Poetry

Eleven Men

John Robinson writes: My muse for this poem was Miss W of East Hull. Responding to a piece in the local paper describing my WW1 project, she had taken the immense trouble of getting this photograph of men of the 13th Batallion, East Yorks Regiment copied and sent to me via the newspaper. She expressed the hope that my grandfather was one of the 11 Men. He wasn't of course but happily for me there was a poem lurking in the ranks amongst those expressive faces and poignant uniforms captured on a glass plate in a millisecond in early 1915. My research into the soldiers failed to reveal who they were, where they came from or which of them may or may not have survived the war.

 

The photograph has become something of a trademark for 'Other Ranks' and for the published collection 'Supper at Ocean Villas', appearing on the book's cover and in publicity material.

I thank Miss W again for her kindness.

From "Supper at Ocean Villas: Thirty Poems for the Centenary"

by John Robinson. Published by McRay Press, Scarborough 2014

And when the photo comes it shows eleven men.

In brand-new baggy khaki, buttons buffed,

they parade before their sagging tent,

rifles at the slope, peaked hats in regulation style.

A late afternoon sun slants in, shadowing some faces,

presenting others like The Beatles on the cover of that LP.

The corporal in the middle smiles beatifically;

the fellow on the end grimaces down the lens

indicating what he intends to do to Fritz

or maybe that it's past his teatime;

there are grins, moustaches, martial grit.

All that's lacking is the football,

chalked 'First XI, 1915'.

  

And the third soldier from the left, in front,

looks right into my soul.

 

But grandfather isn't one of them.         

Although he surely knew them all.         

One may have saved his life,

another pinched his fags.

 

A notice tells us the men are in 'A' company

but there are no names or numbers, no histories,

no attrition rates conveniently noted on the back

and nobody left who I can ask

to point out with his arthritic finger

Big Stan or Mad Wilf, or to recount anecdotes

of beery singsongs in the estaminet,

of marches and mademoiselles

and sudden messy deaths.

 

And so the story has to end.

 

For some of them it may have ended

at Richebourg, Serre or Oppy Wood

or in a residential home

down Anlaby Road

where,

as she empties his room

and packs up his stuff, his keyworker

wonders briefly about the creased photo

Old Charlie's had tucked away

in his bedside drawer

for all these

years.

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