A poet who knew war considers the lasting hold of the First World War - the Great War - on our minds
Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) was a much admired and well-loved poet and a writer of landmark books. His poetry and prose about war is especially notable.
He served in the British Army in the Second World War - became so disillusioned with the futility of war and disgusted by fellow soldiers' looting from dead bodies in North Africa, that he deserted. He was caught and sentenced to three years imprisonment. But he was released early to join the invasion of Europe. In Normandy he was shot in both legs while on a patrol near Caen.
This poem - The Great War - was first published in his volume Of Love and War (2002, Robson Books).
With images of that war, Vernon Scannell gives us a very apt insight into why the First World War continues to hold our attention so fiercely:
Whenever war is spoken of
The war that was called Great invades the mind:
The grey militia marches over land
A darker mood of grey
Where fractured tree trunks stand
And shells, exploding, open sudden fans
Of smoke and earth.
The deathscape where the iron brambles writhe;
The sky at night
Is honoured with rosettes of ire,
Flares that define the corpses on the wire
As terror ticks on wrists at zero hour.
These things I see,
But they are only part
Of what it is that slyly probes the heart:
Less vivid images and words excite
The sensuous memory
And, even as I write,
Fear and a kind of love collaborate
To call each simple conscript up
For quick inspection:
Paunchy with sandbags; bandoliers, tin-hats,
Candles in dug-outs,
Duckboards, mud and rats.
Then, like patrols, tunes creep into the mind;
A long long trail, The Rose of No-Man's Land,
Homes Fires and Tipperary;
And through the misty keening of a band
Of Scottish pipes the proper names are heard
Passchendaele, Bapaume, and Loos, and Mons.
Whenever the November sky
Quivers with a bugler's hoarse, sweet cry,
The reason darkens; in its evening gleam
Crosses and flares, tormented wire, grey earth
Splattered with crimson flowers,
And I remember,
Not that war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
We are very grateful to the Estate of Vernon Scannell for permission to publish this poem.
Vernon Scannell's Collected Poems 1950-1993 are published by Faber.
His volume of autobiography Argument of Kings (1987) recounts his uneasy time in Britain's wartime army and includes vivid descriptions of what it was like to fight through Normandy's countryside and villages.
The Neil Bousfield engraving above is part of his series Wilfred Owen Centenary and Armistice 2018. Further information here.