31st July 1917

If Europe was at war again
could it ever match the stain
of Passchendaele? The last throw,
the final act to put the sense of war
beyond all doubt. This word,
a mere location on a local map,
eyed with monocular vision by
the wisdom of the general staff,
is now an onomatopoeic standfast
for our times, so easily does it slip
into our tongue, with its Flemish
orthography hiding English suffering
and death. Lest we forget, as many
German dead are counted, but
the battle over numbers never ends,
though together, all no more.

But could we be at war again
when so many days as these
and broken lives and empty
hearts, have made their argument?
If suffering disaster binds, then
selfish statehood surely puts us back
to where we were, when treaties
only bound our continent to making war.

Starting today, 100 years ago
when much of Europe burns in heat
and ending in November when cold
will hold its heart, how right it is
to remember these unnumbered dead.
When those who take us out
of union assert the cause of unity
and peace are not the same; that nations
are better off alone to fight their battles
once again, and seek for allies in
the empire that’s gone.

31st July 2017

Cousins in Arms

Jo Vince, 551929, 1st/16th battalion London regiment (Queens Westminster rifles)
Charles Henry Vince, S4/128216, Army Service Corps

We cannot know the way their bodies fell,
even though they are our dead. Why some
are less than air and earth.  My father’s cousin, Jo,
he is not found. He vanishes at Arras.  It’s April,
four years in. A spring offensive on the Scarpe.
For this spot of France, the first of many battles,
but his last. 5 days after, Edward Thomas dies,
about whom many words are said. Jo rates
a mother’s grief, a mention on a plaque, these lines
that try to place him here. Lance Corporal Vince.
Late Essex Boy, Late Rifleman, Just Jo.

Charles Henry Vince lies buried in Baghdad.
Another cousin, in the Army Service Corps.
What ends he served are here as silent as his own.
On a November day in 1917
he dies, and with 5 others serving with the same.
No story passes on, except bare facts
of all their graves. A search and sort reveals them
as the company he must have kept that day.
Their cemetery is now a wasteland, too dangerous
to tend, to dry to hope for grass.  Their corner
of a foreign field is now abandoned England.
So Charlie Vince, Staff Sergeant, late of
the Service Corps, a music scholar in your parents’
home, you lie and wait amongst dead friends.

Both boys, your anonymity protects. Were you
ranked cowards, runaways, or insubordinates,
your deaths at dawn would pin you to a mark
of courage as the bullets broke your hearts –
with every detail of your exploits held as proof of
their injustice and your victimhood. Your final
ends on duty mark you down for nothing – but
a nation’s gratitude and a summary forgetfulness.