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Cicely Fox Smith

(1882-1954 / England)

The Fighting Merchantmen


As I looked over the water - as I looked over the foam,
I saw an old-time packet-ship come cheerily plunging home;
I saw the holes in her riddled sails, and the shine of a little brass gun
On either side of her battered poop in the light of the westering sun.

I hailed her over the water, I hailed her over the tide:
'What news of war down Channel, what news from the ocean wide?'
And from her shadowy bulwarks a shadowy voice replied:
'Oh, homeward from the Indies bound, abeam of the Tuskar light,
We met a saucy privateer - she bid us strike or fight;
And we sent her home with a pain in her ribs, and her main topmast shot down,
To l'arn her to meddle with his Majesty's mails, bound home to Falmouth town!'

(Frigate or sloop or chasse-marée, let 'em bang us if they can,
They will maybe find not much to their mind in a fighting merchantman!)

As I looked over the water, as I looked over the foam,
I there did see a ship's longboat come wearily labouring home;
I saw the crew bend to their oars, like tired men they rowed,
As gunwale deep in the sunset tide she wallowed with her load.

I hailed her over the water, I hailed her over the tide:
'What news of war down Channel, what news from the ocean wide?'
And in her stern sheets standing, a bull-voiced mate replied:
'Oh, homeward bound from the River Plate, abeam of Tuskar light,
We met a pirate submarine at the coming on of night,
She knew her game was safe to play, as safe 'twill be again
When the game is not with fighting craft, but peaceful merchantmen.'

'They raked us first with shrapnel fire above deck and below,
They slipped a tin-fish into our bilge and left us sinking slow;
We left our skipper on the bridge with a bullet in his head;
We've our wounded here in the boat's bottom, and most by now are dead.'

'Our foes, they say, when war is done, shall pay us ton for ton;
But better now is shot for shot and gun to answer gun;
Give England's ships their fighting chance - then let him catch who can,
He will maybe find not much to his mind in a fighting merchantman!'

Submitted: Monday, August 30, 2010

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