Archive for Passchendaele

June, by Francis Ledwidge

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down. The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
Above her widespread wares, the while she tells
The farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light,
While siren-like the pollen-staind bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shad
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

by Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917*)

*One of Ireland’s foremost poets of the First World War, Ledwidge was killed in action on 31st July 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele.

They called it Passchendaele

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , on July 31, 2017 by telescoper


One hundred years ago today, on 31st July 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres began. The battle, often called the Battle of Passchendaele, staggered on until November with hundreds of thousands of troops killed. The Allied assault on Ypres was ultimately intended to break through the German lines and capture submarine bases on the Belgian coast. That objective was not reached, and territorial gains were limited to just a few miles at terrible cost in suffering and death.

David Lloyd George, Prime Minster at the time, wrote in his memoirs:

Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign …

Others have argued that the Battle of Passchendaele had the important strategic role of taking pressure of the French army further South, which was so close to breaking point that mutinies were breaking out. Although the casualties on both sides were unsustainable, the German High Command knew that American reinforcements would soon enter the fray, and that if they were to win the War it would have to be with a knockout blow the following year. The German offensive of 1918 made substantial inroads through the Allied lines, even threatening Paris, until it was eventually halted and turned into a full-scale retreat.

Whatever the military outcome of the Battle, there is no question about the scale of the suffering of the troops (many of whom, at this stage of the War, were conscripts). The area in which the action took place was mainly low-lying, with a water table just a couple of feet below the surface. The myriad of small streams ditches, and drainage channels that had been developed over centuries to turn it into farmland, were destroyed by heavy shelling so the soldiers had to contend with heavy mud, often strewn with body parts and deep enough to drown in, as described by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet:

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell—
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare:
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west…
What greater glory could a man desire?

Whenever I read about the terrible events of past wars, the important thing (to me) is not strategy or objectives but the suffering  that had to be endured by ordinary soldiers. It’s important to remember things like Passchendaele to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in a time of relative peace. The way the world is heading, however, I worry that may soon be coming to an end. Lest we forget? Far too many people have already forgotten.

P.S. Among those killed in action on the first day of Passchendaele was Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, whom I wrote about here.

P.P.S. The troops shown in the picture above are in fact Australian gunners: the picture was taken in October 1917.



Barddoniaeth ar gyfer Dydd Gŵyl Dewi

Posted in History, Poetry with tags , , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by telescoper

Well, today is St David’s Day so let me first offer a hearty “Dydd Gwŷl Dewi Sant hapus i chi gyd” (happy St David’s Day to you all).

Over the years, I seem to have established a tradition of posting a bit of poetry to mark this special day for Wales and the Welsh and I was looking for a piece of verse to put up this time round, when I came across a poem that seems very appropriate for a number of reasons. It was written in Welsh by Hedd Wyn (born Ellis Humphrey Evans) who lived from 1887 to 1917; Hedd Wyn was his bardic name and it translates (roughly) as “pure peace”.

Hedd Wyn was a non-conformist Christian and a pacifist who was conscripted into the British Army to serve in World War 1. He was posted to Flanders and was killed in action on the first day of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. He was hit in the stomach by a shell and died later of his wounds. The battle stumbled on for months of horrific slaughter as the planned Allied offensive foundered in the mud of Passchendaele and ended, as had the Battle of the Somme a year earlier, in a bloody stalemate.

A few weeks before his death, Hedd Wyn wrote a poem called Yr Arwr (‘The Hero’) which was submitted for the prestigious Bard’s Chair at that year’s National Eisteddfod. It was announced on 6th September 1917 that  he  had won the prize, posthumously. The bard not being able to sit in the the chair, it was draped in black cloth. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was present at the ceremony.

The poem Yr Arwr is a very long work, running to 13 pages of manuscript, which is not practicable to post here, but here’s another poem by Hedd Wyn to mark the centenary of his death. This is called Rhyfel (‘War’). I only have a few words of Welsh, but because of the occasion,  it seems appropriate to post this in its original language. You can find English translations here and on the Wikipedia page here. Translating poetry is always very difficult, but the sense of the poem is of a world in chaos that has been abandoned by God.

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.