David Lewis Paget
Dunkirk - Poem by David Lewis Paget
They came from a line of fishermen,
Way back, two hundred years,
The sons of a dour old Kentish man,
Who'd braved the First World War;
When Joe went off to the Army, then,
The old man's face was grim,
'You go and fight for the country, lad,
We can't rely on him! '
He scowled on down at the eldest lad
Who sat there, mending nets,
For all he knew was the salt, the sea
And a life of cheap regrets.
The black sheep of the family
Was all that his father saw,
For Jack had refused the Army call:
'I don't believe in war! '
A feather came in the post next day,
As white as a cotton sheet,
The father turned his back on him
For shame, and refused to speak.
While Joe went off with the B.E.F.
To help the beleaguered French,
Jack was mending his fishing nets,
And sat with his fingers clenched.
Their fishing boat, the Pelican,
Lay stranded in Sandwich Bay,
Just twenty feet, and clinker built,
With the deckhouse cut away.
When the Panzers swept down to the coast,
Reaching the channel first,
The B.E.F. had retreated back
To the beaches at Dunkirk.
The Navy sent destroyers then,
Their frigates and corvettes,
But couldn't get close to the beaches there
Because of the shallow depths,
The Navy's own small vessel pool
Then called for the help of those
Whose boats were a certain shallow draught
To ferry the soldiers home.
When Jack came in, the news was out,
His mother sat, dismayed,
The Army was stranded along the beach
Where Joe lay low, and prayed.
The Stuka's screamed, and dropped their bombs
And the lines of men were strafed,
Three hundred thousand men despaired
As the Panzers lay in wait.
'So much for you, ' the father said,
As the tears poured down his cheek,
'So much for the lunacy of war, '
Said Jack, when he could speak.
'Your brother's out there, risking all,
My son, my shining light! '
But Jack stalked out with a bitter laugh,
And cried, once out of sight.
He strode on out to the Pelican,
The tide was coming in,
He dragged and pushed it to meet the sea
As he floated it again,
He kicked the inboard into life
And he sailed for Ramsgate then,
The boats were gathering by the score
To save their countrymen.
They sailed that night in convoys, groups,
And lines of little boats,
While Jack prayed long at the tiller
That the Pelican stayed afloat,
She'd never been out as far as this,
She was just a coastal craft…
But Joe stood out in the water, then,
And thought of his brother, Jack.
The Stuka's bombed the Naval ships,
They strafed the lines of men,
Joe didn't know if he'd ever get back
To his homeland, once again.
The Foudroyant was bombed and sank,
A destroyer ran aground,
Then a hundred boats, with the Pelican,
Finally sighted land.
Jack took the Pelican close inshore
And he loaded his twenty men,
He ferried them out to a waiting ship
Then turned to the shore again,
He plucked the men from the waters there
And he looked for his brother Joe,
But Joe was safe on a steamer, then,
Though his brother didn't know.
For hours he turned, and turned about,
He saved five hundred lives,
He worked himself to exhaustion there
Like a man who the devil drives,
Eight hundred ships and boats were there
In the smoke and the swirling murk,
To bring those thousands of soldiers home
From the beaches of Dunkirk.
Joe walked unsteadily through the door
To the cries of his folks, alone,
They couldn't speak for the pure relief
Of seeing him safe at home,
But his father suddenly pulled away,
And wept, while turning his back,
'We've just been told by the foot patrol…
We've lost your brother, Jack! '
'They said the Pelican's hull was holed
With a burst of cannon rounds,
The men on board were saved, I heard,
But three of them were drowned.
They left the bodies to float out there;
Oh God; now, what have I done? '
He shook his head as he cried, and said,
'I've lost my eldest son! '
They placed a plaque on the Harbour wall
For Jack and the Pelican,
While the father stared most days to sea
As he cried there, off and on,
Then he took a match and some tinder wood
For a pledge he'd made before,
To burn a pure white feather there
For a son who hated war.
14 June 2008
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