An hour late for George.
I had been in the garden, being animated by variety –
Lichen collecting on seed house, an elemental sky
behind cracked bark, a fine flowering of Midyim berry
(Austromyrtus dulcis) our favourite bush food in the garden,
filaments of gum flowers lying on the quoit of my dolmen,
(much too easy to construct), a lovely branch of Ti-tree
flowering over the path, a Fibonacci spiral, three cockatoos
from about fifty doing a fly by, then back down
into the Asian garden and filling the bird bath,
wonderfully ordinary [images below].
Then I worked on my radiation suite and realised
time had run. I have not listened to any news for over
a month now, but realise two major wars are being waged
and now I am an hour late for the eleventh minute
and thoughts of my Great Uncle, George Bennett.
The German poet Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Farewell, for Peter Scher’, just before departing for the front.
He died 25 September 1914 on the Somme, five weeks after writing:
‘Before dying I am making my poem.
Quiet, comrades, don’t disturb me.
We are going off to war. Death is our cement . . .
In the sky the fine red of evening is burning.
Perhaps in thirteen days I’ll be dead.’
In early 1917, Edward Thomas wrote in his diary: ‘Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw.’ ‘Linnets and chaffinches sing in waste trenched ground.’ ‘Larks singing over No Man’s Land.’
At the same time, DH Lawrence was writing: ‘The frost held for many weeks, until the birds were dying rapidly. Everywhere in the fields and under the hedges lay the ragged remains of lapwings, starlings, thrushes, redwings, innumerable ragged, bloody cloaks of birds.’ [i]
And, at the same time, Isaac Rosenberg was writing:
‘Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped.’, ‘Returning, We Hear Larks’[ii]
That July, George Bennett wrote a final letter to his fiancé, my grandmother. His mates were out back polishing horse brasses, polishing them until you could see yourself among the mud and blood, flesh and earth. He had, I think, Lichtenstein’s premonition.
‘My dear lover . . .
I expect I shall be going up with Ammn to night, it is indeed the worst Battle Front I have been on. I have had the worst experiences this past few weeks than I have had since I have been out here . . .
Au-soir & god bless you darling
Your Ever loving boy
With heaps of hugs and kisses
Pray for me
31st July 1917
Dead on the first day of Passchendaele, my Great Uncle was saved from much torment, but lost a future with my grandmother. I have inherited his contorted pennies. For a penny you could post a letter, buy a pint of milk or loaf of bread, though most people were still baking their own.
I hold him in sepia, looking quite unlike a soldier, and quite unlike me. He is not at ease in the photographer’s studio. His cheeks are smooth, his expression I can’t quite read. I wish I has asked my grandmother what he was like, and why she loved him so.
‘I died in hell – they called it Passchendaele.’ Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Memorial Tablet’, written in October 1918. (Sassoon did not take part in the Passchendaele campaign.) [iii]
‘So have I heard bird-song beneath the
trajectory zone, at Passchendaele, or seen
flowers lean toward each other, under the sun
that shined to delineate the hate and mutilation
of the Forward Area.’ David Jones, ‘Prothalamion’, written September 1940. He did see action at Passchendaele.
‘Passchendaele’s chill mud at a gulp engorging
Men and redhot rashers of sizzling metal.’ Geoffery Hill, ‘Odi Barbare’, The Daybooks. 2012.
3,000 guns fired over 4 million shells over ten days before the British offensive started at Ypres a 3.50 am on 31st July. Artillery bombardments put down 8 tons of explosives on every square metre of the front. The battle ended 10 November 1917. The allies (British, Canadian, Australian, South African and New Zealand soldiers) had advanced five miles with the loss of 300,000 men. Many drowned in the muddy quagmire.
Meanwhile we have our garden:
George, it’s been an exciting day. The Brown Goshawks have stayed around, calling their territorial demands and from our bed we can see a pair of Sacred Kingfishers rolling their rrs, taking turns flying into their nest in a termite nest twenty metres up a tree. I am crook, the radiation treatment has knocked me sideways, but I am lying arms around my great love – I am so very sad that pleasure eluded you and your love.
[i] ‘Whistling of Birds’, Athenaeum, 11 April, 1917, under the name Grantorto. ‘DH Lawrence was opposed to the war. He was twice called up for military service, but was rejected on health grounds. He and his wife Frieda were forced to leave Cornwall in 1917 by suspicious military authorities, who objected both to Lawrence’s writings and Frieda’s enemy alien status.’ ‘18 August 1914: With the guns’, Guardian Research Department, 21 May, 2011.
[ii] Written on the Hindenburg Line on the Western Front, February 1917.
[iii] Sassoon became one of the war heroes, winning the Military Cross, July 1916. After being wounded, he wrote an open letter to his commanding officer declining to return to duty. This letter, ‘Finished with War: A soldier’s declaration’ was given to the press and read out in Parliament. Rather than court martial a war hero and published poet, Sassoon was declared unfit due to nervous exhaustion and admitted to Craiglockhart, a military psychiatric hospital for the treatment of shell-shocked officers. There he met Wildred Owen.