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Donkin's World: Zero Hour

Richard Donkin's never-to-be-forgotten poem should be read and pondered upon by all those who would send men to war.

Private Harris pats his pocket, checks his cartridge pouch,
Tracing a sepia smile, returned, he clasps his mother’s cross and prays,
Lid tilted forward, pressing cropped and sweated hair,
He palms a calming Woodbine from Geordie’s shaking hand,
Not long now, lads, hear the steeping barrage sweep our grazing land.

Boots, bulled beetle-black, now chalk-caked, grimed,
Stubbing hard-bagged earth, studs grazing wooden rungs,
Leaned, bayonet blades like silver sprouting shoots,
Bombs and rations, weighing webbing packs,
Burden chaffing shoulders, straining aching backs.

Blinking miners, screening mole-eyes, taste the day and gasp,
Clay-faced slaves unchained from primed stygian depths.
Deafened gunners slump, spent, in mountains of dead cases,
Rearward, nurses wait, smooth-aproned, nervous, still,
In pounding silence, gentle songbirds chorus the solo skylark’s rill.

Spark-set, the ridge erupts in fountained earth and flesh,
Burnished whistles ripple down the lines of plate-tin heads,
Lee Enfields, poled in file and spaced at walking pace,
Pals together, emptied workshops, factories, clubs and schools,
Proud battle regiments, blindly pistol-led and organised by fools.

Finding the staved wire, parting, breaking, falling,
Staccato rhythms rattle like childhood sticks on railings,
Smoking metal, scything limbs and cleaving flesh, the keening,
Muted groans as bone and muscle fuse in tunics torn,
And Geordie folds, his mottled innards feed the wetted earth unborn.

The captain dies, surprised, wide-eyed, his hunter watchcase cracked,
As Harris claws the brown indecent ground, hard in the body’s lee,
Behind his epauletted shield in harrowed field, he lays all day,
Cold and dimming, plucked and stretcher-borne, returned,
Watered, bandaged, saw-hacked, skin-flap-stitched and burned.

Holding now, the captain’s watch, Harris counts his ticking war,
Birth, schooling, training camp and trench, a minute’s walk,
No talk, or rifle raised, or blood-rushed charge, instead a thump,
The blighty wound and torso bound in white sheets tight and neat,
Packed around the space in bed where once he’d lain his feet.

They buried Geordie, neat ranked, lawned and marked by name,
Unlike the shredded soil-tossed men who had no grave, unfound,
Remembered, bugled, once a year and poppy wreathed,
While Harris, medal-chested, wheelchair parked and selling laces,
Sits head straight, eyes-closed, in reconstructing blanched, forgotten faces.


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