Almanac Poetry: ‘The Great War – AIF Suite’

 

The iconic Australian Army Rising Sun badge. This is the latest version, dating from 1991. [Source: Wikipedia.]

 

 

The Great War – AIF Suite

 

1. Captain Joseph Peter Lalor
(killed in action, Gallipoli, 25 April 1915)

 

Captain Joseph Peter Lalor,
the Eureka leader’s grandson,
fought bravely,
dodged bullets for hours,
but then became unstrung.
He decided to charge,
stood up,
calling out to his men
not dead or wounded:
“Now then, Twelfth Battalion …”
A Turkish sniper’s bullet
put a full-stop
to his words,
his life.

 

 

 

Anzac Cove, 1915, shortly after the April 25 landing of Australian soldiers. Wounded Australians on the Gallipoli shore are being tended to after the conclusion of the initial battle. [Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

 

 

2. Captain Alfred Shout, VC, MC
(died of wounds on HMHS Neuralia, Gallipoli, 11 August 1915)

 

“There’s Shout,” he said.

 

“Where?”

 

“There,” he pointed.
“Having a joke,
as usual.
Puffing on a Woodbine,
as usual.”

 

“Looks like a good fella.”

 

“Irreplaceable,” he replied,
a tear running down his cheek,
pocketing the photograph.

 

 

HMHS Neuralia. [Source: BirtwistleWiki.]

 

 

3. Sergeant Jack Bubb
(Pozières, 23 July 1916)

 

Just after midnight the bombardment
was at its most intense.
But the expected word, to advance,
had not yet come.
Commotion and confusion.
Men were running back down the slope.
They thought there was an order to retreat.
Others yelled:
“Double back!
Double back!”
Was the day lost?
Were our hopes dashed?
Then came Jack Bubb,
swaggering and swearing,
scornful of all danger,
gathering his scattered men,
ordering them to once again
move forward to their places.
(An order to retreat
had not been given.)
He went up with them.
Soon I heard
his booming voice again:
“I’m all right! I’m all right!”
He was limping down the road, wounded,
supported by another.
Word came for machine-gunners.
Now my turn …

 

 

War-torn Western Front battlefield. [Source: unknown.]

 

 

4. Squires
(killed in action, Pozières, 23 July 1916)

 

Now becoming daylight.
Got out of double dugout
shared with Steer,
left him to get some peace,
stretch out with his leg
—gaping gunshot wound, but bone not broken.
(I’d fixed it up
with field bandage
the best I could.)

 

Got in nearby hole
with unknown man.
This bloke,
I soon realised,
was dead.
Discovered by his I. D. discs
that it was Squires,
mate of Dunn’s.
Been struck in head by shrapnel
while not wearing helmet.
Too tired to feel horror.
Fell fast asleep …

 

 

5. C. McK.
(killed in action, Pozières, probably 25 July 1916)

 

A shell exploded, demolishing
the corner of our trench.
I lost my helmet there
but in the crater found another.
It bore the initials ‘C. McK.’
I put it on.

 

Sometime later, a pair of chaps,
noticing what was on my scone,
asked me if I knew
what had happened to Charlie.
Charlie McKnight, a mate of theirs,
had been gone for more than a day.
“Probably buried by a shell,”
was all that I could say.

 

 

 

Australians in the advance trenches, Western Front, 1917. [Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

 

6. Corporal Jagoe
(killed in action, Pozières, 25 July 1916)

 

Corporal Jagoe, forever smiling,
was always up for a lark or scrap.
But that last time, at Pozières,
his jaw was set, determined.
Fritz’s bombs wreaked merry hell.
We lost touch. In the evening,
I saw his body on a path
in woods at the back of the town.
He was dead, unmarked,
as if asleep.
We who were left
had to hurry on.

 

 

7. Major Percy Black
(killed in action, First Bullecourt, 11 April 1917)

 

Percy Black, DSO, DCM, Croix de Guerre,
of the handlebar moustache,
chiselled jaw,
dark wavy hair
and barrel chest,
looked like the ‘After’ picture
in a Physical Culture magazine.
Lieutenant-Colonel
‘Mad Harry’ Murray,
the most decorated British Empire
infantry soldier in the Great War,
VC, DCM, DSO and Bar, Croix de Guerre,
thought Black, his best friend
(shot through the head
while leading his men
through razor wire at First Bullecourt),
“the bravest man in the A.I.F”.

. . .

With his bravery, Percy was gentle,
drily humorous too.
On leave in London, in 1916,
he was almost hit by a bus.
After he reached the kerb, he quipped
that he’d like to rejoin his mates at the front
“because a man’s not safe over here”.

 

 

‘The Death of Major Black’, by Charles Wheeler, oil on canvas, 1923. [Source: Australian War Memorial collection.]

