1. Warfare for Beginners – a poem

When Somerset commemorates with some solemnity
The hundredth anniversary of war being declared,
Remember it never looks the same to those caught up
In the excitement of their time, not knowing just
How many deaths will come, or only when it is too late.

In Germany, a youthful poet like Ernst Stadler, working
For friendship with the French poets of his day, signs up
To fight, and dies at Ypres three months into the war.
What is it that overthrows the better sense of individuals,
Their terrifying eagerness to heed war’s siren call?

Did Somerset foresee the public’s boastful talk of war
‘All over by this Christmas’ by January was true
For one million servicemen, who had been killed,
While others, having survived four years of war,
Were absent voters still, when new elections came?

Does Somerset remember its own recruitment drives?
With cheering crowds, with brass bands and applause,
War treated as a harvest shoot for bagging Huns
Instead of rabbits. No wonder fifteen hundred lads
Signed up each day, their courage born of ignorance.

In uniform, they marched in step singing of roses,
Quite unprepared for what they found in Picardy,
The rapid victory, bought with a glorious death,
Revealed as a delusion, a future dominated
By bloody slaughter and the inglorious mud.

When bells rang for rushed weddings, none knew
Who would return to muffled bells for funerals.
When men all disappeared, women would fill the breach,
Not knowing just how fast the growing rolls of honour
Were to be fed by corpses all over No Man’s Land.

Whatever Somerset remembers, it’s time to go beyond
The casual dismissal, “they know not what they do” –
To our shame our confidence, after the Falklands and Iraq,
May be misplaced, we wouldn’t fool ourselves like that:
With hindsight of a hundred years, we know not what we do!

Disclaimer: The sequence of poems articulates purely personal views, which remain the sole responsibility of their author. They are not shared or endorsed by the Somerset Heritage Service. Wilf Deckner (Taunton, August 2013 – July 2014).

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