The pity of war

soldatBoth my grandfathers fought in the First World War and both were wounded. My paternal grandfather from Dublin, who served in the Royal Horse Artillery, received a bullet wound in the leg during a campaign on the Western Front. Apart from piercing the flesh it did no lasting damage. My maternal grandfather from Cork, who served in an Irish regiment, was much more seriously wounded on the beaches of Gallipoli. He had one lung removed in a field hospital by the water’s edge before being evacuated. When he died in 1969, the registrar of births and deaths in Tralee, Co. Kerry, made a point of recording the cause of death as heart disease and pulmonary pneumonia exacerbated by a wound received during World War One. I can remember as a child putting my tiny fist into the hollow of my grandfather’s back where the lung had been cut out.

The recent centenary of the Gallipoli fiasco prompted me to write the poem below, based on the death of a French soldier, Eugène-Emmanuel Lemercier. I first came across the name of Lemercier in the Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, who dedicated a sequence of poems to the fallen French artist. My poem draws on that sequence and also on the letters that Lemercier wrote to his mother from the Western Front.

La mort d’un soldat

Si tu voyais la sécurité des petits animaux des bois—souris, mulots! L’autre jour, dans notre abri de feuillage, je suivais les évolutions de ces petites bêtes. Elles étaient jolies comme une estampe japonaise, avec l’intérieur de leurs oreilles rose comme un coquillage.
If you could know what security the field-mice enjoy ! The other day, from my leafy shelter, I watched the evolutions of these small animals. They were as pretty as a Japanese print, their ears pink as shells.
Lettres d’un soldat, Eugène-Emmanuel Lemercier (1886-1915)

On a ridge outside
       the village of Les Éparges
            a French combatant
a former art student
                      and an orphan
raised by mother
           and grandmother
                      sits in his dug-out
clutching his rifle
           to his chest
                      The dugout is camouflaged
           with leafy branches torn
                      from the surrounding bushes
This is early March
           1915
                      and many men have died
in this most murderous
           of theatres
                      though many more
are yet to die
           He sits in his dugout
                      and admires the clear
blue sky overhead

The war has been silent
           these past two days
                      : the calm before the storm
           Through the foliage
he notices
                      two field mice at play
how pretty they are
           in their rough and tumble
                      the interior of their ears
the delicate sea shell pink
           of a Japanese watercolour
                      In one of his letters home
he writes
           of the beauty
                      of these mice

The driving rain
           the drip  drip   drip
                      of willows in the rain
The silence of the birds
           that wait out the rain
                      sheltering
in the willow leaves
           The mice that scamper
                      for cover
their small pale ears
           glistening
                      in the rain
At night
           a full moon looms
                      above the enemy lines
A soldier’s death
           is close to nature
                      he notes
A month later
           he is dead

Shortly before he fell
           /during another lull
                      in the fighting/
he reported hearing
           the call of cranes
                      returning home
at sunset
           His body
                      was never found

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