dream,

(Knowing the awaited trial has begun)

We climb the trench, and cross the wire, and start,

We'll stumble through the shell-bursts with good heart

Like boys who race through meadows in the sun.


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