Friday, 1 July 2016

1916 inglorious mud

hurly burly
mud and trouble
doubtful stands
the state of battle

earth hath bubbles quoth the soldier
where the Somme its marrow narrows
Germans elbow out of Belgium
bony Fritz doth bloody Tommy

eye of Jacques and tongue of Taffy
Cornwall's ears Flanders' bowels
K├Ânig headed Highland hearted
Anzac kidneys Saxon coccyx
Hanoverians' appendix

British legs in khaki clobbered
French in blue and grey of Prussia
all our chaps have gone down under
stuck together cold and clodded

sown by human reaped by warlock
black the milk and white the thunder
clouds of smoke from smokeless powders
mooned in sunlit robes are plundered

bootless foot from footless booty
stirred then shaken hooked & taken
cauldron filled & helmet emptied

boiled and potted tooth & dagger
spiced with cannon ball & iron
shards like peppers picked & buried

battleships in mud now sunken
tankful hopes of brain & sinew
dashed upon the rocks of wonder

mothers' pride incomprehension
nothing breaks the titans' struggle
years behind and years in waiting

sons for sons exchanged like chessboard
pieces trench for trench in deadly
turns of war the aimless gaming

layer over layer stretching
wire barbs hung up as bunting
death's dominion celebrating
woman's grief at man's invention

doubtless stands
the sprite of warfare
Shirley Burly
maid of trouble

banner headlines
cross the cosmos
intersect at
points of chaos

Shirley Burly
soldier goddess
doubtful slink
your muddy tribunes

Autumn draws to end the fighting
hand to hand the living linger
digging rabbit holes they hoppit
down on sleepless nights or nightmare
days of false alarms & leisure

lice & fungus thrive tobacco
notwithstanding fumigation
schemes & dreams of summer meadows

men revert to faith or boyhood
savagery to clock the boredom
check unchecked desires curling
woodbines round the cook house fire
eating out for preference squire

casualties continue falling
men succumb to fevers poorly
treated water leaking toilets
foot disorders captains' orders

snipers shrapnel blasts and madness
caught between betraying comrades
self esteem and cowards' rumours
chaps survive on hidden forces

duck and dive by instinct carry
talismans believe in magic
never heed the words of strangers
friend and foe alike in danger
fallacy their only logic

Johnny Tolkien Bard of Baggins
steals from dugout down the hillside
beggs and borrows books tobacco
tins of pork and beans he carries
feet enlarged by clay he hobbles
down the alleys to the meadow

through the zigzags sallow fellows
often grunting seldom grumbling
cheerful almost in the hollows
wallows Tommy son of Atkins

smells of shrapnel bursts and sewers
overcast the front line trenches
Jerry mindful of good weather
black the rain and wide the helmet
Tommy's shoulders broad and narrow

signals officer reporting
ensign Tolkien Lancashires

carry on says Captain Oakley
shield of valour proud & broken
keep yourself in deepest cover
till you hear my whistle blowing

never fear this ring I carry
utters signals ensign Tolkien
forged of gold inside volcano
Doom protects the stealthy wearer
none shall see me through its halo

very good the captain brasses
polished irony in tatters
got your orders for the morrow
seven sharp make sure they're ready
on my whistle quit their prayers
up and over bold and burly

Shirley Burly
burnished idol
Brasso'd goddess
stands in clover

doubtful squats
your congregation
hollow hearted
hope departed

grim their task
and dim their chances
slimmer yet
than corpse that dances

Corporal Adolf son of Hitler
rarely cheerful seldom cheerless
leading runner fills his satchel
full of signals checks his Mauser
follows orders zig-zags forward

from the dugouts at the rear
to the nearest frontline trenches
dodging runs Gefreiter Hitler
message runner of Bavaria
precious orders fill his satchel
warn the Hun of Tommy's purpose

near the front his courage wavers
thick and deadly fall the salvoes
churn the mud to milky blackness
oil of manhood marks the surface
hearts of soldiers buried witness
empty now their spent bravado

still he creeps or goosesteps forward
ducks below the shrapnel bursting
diving under hurtling mortars
shoots around the zigzags tiptoes
over bodies dead & wounded
Corporal Hitler runs his errand

no one hears the shell that follows
bursting over head & shoulders
soundless rips the air asunder

numb of limb he dumbly swallows
cakes of mud shut up his cackles
deep below the sky he plunges
wonders not nor where he burrows

till some Tommy tugs his elbow
pulls the German from his hollow
officer by voice demeanour
draws him by the satchel leathers
drags him out of smoking furrow
speaks the language of the fathers
pokes his ribs with cocked revolver

give up Fritz give up your orders
be a good and decent Fellow
pack this nonsense in surrender
grub awaits you in the rear
white the bread & good the beer
warm & safe & dry no fear
drop your orders hand them over
post your last to Gross Britannia

Burly Shirley
brassy hussy
never shall thy
burnish turn me

Johnny Tolkien bard of Baggins
poet sporting khaki outfit
follows orders up and over
reconnoitre trench and capture
any German bearing signals
don't be squeamish that's an order
offer grub & threaten murder

Johnny Tolkien fusilier
signals' ensign Lancashires
sweats in helmet boots & puttees
holding cocked revolver shaking
grips the wrist of fallen soldier

