A centenary war poem

For my father Bill Baine, 1899-1968
1/15th Battalion, London Regiment , soldier number 535068


‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.’
And so some lines to spike centenary prattle:
These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.


My father Bill, born in Victorian England:
The sixth of January, 1899.
His stock, loyal London. Proletarian doff-cap.
Aged seventeen, he went to join the line


Not in a war to end all wars forever
Just in a ghastly slaughter at the Somme –
A pointless feud, a royal family squabble
Fought by their proxy poor with gun and bomb.


My father saved. Pyrexia, unknown origin.
Front line battalion: he lay sick in bed.
His comrades formed their line, then came the whistle
And then the news that every one was dead


In later life a polished comic poet
No words to us expressed that awful fear
Although we knew such things were not forgotten.
He dreamed Sassoon: he wrote Belloc and Lear.


When I was ten he died, but I remember,
Although just once, he’d hinted at the truth.
He put down Henry King and Jabberwocky
And read me Owen’s ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’.


‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.’
And so some lines to spike Gove’s mindless prattle:
These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s.
Soldier in Euston Road, London. 3-10-2014. Picture by Tony Martin-Woods

Soldier in Euston Road, London. 3-10-2014. Picture by Tony Martin-Woods

ATS/JB 22nd January 2014
Copyright © 2014. Attila the Stockbroker
Todos los derechos reservados. All rights reserved.

1 comentario en “A centenary war poem

  1. This poem is a fine piece, in my opinion.It’s full of information both of past at different stages and of the present and it is entertaining, never boring.

    The author interweaves memories ( his and of his father ) with historical facts ( his father’s life from A to Z and beyond, and the war ) ; an old poem with a new one; the narrative of historical facts with his own critical digressions ( Not in war … bomb ); bad and good fate of soldiers … .

    It depicts the father’s psychology in a subtile way. It’s a touching tribute to the father lost in childhood and revisited in adult age and a reflexion on the fragility of one’s own life, due to a chain of lucky events (those who had ancestors who luckily survived past wars know about this perplexing truth) .

    The poem starts and ends in a teasing, critical and melancholic tone too ( to spike centenary/Gove’s mindless prattle … These words a sole survivor soldier’s son’s ) that links the past with the present, the old poem, the father’s reading and the new poem.

    On the artistic side, the poem achieves rythm by stressing the tone at the middle and at the end of almost every line, with abundant aliterations, and some fortunate rhymes ( cattle-prattle, bed-dead, Somme-bomb, fear-Lear, truth-youth, son’s-guns ).

    And perhaps the word-play «His stock, loyal London» for «Royal London Stock Exchange», implying the humble origin of this father, followed by «Proletarian».

    It has the quality of compressing action in synthetic lines by using chains of verbs, while conveying vivacity to the reading.

    I would like to remember here your «Fought by their proxy poor» , as it is clear and succint summary of nature of that war and all other wars fought until then. Millions of (mostly ) men have died since the Antiquity fighting in stupid dynastic wars as proxy combatants between powerful noble families, especially in Europe. Those injustices had tribal roots.

    In the old Germanic tribal society, the law of which mostly pervived in politic affairs until the beginning of the XX century the social position of people was determined by birth, as belonging to a poor/servant family or to a noble/land-proprietor family, in various degrees. The governing (noble) classes considered all the other as expendable human material in their land feuds and squabbles: the dependants/subjects of nobles/kings were obliged to fight till death for the rights of these last ones .

    However, this archaic legal environment of Germanic nature allowed too the emergence of governing or regent queens ( as long as they did not marry or re-marry, or the child-heir was still a minor ) as opposed to the traditional patriarchal Roman Law: Brunhilda of Austrasia, Empress Adelaide of Italy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, numerous governing Spanish queens during the Middle Ages, in England… Mary I, Elisabeth I, protector of literature and Shakeaspere, Christina of Sweden… as the status of women was also deemed important… if born in powerful noble families.

    To end this long digression prompted by your poem, the sacrifice of those men who died in the 1st world war was not entirely in vain, Attila: as a result of this war, the position of women in Western societies improved a lot due to recognition of their role in the factories and the upheaval caused that allowed the emergence of dissident feminist thought.

    The League of Nations was created and the concept of the human being also changed and improved. Due to the atrocities ( on a single day, for example, the French lost 24.000 dead men excluding wounded. Even generals and politicians were surprised by the atrocity and the implications of this war, generals thought is was going to be a classic quick XIX century war, but were surpassed by events and the dynamics of the new technique employed ) the consideration of the human dignity improved, and wars have changed to a large extent, because politicians and the powerful are wary of the democratic cost of wars … nobody wants any more anything like the 1st or the 2nd world wars. And the world is nowadays economically interconnected in such a way, that it makes the repetition of a similar war a very improbable event. But who knows, remember George Orwell’s «1984» …

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