The following poem was originally published in my book, ‘Towards Humanity’, in 2015. However, as we are now only four weeks away from Armistice Day, exactly one hundred years after the end of World War One, I thought it would be a good time to re-visit this poem. Many may not have read it anyway.
The notes at the end of the poem explain how it came about, but it may be relevant to point out that I personally feel a strong affinity with the recipient of this letter in the poem, since I have worked in agriculture, and indeed with horses briefly; besides which, my father ploughed with horses in the 1950s and held very fond memories of that time. My father also fought in the Second World War, taking part in the D-Day landings in 1944.
The poem itself says the rest.
I recently visited London and took these photos of the statue on Platform One of Paddington Station.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier
Not much like the corduroy fields at home,
I guess, where you were following the plough,
and caught the sunlight’s glow
off the moist, neat ridges of loam,
furrowing far into an unknown future,
while the blackbird sang his love song from the chirruping copse;
nor like the sun-drenched hay fields
bleaching in those days of tranquil yellow,
as you followed the clicking, ticking tedder
to turn and turn and turn again
the sweetly scented summer crop.
Now you, and your fellow labouring men,
will never know such pastoral peace again.
to go a-mowing in the killing fields
of Flanders and of France,
to dig the soil
and sow the fields with shells;
to make the earth to boil
with mud and blood of foreign working men;
to tunnel like a mole, as blind as fools,
to try and blow the Hun to Kingdom come.
And from the factories and fields of Germany
there’ll be some young, hard-working Fritz
with a mother, sister, brother, sweetheart, lover,
and you may fire the shots
that shred their lives, and his, to bits;
before a Werner, Helmut, Klaus or Willi
does the very same to you.
But no matter, you will be
crucified on the cross of a good cause,
for this, it’s said, is the war to end all wars.
Tommy, I know I shouldn’t tell you this,
but one day soon you will be face-down in the stinking mud,
soaking in your sweat and blood and piss;
and years hence people will solemnly say
that they remember you, and value your spilt blood,
that you served your King and country well.
The great and “good” will sing your praises,
then re-draw some lines on maps
and maybe plant a stone near where you fell.
Tommy, do you know
that you are fighting this war
because a Serbian nationalist rebel
shot dead an Austrian royal in Sarajevo?
Do you know where Sarajevo is?
It doesn’t matter, since some other murderous incident
would equally have done
to haul you from the fields
and arm you with a bayonet and gun.
Do you wear the scarf your mother knit,
a mother’s love in every stitch?
Somehow she knows you’ll never return
to sup with her at kitchen table,
at close of day with candles lit,
when you have rubbed the horses down,
having led them back from field to stable,
or trimmed a hedge or cleared a ditch.
Go now, Tommy,
for there is a floundering horse out there,
belly deep in sucking mud,
that needs your horseman’s skill and love;
and a German ploughboy, fresh from foreign furrows,
has his rifle ready,
will have you soon in his assassin sights.
He does not know that you and he could talk all night,
could bend each other’s ear,
about who ploughs the straightest furrow
and the taste and price of beer.
from near a hundred years ahead.
The wars they keep on coming, Tommy,
for the machine of man’s stupidity
continues to be fed.
The groaning you can hear, Tommy,
will never go away;
so best foot forward now, my lad,
into those fields of bloody clay.
Yours in sorrow,
This poem was first published on-line in summer 2014 as part of the project which invited everyone to write the letter held by the statue of the soldier on platform one of London’s Paddington Station. The letters, over 21,000 of them, will be available to read on-line until 2018, and then archived in the British Library.
Further information: http://www.1418now.org.uk