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




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

A War Quartet

The Mediterranean 2014

Blood on the sand. Salt water runs in the wounds.
It is a hundred years and time heals. A people gathers
At the tide’s edge, swims in a bleary sea
where the genetics of a century mix in water too shallow
to drown, to warm to chill. Affluence is anchored
deeper – hulls gleam in the sunlight, tumblers flash
and are emptied. A youth tombstones the bay.

Belgium 1815

We are gathering the victory at Waterloo, The bodies
of the dead are stripped and flung in pits, their keepsakes
and their bloodied shirts are taken with their unvalued lives.
But a grateful Belgium knows their worth. A few years pass,
the flesh retires, the pits are opened and the bones
are sold for glue. Cowards, heroes, fathers,
sons – are boiled away to bind the books
of civil trade. No trace remains. A mound of earth,
a reputation for its c-in-c, and a boot or two.
No rusted buckles, nor shrapnel harvest in the fields;
no shred of roughened cloth, still lingering, to touch.

London 1914

The world has changed, we’ve left the charnel house.
And it’s a hundred years with many lessons learned.
Censuses have built our families in place.
We all have names, our bloodlines traced like farmer’s
stock. And death is certified, no end is ever lost.
So all are waiting for the test of war when faith
and dream can show their strength against the bullet
and the bomb. Words fill the air like Maxim’s gun.
The rifles cleared and listed. The lads in uniform
and clean. The officers alert and fed on someone’s
wine-red plan. The starter’s gun is fired.
Great engines turn. We’re off! Towards our buffered
ends, with carriaged certainties brought bustling along.
And empires of hope have taken to the skies.

The Mediterranean 2014

It’s a long way to Tipperary. To the marching boys,
the crowds of cheer-on heroes tired of peace.
Now past times hunker in the woods a continent away.
We dig into the sand – our bodies glisten in the heat.
A leisure camp for sunburnt skin relaxing on the
tributes of a distant war. It’s so easy to forgive the past
With so much good achieved. A roll call here
would sound the names our forbears left behind –
on all the monuments of war that shaped
the landscapes of so many ordered graves.
Fall in then and stand your watch with them.

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.