A Letter from the Front

The bloody war for months had raged;
the land was puddled red;
where before the barley grew,
lay the unproductive dead.

On either side, entrenched and doomed,
two armies, born of hate,
both shared the dread of future wounds
and the tedium of the wait.

Behind the lines, old General Hay
surveyed his battle plans.
His maps convinced him victory
was, as ever, near at hand.

As darkness fell, an underling
lit a garish light
and General Hay ate supper
on this Eve of Christmas night.

The enemy would not expect
a push on Christmas Day:
a hundred yards of land to gain
was the dream of General Hay.

Major Brown said: “Sir, I’m sure
your plan is bound to do.
I’d say it’s even more…compelling
than the other fifty-two.”

On hearing this the General
was generous with his rum;
he leaned back in his favourite chair
and commenced to softly hum.

Soon Land of hope and Glory filled
the chilly Winter air
and pride and rum contrived to warm
the heart of each man there.

It is a tactic, well-conceived
– what poet could deny? –
to cheer the souls of fighting men
before the day they die

and surely it was only fitting
that the officers, warm and calm,
should celebrate with national zeal
how far they were from harm.

On General Hay’s command, they rested
till slumber felled each man.
The General whispered to the stars
and told them of his plan.

Tomorrow I’ll be famous, then,
for my scheme to win the war.
I’ll freshen up this stalemate.
I’ll barge right through the door.

They’ll mint new medals, just for me,
or there won’t be quite enough.
I’m bound to get a knighthood!
and a statue – looking tough!

He chuckled modestly. Of course,
I’ll show them I’m not vain.
I’ll let them put one statue up
and say: “No, not again!”

He felt he hadn’t slept at all
when they woke him near dawn.
“The Huns this morning, gentlemen,
will wish they’d not been born.”

And so he gave the final order,
conveyed by Major Brown.
Though Hay had never yet been right,
no doubts would get him down.

Soon he’d see the Front light up,
hear the thunder of the guns
for well he knew each medal’s price
was many mothers’ sons.

When Major Brown hotfoot returned,
his mood seemed falsely bleak
and – when he’d got his wind back –
the General heard him speak:

“It seems there’s been some singing:
Some carols through the night –
Both sides, Sir! And gifts exchanged!
Our men refuse to fight!”

The General’s face turned purplish,
and his neck was glowing red;
his very ears looked badly scorched
by what Major Brown had said.

“Is this some kind of bloody joke?
They’re singing? …and gifts, you say?
They’re raving mad!… My perfect plan!…
We’ve wasted Christmas Day!”

Awkward glances were exchanged
by those who gave him space.
None dared interject a word
for there was murder in his face.

“They’re traitors! All of them!
I’ll shoot the bloody lot!
One by one, by firing squad.
I’ll stop this bloody rot!”

“But not the whole division, Sir?”
asked Major Brown, dismayed.
The firing squad would shoot themselves
if this order was obeyed…”

The General roared, and slapped his horse
in a fit of wrath.
The beast, as trained, reared up and neighed
and duly bolted off.

The General was in the saddle,
but not securely so:
he fell back and was dragged along,
but the horse knew where to go.

Five miles or so and they were there:
on the actual Western Front.
The horse stopped dead in No Man’s Land
for there was none to hunt.

All was quiet this Christmas Day
but for burial of the dead
on both sides: every fallen friend
had prayers and blessings said.

Now, dangling from his trusty steed,
came General Hay, no less.
Upside down, or not, his rank
was evident from his dress.

His head was bloody; his hand was torn;
unconsciously he lay.
A German medic tended him
for this was Christmas Day.

Soldiers of both armies stood,
confused by what they saw:
the General alone, in this strange place,
among the mud and gore.

He then woke up; his eyelids twitched,
then slowly opened wide.
The first thing that the General saw
was the German by his side.

Instantly, he roused himself
and jumped back, as in fright.
He grabbed his pistol, for none had thought
that removing it was right.

He missed the medic, but the man behind
had an earlobe shot away.
In that long second, time stood still.
All guns came into play.

Every man a target armed,
was ready to shoot the foe.
Then General Hay took aim again,
but Sergeant Hodge said: “No!”

He shot the General in the chest
who fell back on the ground.
He looked quite dead. A minute passed,
but no one made a sound.

Then Captain Wilkes was first to speak:
“I think he broke his neck,
dragged so far behind his horse;
We’ll say he looked a wreck.”

Sombrely, they all agreed.
No need to make a fuss
for Sergeant Hodge had simply acted
“for every one of us.”

Captain Wilkes said: “Dig a grave,
and someone make a cross.
We’ll bury him in No Man’s Land
and together mourn his loss.”

A shout of panic – and all heads turned
as the General somehow stirred.
Not dead yet, he raised his arm
but could not speak a word.

His bloody hand was shaking near
the pocket on his breast,
but far too weak to open it.
He wept when forced to rest.

The medic looked and there he found
a photograph fondly frayed
of a woman who was ever young,
every smilingly portrayed.

Receiving it from the enemy,
his face expressing peace,
General Hay took one last look
and died – like battles cease.

It moved them all, so far from home,
but nothing more was said.
Someone kept the picture safe.
Then the burial of the dead.

Dear Mrs Hay, your husband, James,
died fighting. This is true
despite official statements – yet
his last thoughts were of you.

How I know, or who I am,
it were not wise to say.
You’ll find your picture here enclosed.
– A friend, on Christmas Day.


3 thoughts on “A Letter from the Front

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