German speaking Johnny Tolkien
varsity recruited ensign
pleads that Fritz accept his offer
conjures lingo rhymes & reason
even lies he tells the runner
anything to make him prisoner
short of shooting which is murder

grim the pair stare out each other
stern of visage firm of valour
neither one can flinch and hoppit
rather die would Adolf Hitler
never kill could John the poet

hand on hand in mud they wrestle
not so much in test of muscle
more on reason runs their contest
wounded Adolf weak and hungry
harkens not to promised pleasures
Johnny speaks in doubtful splutters
high his offers low his German

overhead the battle rages
bullets whiz explosions rattle
down in hollows falls the shrapnel
rains on brute and intellectual
demagogue of hate ideal
architect of fancy's fiction

then a moment when a bugle
harks in rising notes glissandos
up the scale across the wasteland
cutting air and smoke to silence
bombs are stifled rifles lowered
moments tick while hearts are rattled

what the hell or what in heaven
hunter's horn or maiden's siren
no man knows its source for certain

maybe death to claim his victims
maybe angels calm their victims
maybe life though who would credit

death would summon all who falter
life can only grimly suffer
till the safety curtain lowers
or the guillotine is loosened

suddenly a captain's whistle
breaks the magic spell of bugle
calls the British to their musters
back they plod their task accomplished
stumbling over land of no-man

home for tea and toast he grumbles
only grumbles clear of trouble
Tommy soldiers at the double
shuttles captives to the rear
shoulders wounded comrades clear
leaves his dead their troubles over

ensign Tolkien corporal Hitler
now or never comes their moment
Johnny holsters his revolver
brings an extra hand to lever
tears the satchel from its owner
gropes to leave the German runner
lying bleeding in his burrow

but before he breaks to hobble
home across the barbs & rubble
chortles shake the wounded runner
snorts of laughter hollow cackles

startled by these snarls of triumph
round the poet turns to marvel
why the devil has the fellow
got to be so blasted cheerful

though the German's eyes are hollow
fast they hold the poet's wonder
but his gaze will not be fathomed
black as death & steeped in horror

stricken cold the ensign stumbles
out across the muddy wasteland
clad in boots of clay he bumbles
knowing something there was stolen

not the satchel nor its contents
duty honour something boundless
not to kill a man so clearly
die-hard hateful cold & fearless
murder death itself that certain

on he plods his feet are swollen
lumps of clay in loamy omen
hobbles back towards his captain
Oaken shield the brave the brazen
irony with iron broken

what you got there Ensign Tolkien
clutched so tightly to your bosom
enemy dispatches maybe
letters home from German soldiers

doubtful stands
the state of battle
lives exchanged
for tittle tattle

Shirley Burly
hurly burly
ring of roses
queen of poses

bring intelligence
to bear
fathom hope
from deep despair

safe at last in filthy dugout
mug of tea and Fiveboys' chocolate
Ensign Tolkien bard of Baggins
opens up the runner's satchel
empties out its secret contents
orders meant for German soldiers
read by varsity decoders

Captain Sir please look these over
signals sent from Hunnish generals
detail all our plans of battle
Fritzie knows he's got our units
every number down to sections

Captain Oaken sometimes comic
often dour never humours
those who shy of ruthless matters
iron shield in broken tatters
soldiers on despite the rumours
Ensign Tolkien shrinks from murder
good on you the Captain flatters

Valiant leader Captain Oaken
shield of broken iron spoken
twists his 'tache with blackened fingers
stabs his finger at the ensign

now we know they know our orders
wiser shall we be whoever
doesn't know you know's the loser
killed the runner I'm assuming

Johnny Tolkien Bard of Baggins
soldier poet Lancashires
feeble footed stands uprooted
loathe to play the coward liar
answers true as truth requires

he was wounded weak from bleeding
sir all caked in mud and wire
looked lie death itself the runner
left him when I heard your whistle

Captain Oaken hums and murmurs
looks the academic over
takes the satchel smiles and chuckles

lost your ring I see that's bloody
rotten luck though got you safely
home 'twas made inside Volcano
Doom I'll wager that's Down Under
solid gold you said don't worry

lost today means found tomorrow
soon enough you'll earn new baubles
mention you in my dispatches
since you've proved yourself in battle

then he's off to meet the colonel

barely Shirley
late & early
surly turns
the hurdy gurdy

swinging left & right
she wallows
drunk or sober
whoso follows

hurly burly
cauldron swallows
man hath troubles
earth hath bubbles

Johnny Tolkien bard of Baggins'
feet of clay were nicely warming
till that moment now they're freezing
spreads his hand that bore the bangle
white the ring now bare the finger

not of gold from mountain magma
precious ring of yellow amber
bought one day on Brighton Pier
silver crossed the palm of Gypsy
talisman inscribed with message
dearest Johnny love from Edith

oh but how & when & wherefore
has the ring escaped its owner
lucky charm now gone forever
curses he in desperation

then with dreadful understanding
knows the moment it went missing
pulled from him by German runner
part exchanged for information
gone the talisman forever

Johnny sickens from that moment
booted footless doomed to failure
no more dreams of field promotion
endless nights of squalid triumph
nightmare days of stinking glories

just the memories left to ponder
turning horror into stories

hurly burly
mud and trouble
doubtful stands
your state in battle

© Philip Lee, 2016


  1. What a poem! I absolutely adored this fantasy. Where did you get the idea? You do the good good poetic wherewhich we repeat lines and continue inventively ie. Jonny Tolkien's feet enlarged by clay he 1) hobbles 2) in loamy omen 3) nicely warming. Amazing!

  2. Hi Tom! Thanks for the comments. Where did I get the idea? Well, for the form of the piece, I had read a few cantos of the Kalevala - Finland's epic poem - which supplied the rhythm (it also inspired Longfellow's Hiawatha), and the repetitive imagery. The plot (it's a narrative poem, so I guess it can have a plot), came from pondering the fact that both Tolkien and Hitler fought at the battle of The Somme. The idea of Hitler stealing the ring of fantasy is my own.


Readers' comments are welcome!