Passchendaele - The Final Call - James Henry Willard

*Written by James Henry Willard*   

1918

 

Burned, and scorched, debauchery in mud,

That drenches those wretched souls

Who try to live within their dugout holes

The soldier opposite, all boils, and blisters

‘I am ready to die’ The tears say otherwise

Drown his whispers.

Clarkson just a boy of twenty one,

Picked up the gun last year,

Twenty two tomorrow,

Clarkson, smiling face, no longer here,

Killed last week, died in my embrace.

Of the dead we never speak, we lie with them,

Die at their side, grotesque parodies of man.

Many lie here, dead, without fear,

Eyes white, fog blind, as black as night,

Life has gone from them.

Rotting in the mud, blood stained

The dead remained silent in the dark.

Stark, bleak landscape,

Shaped by shells,

Wells of drowning water, brown holed, cold as ice.

The dead entice me in, limb on tired limb,

I sink never swim.

Slipping through the mire,

Barbed wire rolling all around,

The ground sucks me down, reaching for a grip,

As I slip, and slide inside.

The wire cuts, but I hold tight,

My blood is fresh, trickling from the wire mesh,

At least, so far I am still alive.

Crawling through the dark,

Struggling through the sucking clay,

Machine guns laying cover at my back.

‘Attack!’ I scream above the shrill,

I must find the will to move,

But for one brief moment

Exhaustion creeps upon me and I sleep,

Dream of safer times,

Ignorant of the crimes of man.

I twist, I writhe, barely alive,

Through all that is unholy.

Hideous landscapes, all dies before me.

Man’s folly breaks the spirit.

‘The meek will inherit the Earth?’

‘We are so meek, we cannot even speak’…

‘Inherit the Earth? Mud and death more like’…

My tired breath keeps lapsing into sleep,

But I am too afraid to close my eyes,

In case the waning light finally dies…

Our men are marching into hell,

Their blood marked their graves as they fell.

Burial often comes by shell,

Or a sinking down in suffocating well,

Tides of mud make it impossible to grip,

Swallowed as you slip beneath the flood.

The pounding of the guns,

Shells exploding like the nova of distant suns,

‘How can this war go on?’

I remember when the sun shone down upon us,

Only rain drowns men’s tears,

And I have aged thirty years in this one day,

Our war has turned my life to clay,

Slowly, dolefully, the rain is washing my life away,

Draining into the soil and clinging slime.

War tears at mankind’s bones,

And God for all his mercies

Does not listen to men’s groans,

He is deaf to all this wretched noise.

In death, soldiers are discarded 

Like children’s toys after play,

Stringless puppets,

Cut down, and rotting in the bloodied clay.

Through the dark of the mire,

I hear the rattling, stuttering machine gun fire.

Soaring shells break overhead,

Pouring black smoke shrouds over the fallen dead.

Corpses hanging from barbed wire mesh,

Tunics torn, bodies stripped of flesh.

Dead soldiers decaying in filth, and squalor,

Their eyes unburdened from the horror

Of the howling barrage from the sky,

The screaming wounded who will not die.

In the dark of the choking mire,

Behind the walls of gas, and glowing fire,

I have this dread, a look of no return,

I fear my ears, and skin will burn,

Blistered by heat, and poisoned fumes

These dug out holes could become our tombs.

Shorn of our spirit, and free will

Soldiers wait below the missiles shrill,

Waiting for the final call,

When the whistles blow, and we must crawl

Up the mud drip steps to No Man’s Land.

‘Dear God please take my weary hand,

Lead me from this poisonous lair,

Where the wells of water drown despair’.

The sky is lit with a flare gun’s burst,

We serve spotless generals with a sickening thirst

That’s never quenched by our dying souls,

As we spit our blood to fulfil their goals.

The men they wait, and listen still,

Waiting for the final kill,

Mud packs tight within our boots,

Soon will be dead and new recruits 

Will fill our shoes with equal dread

And use soft earth to make their bed.

In No Man’s Land our graves are laid,

As the war hawks will must be obeyed.

Although we wait to hear our names,

On whose shoulders are the blames 

Of man’s folly to be laid?

Not on the shoulders of our dead.

As men wait for Zero hour,

The guns erupt, and we begin to cower, 

Sliding downwards into the mud,

I swallow my fear, I taste my blood.

Shutting my eyes as the whistle blows,

Will they open again?

God… God only knows…

At dawn upon these war torn plains

No soldier upon this field remains

Silence is the sound I hear,

No cries of calling voices near,

No shells are falling overhead,

For all but the wounded, the men are dead.

Soldiers lie dying in a makeshift trench

Rats attracted by the stench 

Of flesh that’s begun to putrefy 

As my friends decay before they die.

I hear the sounds of laboured breath,

Another soldier enters death

His fist clenched tightly, grips the soil,

A handful of earth for his toil,

It slips like life through his fingers

He cannot live with the pain that lingers,

Inside the wound that tore his chest,

And as I watch his final rest

Begins to close his watering eyes,

And there, in the mud, this young man dies.

At least the boy has found the peace,

For him this wretched war has ceased.

I myself must wait my turn,

By watching others die I learn,

That death for all is done alone,

And war leaves men to be unknown.

 

 

 

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