War Poems by Wilfrid Gibson

Wilfrid Gibson

Wilfrid Gibson is perhaps best known for his poetry of the First World War. This small selection of his poems, written between 1914 and 1944,  shows how he continued to develop those early themes.
See also four poems for Armistice Day.

[Four more poems were added to the original selection below in March 2016].
[September 2018, another poem, ‘Suspense’, has been added below. More about that poem here.]

Further information:
Wilfrid Gibson: biographical information and timeline.
‘War is a business of innumerable personal tragedies’: Wilfrid Gibson, Elizabeth Gibson Cheyne, and the First World War.
Writings on war by Elizabeth Gibson Cheyne (Wilfrid’s sister).
More on the Gibsons.
Copyright:  All material © trustees of the Wilfrid Gibson estate.

 

I cannot think of war only in terms of armies or of contending nations: it is to me a business of innumerable personal tragedies: the tendency to think in abstract causes seems to me liable to callous the souls of even the best of men. (1941, Wilfrid Gibson, in a letter to Laurence Binyon)




War Poems by Wilfrid Gibson

 

Breakfast

We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.
I bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
That Hull United would beat Halifax
When Jimmy Stainthorp played full-back instead
Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
And cursed, and took the bet; and dropt back dead.
We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
Because the shells were screeching overhead.

(First published in The Nation, 17 October, 1914)

 

Back

They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands …
Though I must bear the blame
Because he bore my name.

(From Battle, 1915)

 

Armistice Day, 1932

The buzzer sounds, and at our benches, we
Stopping the lathes, two minutes silently
Mourn for the lads who fell; then turn again
To making arms, for killing other men.

(First published in New Statesman and Nation, 12 Nov. 1932)

 

The Clerk

In civil life, he drove a patient pen
On smooth white ledger pages, harmlessly:
Now up the rough road of a mountain glen
He drives a fell machine to cancel men.

(From The Outpost, 1944)

 

The Victors

Ploughing the waste, we turn up from the clay
The bones of warriors in some old affray
Fallen: but, what they fought for in their day,
Or who the victors were, now none can say.

(From The Outpost, 1944)

 

The Fatigue

Someone else went in my place. As it happened, that morning a corporal,
Knowing no more than myself I was detailed for draft, had dispatched me
On fatigue with a convoy of lorries to Woolwich to bring back manure for
The gardens of villas whose lawns had been ploughed up for planting potatoes:
And bored to the bone by just loafing about, or by sweeping out billets—
Six men fooling round at a job that a housemaid could do before breakfast—
Or by picking up cigarette-ends and spent matches, or out of the ash pit
Collecting the cinders again (for coal had run short, and the fires of
The lords in the offices still must be kept blazing half up the chimney),
I was glad to be moving at last, to be going somewhere, to be riding
In the icy bright light, as the lumbering lorry crunched over the crisp snow,
Drinking the sun-golden wine of the morning that went to our heads and
Set us all stamping and shouting and singing in rollicking chorus
As we jolted and swung on the lurching lorry across the white country …

So, when the roll came to be called of the oversea draft, there was no one
To answer for Private Gibson, M.T.381907;
And some other man had to pack up his kit in a deuce of a hurry
To fill up the gaps in the ranks and set out to France in my place,
While I rode singing to Woolwich, rode on, knowing nothing about it.

And when at length we reached Woolwich, we leapt from the lorries to tackle
The snow-buried mounds of manure, and thrust in our forks with a flourish
Through the cold and crystalline crust, discovering the rich steaming treasure,
Of gold dung, and easily heaved it, heaping it high in the lorries,
Delighting at last to be doing a man’s job again, to be sweating
At something worth while, at something to feed the old earth and to nourish
Fresh life when so much else was dying, and men thought of little but slaughter…

Then back with the golden-heaped lorries we rode once again to the billets,
Happy and hungry— and I, knowing nothing as yet of my ‘crime’—
‘Absent from draft’— I came back …
But he who had gone in my place,
He who had gone overseas in my stead, who was taking my chances,
Playing my hazards with death, I know not if he ever returned.

(From Coming and Going, 1938)

 

The Conscript

Indifferent, flippant, earnest, but all bored,
The doctors sit in the glare of electric light
Watching the endless stream of naked white
Bodies of men for whom their hasty award
Means life or death maybe, or the living death
Of mangled limbs, blind eyes, or a darkened brain;
And the chairman, as his monocle falls again,
Pronounces each doom with indifferent breath.

Then suddenly I shudder as I see
A young man stand before them wearily,
Cadaverous as one already dead;
But still they are untroubled as he stands
With arms outstretched and drooping thorn-crowned head,
The nail-marks glowing in his feet and hands.

(From Collected Poems 1905-1925)

 

Suspense

As gaudy flies across a pewter plate
On the grey disc of the unrippling sea
Beneath an airless sullen sky of slate
Dazzled destroyers zigzag relentlessly;
Whilst underneath the sleek and livid tide,
Blind monsters through the soundless deep,
Lean submarines among blind fishes glide
And through primeval weedy forests sweep.

Over the hot grey surface of my mind
Glib motley rumours zigzag without rest;
While deep within the darkness of my breast
Monstrous desires, lean, sinister and blind,
Slink through unsounded night and stir the slime
And ooze of oceans of forgotten time.

(From Collected Poems 1905-1925)

 

Shells

Hour after hour, to earn the wage
To keep her and her little son:
All day, hour after hour she stands
Handling cold death with calloused hands.

She does not think, she dare not feel
What happens to shells that she
Handles and checks so carefully,
Of what within each case of steel
Is packed as, hour by hour, she stands
Handling cold death with calloused hands.

(From The Alert, 1941)

 

Desert Night

What do you see as you pace the night
To and fro
On sentry-go?
The full moon trancing with light
Cheviot silvered with snow!

What do you smell as you pace the night
On sentry-beat
With burning feet?
Redesdale in morning light
Foaming with meadowsweet!

What do you hear as you pace the night
Of breathless fear
With straining ear?
The roar of the frothing white
Lasher of Otterburn weir!

(From The Outpost, 1944)

 

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