A treasury of war poetry, British and American poems of the world war, 1914-1919/Ypres

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A treasury of war poetry, ... 1914-1919
Part 13, Ypres

YPRES



YPRES

CITY of stark desolation,
Infinite voices of silence,
Crying aloud in the day time,
Whispering shrill in the moonlight,
Ask of the world, appealing:
"What are you now but a name?"


Hushed are your streets, and the rumble
Of lorries and wagons and limbers
And low, dull tread of battalions,
Moving stubbornly cheerful
Back of invisible fighters
Muddily bedded in Flanders—
These alone for your roadways,
And these for the hours of darkness,
Wide to inscrutable heaven
Lie, in their ruin all equal,
Houses and hovels abandoned,
Windowiess yawnings and pillars,
Chasms and doorways and gables,
Tottering spectres of brickwork
Strewn through the naked chambers—
Never a home for the seeking,
Not through the whole of the city,
Save for the spirit-fled body.
And over the breakage and rubble,
Furious wastage of warfare,
Rise in their piteous grandeur,
Oaks, still battling the tempest,
Riven and broken Cathedral,
Shattered, half-pinnacled Cloth-Hall,
Towers of solemn, grey greatness
Calling on heaven to witness,
Listening, steadfastly watchful,
For boom that will herald disaster
Down on their remnants of glory,
Asking the world appealing:
"What are we now but a name?"


City of wanton destruction,
Standing nakedly awful,
Token of agonized country,
When was an answer demanded
In so relentless a silence?
How can the asking be empty?
Name and naught else, in your ruins,
Crowned in the heart as an emblem,
Child of the ravenous booming,
Page of heroical story,
Greatest in still desolation,
Never in all your peace-slumber
Garnered you fame as in fury.
Silent mother of splendour,
Stand when your ruins have crumbled
And, sinking to soil of Flanders,
Merged with the valiant sleepers;
And after that and for always,
As long as the breath of men's honour
Is to the earth as the springtime,
Speak with your voices undying;—
How in the anguish and glory
Belgium and Britain you stood for,
World of men's honour undaunted
Just in the lines round your city,
Where the fierce waves of ambition,
Ruthlessly seeking their purpose,
Sank with the dead into Flanders.
Desolate spirit unconquered,
Here where the fury lingered,
Here where the graves of the honoured
Around your ruins are clustered,
Rise in your triumph eternal,
Built in the heart of man.

Ypres, October, 1915.


EASTER AT YPRES: 1915[1]

THE sacred Head was bound and diapered,
The sacred Body wrapped in charnel shroud,
And hearts were breaking, hopes that towered were bowed,
And life died quite when died the living Word.
So lies this ruined city. She hath heard
The rush of foes brutal and strong and proud,
And felt their bolted fury. She is ploughed
With fire and steel, and all her grace is blurred.


But with the third sun rose the Light indeed,
Calm and victorious though with brows yet marred
By Hell's red flame so lately visited.
Nor less for thee, sweet city, better starred
Than this grim hour portends, new times succeed;
And thou shalt reawake, though aye be scarred.


THE FIRST BATTLE OF YPRES[2]

GREY field of Flanders, grim old battle-plain,
What armies held the iron line round Ypres in the rain,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river?


  Merry men of England,
  Men of the green shires,
  From the winding waters,
  The elm-trees and the spires,
And the lone village dreaming in the downland yonder.
Half a million Huns broke over them in thunder,
Roaring seas of Huns swept on and sunk again,
Where fought the men of England round Ypres in the rain,
On the grim plain of Flanders, whose earth is fed with slaughter.


North-country fighting men from the mine and the loom,
Highlander and lowlander stood up to death and doom,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.


  London men and Irish,
  Indian men and French,
  Charging with the bayonet,
  Firing in the trench,
Fought in that furious fight, shoulder to shoulder.
Leapt from their saddles to charge in fierce disorder,
The Life Guards, mud and blood for the scarlet and the plume,
And they hurled back the foeman as the wind the sea spume,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.


