As the nation prepares to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, retired Lancashire journalist Sue Bromley has turned poet to pay her own moving tribute.
Partly inspired by a diary kept by her father Robert Tindall, who served with the West Riding Field Ambulance Corps, these thoughtful and beautifully crafted poems speak loudly of both the futility of war and the bravery and comradeship of the men who faced unimaginable horrors on the Western Front.Robert Tindall, who later became an Anglican vicar, was aged 20
when he left his studies at Leeds University to join the ambulance corps in September 1914 and went on to nurse the wounded on some of the First World War’s major battlefields, including the 2nd Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele.
Her father’s first-hand experiences, and the author’s own meditations after a battlefield tour of Flanders and Picardy in 2014, form the bedrock of an intelligent and eloquent anthology which reflects the clarity and wisdom of hindsight without losing the spirit of angst, anger and dark humour that imbued so much of the contemporary verse.
Bromley’s poignant remembrance of a terrible conflict encompasses the progress of the war from the early days when Europe was ‘a continent astride a seismic fault’ and naïve patriotism and enthusiastic jingoism were the order of the day, through the realities of bullets, bursting shells and deadly gas to the aching sense of loss as millions lie dead.
In The Lads, a poem that perfectly captures the youthful innocence of those early volunteers who rushed to sign up for the local Pals’ regiments, Bromley imagines Bert, Billy and Harry who will ‘be heroes by the summer, With our pick of girls galore. We’ll have sons and tell ’em: It’s their dads who won the war.’
There is also a barbed remembrance of The Doubter, ‘hailed as heroic if we pledge to go, Accused of treachery if we say ‘No’ and the fine lady with ribbons in her hat ‘that danced with feathers of exotic birds’ handing out ‘a plume of much more humbled provenance but purest white’ to The ‘Coward.’
On the battlefield, we meet the young lieutenant, a pink-faced ‘toff’ suspected by his men of not having ‘the muscle to dig a front-line trench’ but who turns out instead to be a hero: ‘We knew too late he was the best Of men, who bravely led. The few of us who still survive All weep that he is dead.’
In The Gas, Bromley brings us the horrors of a deadly gas attack – the ‘ultimate atrocity’ which, like war, ‘obscures normality and sanity and joy, Eating away the heart and lungs Of gentle thoughts and simple hopes And civilisation chokes to death.’
The cynical humour of the soldiers gets a suitably truculent outing in The Officers’ Latrine, a poem that recalls an order to Robert Tindall and another private to build an elaborate latrine for officers only – covertly nicknamed ‘The Pee Palace’ – at a rest camp near Ypres in July 1915.
And in a final clutch of poems that views the First World War in retrospect, Bromley writes with passion of the war graves, ‘row upon row in ranks as straight As living soldiers on parade,’ a place where ‘Sunlight reflecting on white stone The only sign that they were ever here.’
Bromley, who has poured heart and soul into this personal and incredibly touching tribute to her father’s lost generation, makes a final appeal in her emotional Epitaph:
‘Do not call us the ‘Glorious Dead’…
There is no glory on the fields of death;
Glory lies in the joy to be alive.’
100 Years Ago is on sale at Amazon and on the Waterstones website.
(UK Book Publishing, paperback, £7.50)