Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Moving Up" (c. 1916-1918)
We marched, and saw a company of Canadians
Their coats weighed eighty pounds at least, we saw them
Faces infinitely grimed in, with almost dead hands
Bent, slouching downwards to billets comfortless and dim.
Cave dwellers last of tribes they seemed, and a pity
Even from us just relieved (much as they were), left us.
Somme, what a desolation's damned land, what iniquity
Of mere being. There of what youth that country bereft us;
Plagues of evil lay in Death's Valley we also had
Forded that up to the thighs in chill mud almost still-stood
As they had gone -- and endured day as night without sun.
Gone for five days then any sign of life glow
As the notched stumps or the gray clouds (then) we stood;
Dead past death from first hour and the needed mood
Of level pain shifting continually to and fro.
Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec, Stewart White ran in
My own mind; what in others? These men who finely
Perhaps had chosen danger for reckless and fine chance
Fate had sent for suffering and dwelling obscenely
Vermin eaten, fed beastly, in vile ditches meanly.
(Backwoods or clean Quebec for defiled, ruined, man-killing France
And the silver thrush no more crying Canada -- Canada for the memory.
Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).
"Death's Valley" (line 9) (also referred to as "Death Valley") was the name given to a terrain feature on the Somme battlefield. The punctuation (or lack thereof), including the lack of a closing parenthesis at the end of the last line, reflect Gurney's typescript. The poem was not published during his lifetime.
Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Arras" (c. 1917-1918)
First Time In
After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit shaded close by slitten
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome;
So that we looked out as from the edge of home.
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next days' guns
Nor any line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to War's rout,
Candles they gave us precious and shared over-rations --
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the white rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung -- but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.
Ivor Gurney, Ibid.
The tenderness is touching, especially as contrasted with the harrowing circumstances. "A Welsh colony/Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory/Soft foreign things" is very lovely and affecting. "David of the White Rock" ("Dafydd y Garreg Wen") and "Slumber Song" ("Suo Gan") are traditional Welsh songs. Gurney the musician and composer would likely have been beguiled by the singing.
Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Somme" (c. 1916-1918)
Finally, there is this sonnet, which is one of Gurney's best-known poems.
There are strange Hells within the minds War made
Not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid
As one would have expected -- the racket and fear guns made.
One Hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked lower their heads --
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
'Apres la guerre fini' till Hell all had come down.
12 inch -- 6 inch and 18 pounders hammering Hell's thunders.
Where are They now on State-doles, or showing shop-patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns.
Ivor Gurney, Ibid.
The final two lines are, of course, remarkable -- and devastating. First comes: "Some civic routine one never learns." On a first reading, this could possibly have a hint of wryness about it. Possibly. But then comes this: "The heart burns -- but has to keep out of face how heart burns." One would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. There are things that we will never come close to fathoming because we were not there, but which can still bring a tear to the eye.
Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, "Sanctuary Wood" (c. 1916-1917)