Two Poems

Lines On An Exhibition At the Imperial War Museum, London

The curators who designed this trench

Have managed to evoke the sights and sounds, but not the stench

Inevitable where a single bucket per platoon

Had to last from midnight through till noon.

This wooden front line, sawn off nice and square, is nothing like the torn off

Strips and ragged gougings in the earth that passed for trenches when

The British first dug in at Ypres and built their parapets with dead men.

Materials used to build the trench have been treated to make them fire retardant. If you have very sensitive skin please avoid touching the structure.’

The purpose of this trench is not to teach the crude,

Uneven, hard-edged kind of lesson based on verisimilitude.

This is the modern kind of learning based on a flame-retardant semblance

Of a trench – great-grandad’s war turned into a heritage experience.

The video of the series is available in the Museum shop. It also stocks a wide range of books and other materials on the subject, some of which are displayed here.

The men I’ve read about in books who built the Western Front were not the kind

To make an exhibition of themselves. I wonder if they’d mind,

After all these years, seeing the trenches that they dug to fight and die in

Reproduced in plywood to take advantage of a TV tie-in?


     What We Found, Boesinghe, 2001.

 First up, a rum jar full of clay stamped SRD, ie. Service Rum Diluted,

The sort of stuff that seldom reached its destination undisputed.

Next up, barbed wire, a damp coil of solid rust.

The sort of trophy that, when dried in years to come,

Will flake and crumble into piles of orange dust

In some forgotten corner where my wife will find it and despair

Of my obsession with Boesinghe and the treasure we found buried there.

The rotten duckboards told us where the trench was laid.

The twisted rifle pointed to an unexploded hand grenade.

The bayonet was one of five million made

By Wilkinson Sword, the name on the world’s finest blade.

No scabbard, of course. Nothing leather could survive those years of damp and frost.

No belt nor webbing bound our sentry, found still crouching at his forward-looking post,

Stubbornly anonymous despite his mortal scatterings –

His un-initialled pipe, his spoon, his pocket change of unspent pence,

His nameless, dateless wedding ring, his toothless comb,

The tarnished nib that wrote his last words home.

No positive identification could be made. His compressed fibre name tag having rotted

All the rest was guess-work based on some regimental buttons knotted

In a mulch of sticky thread, and the canister of his gas mask —

Smashed inside his rib-cage.

So all we could say for certain was he died before the gas blew clear;

He was a husband; he was a Royal Fusilier.

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