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.
The Battle of Arras 1917