Visiting With Jo

for George, Bill and Cherry

One hundred years – of springs, of winters,
harvests, treaties. Of senotaphs and hidden hopes.
A hundred years of Jo: Jo dead, Jo missing,
Jo as sacrifice, Jo growing in my head.
Abandoned, just another of the missing, dead.
Untalked of Essex boy, Lance Corporal, 31.

I’ve sought you out, done all I can –
looked for your name that never dies
and that I nearly couldn’t find – Bay 10,
among the thousands lost and Lutyened,
on tended Arras stone. White honey gold,
ranked, columned and arranged, Vince J.

I walk your field of battle – like you,
with pals. Sat nav to Neuville Vitasse,
its London Cemetery collecting a Division’s
early dead, falling from the order of advance,
stepping out from feeble lorries, creeping trains
on narrow gauge. Follow on along
the slope towards your goal. Beside the way,
an orchard whose apples gather underneath
the trees. Red-skinned, their disregarded flesh
gathers in the grass. A horse and rider
join the track – a child, she’s bare-backed
and gymkhana-bound where families laugh,
loud, as distant shells accompany
The Queen’s Own Rifles up the hill
to Telegraph Wood. A century has seen
these trees return, conceal the ground
where hidden guns and trenches kept
their promises. Around lie disregarded
bags and rubbish – a hundred years
of waiting and a tidying that never comes.
And here ahead the land goes on,
its furrowed crops wrenched out,
and newly drilled – lines waiting
for a fresh offensive in the spring.

And hereabouts you fell. Losing everything
for this Hill or another, or taken, taking nothing.
Maybe a careless shell gave you its funeral,
or death left you unrecognised, to take
your place in one more grave Known Only
Unto God. Another cemetery lies two fields
away. And another underneath the Péage
and the TGV. So here you must remain. Lost,
April 1917. Fourteen days in, a face unknown
amongst the faded grins and smiles of lads
who wait for orders, falling in.

We take our leave, and rain pours through
the afternoon. About the fields stand ready
men with rifles, and hi-viz, to shoot at
anything that moves. Hares, rabbits,
pigeons – rising, running from an enemy
they do not know. I leave you,  Jo,
with them, to take your chances once again.

October 2019
The Battle of Arras 1917



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.