The Night Patrol

Arthur Graeme West (1891-1917)

Above: “Friday afternoon at 4:40,” April 8, 2016

The Night Patrol–France, March 1916.

Over the top!  The wire’s thin here, unbarbed
Plain rusty coils, not staked, and low enough:
Full of old tins, though–“When you’re through, all three,
Aim quarter left for fifty yards or so,
Then straight for that new piece of German wire;
See if it’s thick, and listen for a while
For sounds of working; don’t run any risks;
About an hour; now, over!”

And we placed
Our hands on the topmost sand-bags, leapt, and stood
A second with curved backs, then crept to the wire,
Wormed ourselves tinkling through, glanced back, and dropped.
The sodden ground was splashed with shallow pools,
And tufts of crackling cornstalks, two years old,
No man had reaped, and patches of spring grass.
Half-seen, as rose and sank the flares, were strewn
With the wrecks of our attack: the bandoliers,
Packs, rifles, bayonets, belts, and haversacks,
Shell fragments, and the huge whole forms of shells
Shot fruitlessly–and everywhere the dead.
Only the dead were always present–present
As a vile sickly smell of rottenness;
The rustling stubble and the early grass,
The slimy pools–the dead men stank through all,
Pungent and sharp; as bodies loomed before,
And as we passed, they stank: then dulled away
To that vague fœtor, all encompassing,
Infecting earth and air.  They lay, all clothed,
Each in some new and piteous attitude
That we well marked to guide us back: as he,
Outside our wire, that lay on his back and crossed
His legs Crusader-wise; I smiled at that,
And thought on Elia and his Temple Church.
From him, at quarter left, lay a small corpse,
Down in a hollow, huddled as in bed,
That one of us put his hand on unawares.
Next was a bunch of half a dozen men
All blown to bits, an archipelago
Of corrupt fragments, vexing to us three,
Who had no light to see by, save the flares.
On such a trail, so lit, for ninety yards
We crawled on belly and elbows, till we saw,
Instead of lumpish dead before our eyes,
The stakes and crosslines of the German wire.
We lay in shelter of the last dead man,
Ourselves as dead, and heard their shovels ring
Turning the earth, then talk and cough at times.
A sentry fired and a machine-gun spat;
They shot a flare above us, when it fell
And spluttered out in the pools of No Man’s Land,
We turned and crawled past the remembered dead:
Past him and him, and them and him, until
For he lay some way apart, we caught the scent
Of the Crusader and slid past his legs,
And through the wire and home, and got our rum.

From The Diary of a Dead Officer, Being the Posthumous Papers of Arthur Graeme West (1919?), read for Vol. 85 of the Short Poetry Collection.