But the huge Hun masses yet mounted more and more,
Like a giant wave gathering to whelm the sweet shore,
While swift the exultant foam runs on before and over.


  Where that foam was leaping,
  With bayonets, or with none,
  The cooks and the service men
  Ran upon the Hun.
The cooks and the service men charged and charged together
Moussy's cuirassiers, on foot, with spur and sabre;
Helmed and shining fought they as warriors fought of yore—
Till calm fell sinister as the hush at the whirlwind's core,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.


Lo! the Emperor launched on us his guard of old renown,
Stepping in parade-march, as they step through Berlin town,
On the chill road to Gheluveldt, in the dark before the dawning.


  Heavily tolled on them
  Mortal mouths of guns,
  Gallantly, gallantly
  Came the flower of the Huns.
Proud men they marched, like an avalanche on us falling,
Prouder men they met, in the dark before the dawning.
Seven to one they came against us to shatter us and drown,
One to seven in the woodland we fought them up and down,
In the sad November woodland, when all the skies were mourning.


The long battle thundered till a waxing moon might wane,
Thrice they broke the exhausted line that held them on the plain,
And thrice like billows they went back, from viewless bounds retiring.


  Why paused they and went backward,
  With never a foe before,
  Like a long wave dragging
  Down a level shore
Its fierce reluctant surges, that came triumphant storming
The land, and powers invisible drive to its deep returning?
On the grey field of Flanders again and yet again
The Huns beheld the Great Reserves on the old battle-plain,
The blood-red field of Flanders, where all the skies were mourning.


The fury of their marshalled guns might plough no dreadful lane
Through those Reserves that waited in the ambush of the rain,
On the riven plain of Flanders, where hills of men lay moaning.


  They hurled upon an army
  The bellowing heart of Hell,
  We saw but the meadows
  Torn with their shot and shell.
We heard not the march of the succours that were coming,
Their old forgotten bugle-calls, the fifes and the drumming,
But they gathered and they gathered from the graves where they had lain
A hundred years, hundreds of years, on the old battle-plain,
And the young graves of Flanders, all fresh with dews of mourning.


Marlborough's men and Wellington's, the burghers of Courtrai,
The warriors of Plantagenet, King Louis' Gants glacés
And the young, young dead from Mons and the Marne river.


  Old heroic fighting men
  Who fought for chivalry,
  Men who died for England,
  Mother of Liberty,
In the world's dim heart, where the waiting spirits slumber,
Sounded a roar when the walls were rent asunder
That parted Earth from Hell, and summoning them away,
Tremendous trumpets blew, as at the Judgment Day—
And the dead came forth, each to his former banner.


On the grim field of Flanders, the old battle-plain,
Their armies held the iron line round Ypres in the rain,
From Bixschoote to Baecelaere and down to the Lys river.


RUINS
(Ypres, 1917)

RUINS of trees whose woeful arms
 Vainly invoke the sombre sky,—
  Stripped, twisted boughs and tortured boles,
  Like lost souls,—
How green they grew on the little farms!


Ruins of stricken wall and spire,
 Stretched mile on desolate mile along,—
  Ghosts of a life of sweet intent,
  Riven and rent
By frantic shell and searching fire.


Ruins of soldiers torn and slain,
 English bodies broken for you:
  Burned in their hearts the battle-cry! . . .
  Forspent they lie,
Clay crumbling slow to clay again.

  1. Written in a "dug-out" called "Mon Privilège" in "Glencorse Wood" by Westhoeck, near Ypres, April 9-10, Easter Week, 1915.
  2. In the first Battle of Ypres, which was fought in October—November, 1914, a thin line of British, supported on each wing by small bodies of French, stopped the push of an immense German army on Calais. The allusion in the latter part of the poem is not to "the angels of Mons," but to a story received from a very competent witness. On three occasions the Germans broke through the line, then paused and retired, for no apparent reason. On each of these occasions prisoners, when asked the cause of their retirement, replied: "We saw your enormous Reserves." We had no Reserves. This story was incidentally confirmed by the remark of another officer on the curious conduct of the Germans in violently shelling certain empty fields behind our lines.