Comrades An Episode
Before, before he was aware
The 'Verey' light had risen… on the air
in hung glistering..
And he could not stay his hand
From moving to the barbed wire's broken strand.
A rifle cracked.
Night waned. He was alone. A heavy shell
Whispered itself passing high, high overhead.
His wound was wet to his hand: for still it bled
On the glimmering ground.
Then with a slow, vain smile his wound be bound,
Knowing, of course, he'd not see home again -
Home, whose thought he put away.
Whispered, 'Where's Mister Gates?' 'Out on the wire.'
'I'll get him,' said one….
Dawn blinked and the fire
Of the Germans heaved up and down the line.
Too late! 'I'll get him.' 'Oh the swine,
When we might get him in yet safe and whole!'
'Corp'ral didn't see um fall out on patrol
Or he'd a got um.' 'Ssssh'…
'No talking there.'
A whisper: ''A went down at the last flare.'
Meanwhile the Maxims toc-toc-tocked: their swish
Of bullets told death lurked against the wish.
No hope for him!
His corporal, as one shamed,
Vainly and helplessly his ill-luck blamed.
Then Gates slowly saw the morn
Break in a rose peace through the lone thorn
By which he lay, and felt the dawn-wind pass
Whispering through the pallid, stalky grass
Of No-Man's Land…
And the tears came
Scaldingly sweet, more lovely than a flame.
He closed his eyes: he thought of home
And grit his teeth. He knew no help could come….
The silent sun over the earth held sway,
Occasional rifles cracked, and far away
A heedless speck, a 'plane, slid on alone
Like a fly traversing a cliff of stone.
'I must get back,' said Gates aloud, and heaved
At his body. But it lay bereaved
Of any power. He could not wait till night….
And he lay still. Blood swam across his sight.
Then with a groan:
'No luck ever. Well! I must die alone.'
Occasional rifles cracked. A cloud that shone,
Gold-rimmed, blackened the sun and then was gone…
The sun still smiled. The grass sang in its play.
Some one whistled, 'Over the hills and far away.'
Gates watched silently the swift, swift sun
Burning his life before it was begun….
Suddenly he heard Corporal Timmins' voice: 'Now, then,
'Urry up with that tea.'
'Hin Ginger!' 'Bill.' His men!
Timmins and Jones and Wilkinson ('the bard')
And Hughes and Simpson. It was hard
Not to see them: Wilkinson, stubby, grim,
With his 'No, sir,' 'Yes, sir,' and the slim
Simpson, 'Indeed, sir?' [while it seemed he winked
Because his smiling left eye always blinked]
And Corporal Timmins, straight and blonde and wise,
With his quiet-scanning, level, hazel eyes,
And all the others… tunics that didn't fit….
A dozen different sorts of eyes. Oh, it
Was hard to lie there! Yet he must. But no:
'I've got to die. I'll get to them. I'll go.'
Inch by inch he fought, breathless and mute,
Dragging his carcase like a famished brute….
His head was hammering and his eyes were dim,
A bloody sweat seemed to ooze out of him
And freeze along his spine… then he'd lie still
Before another effort of his will
Took him one nearer yard.
The parapet was reached.
He could not rise to it. A look-out screeched,
Three figures in one breath
Leaped up. Two figures fell in toppling death;
And Gates was lifted in. 'Who's hit?' said he.
'Timmins and Jones.' 'Why did they that for me?
I'm gone already!' Gently they laid him prone
And silently watched.
He twitched. They heard him moan,
'Why for me?' His eyes roamed round and none replied.
'I see it was alone I should have died.'
They shook their heads. Then, 'Is the doctor here?'
'He's comin', sir, he's hurryin', no fear.'
'Lift me.' They lifted him.
He smiled and held his arms out to the dim,
And in a moment passed beyond their ken,
Hearing him whisper, 'O my men, my men!'
Robert Nichols's Other Poems
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