Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Walking through the Great War in Bristol

It was eleven o’clock, on a sunshine Sunday in July,
When we gathered together to way-fare through time,
In Bristol, at Temple Meads station forecourt:
The carriage doors of remembrance troop trains
Slamming shut, as whistles blew
To take troops over the top,
To a new experience of gas and smoke,
Far away from clocking in and clocking out
At gasworks, ironworks, glassworks, rope-works,
Railway yards, engineering works, docks and cuts
Around St Phillips and the Dings.

We wandered through Edgelands terrain:
An urban-industrial cobbled street interface:
Buddleia in bloom, blackberry in blossom,
Bindweed clustered on rusting railway railings,
Damp, dripping tunnels of red brick and bedrock,
Street names recalling a long lost rural past:
‘Barleyfields’, and the pub: the ‘Barley Mow’.

Victorian terraced streets, now long gone,
From where Arthur and Alfred Jefferies once strode out,
To volunteer for the British Army,
And where their mother, Georgina,
Was at her washing line,
One day in September 1916,
When the telegram boy called:
The curtains were pulled tight across the windows,
The laundering was forgotten,
A cry of pain and anguish echoed up the stairs:
Arthur had been killed in action at the Somme -
Curtains were pulled tight too at the home
Of Arthur’s wife and children.

Then one member of our troupe - Roger Fogg -
Pulled out his grand-dad’s Soldier’s Small Book
(With photographs, addresses, next of kin and a will),
Right where his grand father – and the Jefferies –
Used to live before the Great War:
This was a theatre of memory –
We could see the boys right there before our eyes,
Clutching an old ragged football,
Laughing together on their way to the board school:
‘He would have known Arthur and Alfred.
They would have been mates.
He would have played with them in the streets just round here.’
(Cars now edging between the boys, and ourselves,
To reach a recycling centre
At the end of what was once a street with houses.)

A pigeon flew into the branches of an edgelands ash tree,
But with no message travelling through time
To us, and nor to mother, from Alfred at the front;
Wounded at Ypres, shell-shocked at the Somme,
At the end of his tether,
Shot at dawn on November 1st 1916,
Part of that accelerated wave of executions
That coincided with the faltering Somme offensive.

Georgina tramped over the cobble stones,
Handkerchief in hand,
Through the fog and reek of gas and smoke and steam,
Past a queer, sardonic rat,
A sentinel of the docks;
She cut herself a bit of bread and marg,
Pulled the curtains tight shut yet again,
And sat in the parlour gloom,
The clock ticking its empty time;

General Haig glanced at his watch,
And scratched yet another quick note:
‘How can we ever win if a plea like this is allowed?’

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