 

 

8. Captain Knox, 13th Australian Artillery Field Brigade
(killed in action, Menin Road, 17 August 1917)

 

Bill was clever and witty,
like many others anxious
not to worry his family.
So his letters home were woven
with amusing anecdotes,
comic reflections on Turks or Fritz,
generous words when he thought they fought well,
and assurances that he was safe.
This went on for years,
from Gallipoli through to Menin Road.
Then that gas attack.
Then the letters stopped.

 

Forever.

 

 

Anzac Day dawn service, Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne, 2008. [Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

 

 

(Acknowledgement: ‘The Great War – AIF Suite’ first appeared in Kevin Densley’s most recent poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, Ginninderra Press, 2020.)

 

 

Read more from Kevin Densley HERE

 

 

Kevin Densley’s latest poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, is available HERE

 

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, was published in late 2020 by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Other writing includes screenplays for educational films.

Comments

  1. DBalassone says

    Poignant sequence of poems Kevin. These reminded me a lot of one of my all-time favourites: “Breakfast” by Wilfrid Gibson.

  2. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks for the comments, DB.

    ‘War Poets’ like Gibson (and Owen and Sassoon etc) were an influence on my AIF sequence, I suppose, though this happened unconsciously rather than because of any attempt on my part to write in a similar manner.

    Glad you found my suite poignant – Anzac Day deserves this kind of work, in my opinion.

  3. John Butler says

    WW1 was the poets’ war.

    So it remains, it seems.

    Well played, KD.

  4. Kevin Densley says

    Thank you, JB.

    Yes, WW1 was very much the poets’ war – and, in a wider sense, one for artists in general of various persuasions (e.g. prose writers, painters). There were even British units with such names as the Artists Rifles, as you may know.

  5. Nicole Kelly says

    I loved how your poems humanised the men. It’s important, as time takes us further from them, that we remember how very human and how very young they were. Thanks, Kevin.

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Beautiful work Kevin. I second Nicole’s comments.

  7. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Nicole, for your response.

    Humanising the men was very much to the forefront of my thoughts when writing these poems, as was showing them as distinct individuals, as opposed to a homogeneous mass.

  8. Kevin Densley says

    Thank you Luke.

  9. Kevin Densley says

    Of course, some Australians, like my relative, Captain Bert James RAF, went over to England to serve in their forces during WW1. Here’s my Almanac piece about Bert: https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/almanac-history-captain-bert-james-r-a-f-1895-1918/

  10. Outstanding collection Kevin. Fabulous and poignant reading.

  11. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Dips!

    So pleased you liked this collection – I put a fair bit of time and effort into the layout, too. Thanks also to JTH and Col Ritchie for their assistance in this latter respect.

  12. Wonderful collection, KD. I’m glad I saw these the second time around – as I mentioned, Shout in particular got to my core.

  13. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, JL.

    Shout was the most decorated AIF soldier (though actually born in NZ before moving to Oz in 1905) in the Gallipoli campaign. And there’s a photo of Shout in army uniform, probably taken in Egypt, with his nickname written on the back: ‘Whisper.’

  14. Kevin good seeing the mention of Wilfred Owen & Siegfried Sassoon. These two experienced the horrors of this ‘great trade war’ pushing aside the jingoism that drew millions around the world to an early grave.

    Owen killed on November 4, 1918. We hear his mother was notified of his death a week later on 11 November, as the church bells @ Shrewsbury tolled out for the end of ‘the war to end all wars’. This latter bit may be apocryphal , but if correct adds a poignancy to the story.

    Siegfried Sassoon came back from the war emotionally, mentally, wounded. He spent time in psychiatric institutions dealing with, struggling with, the damages inflicted by war. None the less he found no pleasure in war.

    I wonder what Owen, Sassoon, would think of a world a century later where people are still taught to accept the same sort of jingoism that led to this horrible war. Anzac Day is a solemn event, a day to remember/respect those who were part of this great human tragedy. Lest we forget

    Glen!.

  15. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Glen, for your astute comments. It’s always a fine thing – as I’ve indicated before – to hear your perspective on important matters such as this.

    What a tragedy that Owen was picked off by a sniper so close to the war’s end – in a strategically unimportant incident. And Sassoon was a brave soldier who saw the meaninglessness of the absurd charade he was engaged in.

    Such is life … and death.

  16. Frank Taylor says

    Thanks Kevin
    As a reader of Owen and Sassoon, I echo Glen!’s comments.
    As a student of Australian history, and in a family that members served in both World Wars, Anzac Day always brings me to tears.
    Tears of sorrow for the waste and the fallen and the generational scars,
    And tears of blind rage at our political “leaders” who sent my nation, our nation, to fight in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
    We are a brave nation lead by self-serving, moral cowards who give lip-service to the fallen, and that’s the truth.
    Thanks again Kevin, war poetry is particularly poignant…
    Frank from Panton Hill

  17. Kevin Densley says

    Thanks, Frank, for your thoughtful and interesting comments.

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