Ypres 1915

Ypres 1915

The age of trumpets is passed, the banners hang
like dead crows, battered and black, 
rotting into nothingness on cathedral wall. 
In the crypt of St. Paul’s I had all the wrong thoughts, 
wondered if there was anything left of Nelson
or Wellington, and even wished 
I could pry open their tombs and look, 
then was ashamed 
of such morbid childishness, and almost afraid. 

I know the picture is as much a forgery
as the Protocols of Zion, yet it outdistances
more plausible fictions: newsreels, regimental histories, 
biographies of Earl Haig.

It is always morning
and the sky somehow manages to be red
though the picture is in black and white. 
There is a long road over flat country, 
shell holes, the debris of houses, 
a gun carriage overturned in a field, 
the bodies of men and horses, 
but only a few of them and those 
always neat and distant.

The Moors are running
down the right side of the road. 
The Moors are running
in their baggy pants and Santa Claus caps. 
The Moors are running.

And their officers, 
Frenchmen who remember 
Alsace and Lorraine, 
are running backwards in front of them, 
waving their swords, trying to drive them back, 
at the dishonour of it all. 
The Moors are running.

And on the left side of the same road, 
the Canadians are marching in the opposite direction.

The Canadians are marching 
in English uniforms behind
a piper playing ‘Scotland the Brave.’

The Canadians are marching 
in impeccable formation, 
every man in step.

The Canadians are marching.

And I know this belongs 
with Lord Kitchener’s mustache 
and old movies in which the Kaiser and his general staff 
seem to run like Keystone Cops.

That old man on television last night, 
a farmer or fisherman by the sound of him, 
revisiting Vimy Ridge, and they asked him 
what it was like, and he said, 
There was water up to our middles, yes 
and there was rats, and yes 
there was water up to our middles 
and rats, all right enough, 
and to tell you the truth 
after the first three or four days 
I started to get a little disgusted.

Oh, I know they were mercenaries 
in a war that hardly concerned us. 
I know all that.

Sometimes I’m not even sure that I have a country.

But I know that they stood there at Ypres 
the first time the Germans used gas, 
that they were almost the only troops 
in that section of the front 
who did not break and run, 
who held the line.

Perhaps they were too scared to run.
Perhaps they didn’t know any better 
— that is possible, they were so innocent, 
those farmboys and mechanics, you only have to look 
at old pictures and see how they smiled.

Perhaps they were too shy 
to walk out on anybody, even Death. 
Perhaps their only motivation
was a stubborn disinclination.

Private McNally thinking:
You squareheaded sons of bitches, 
you want this God damn trench 
you’re going to have to take it away 
from Billy MacNally 
of the South End of Saint John, New Brunswick.

And that’s ridiculous, too, and nothing on which to found a country. 
It makes me feel good, knowing 
that in some obscure, conclusive way
they were connected with me
and me with them.

Alden Nowlan