Canto 6: Dunkirk


Some to the wars, to try their fortunes there
Shakespeare


B.E.F.

And so, Good-bye, grim ‘Thirties. These your closing days
Have shown a new light, motionless & far
And clear as ice, to our sore riddled eyes:
David Gascoyne

What happy breed of men cheer’d off to war;
Geordie, Scouser, Taffy, Scot & Cockney –
Shepherded yon the Cornubian shore
By Captains of His Highnesses Navy;
Unfit to fight
First-class modern conflict,
Like Agricola’s might stormdashing naked Pict.

They sail’d around Amorica,
Dodging periscopic glare,
We’ll hang out our washing on the
Siegfried line!” flies thro’ the air,
Human paraphernalia
Landing at Saint Nazaire –
Where vital lines of communication
Criss-cross precious strings afloss a nation.

Tommy Sumner fingers the dust
Coating the farmhouse grey,
Bland ketchup must, bayonet rust,
Hand grenades & Nestle
Spoke volumes while invoking occupants of yesterday.

France
September 13th
1939


 

Lancashire’s Finest

Now over the map that took ten million years
Of rain and sun to crust like boiler-slag,
The lines of fighting men progress like caterpillars
Louis Macneice

To Belgium’s border order’d the East Lancs,
The one word whisper’d in the mess was, “when?”
Amidst the chassis of Matilda tanks,
Captain Andrews reviews his tawny men;
Such hardy bunch
From Pendle’s rugged vale,
When coming to the crunch he knew his lads wunt fail.

Picking their spades up after tea,
Some small subsidence to mend,
Tom Sumner swivels to Billy,
His baby-faced schoolboy friend,
“All this diggin’ is plain silly,
These lines we shan’t defend,
As soon as Gerry turns himself hostile
We’ll leave these bloody trenches for the Dyle!”

They dug awhile & watch’d the sun
Conclude ephemeral,
The digging done, jigging his gun,
Tommy foresaw battle,
“There’s summat funny goin’ on… t’night… I sense trouble.”

St Amand-les-Eux
May 9th
1940


 

Teutonica

The moon’s rays shiver in the branches.
Forest dark. Silence. Dug-outs.
How wonderful May nights are!
Georgii Suvorov

The racist faces the decadent West,
Spermatic as the coming of the Spring,
When leafy woods are at their loveliest,
& bowers vibrate with the blossoming,
When golden streams
Sol sends set on the scene,
When gorgeous glinting beams rebound off each machine.

Hitler boards the Amerika,
Under stars he trundles west,
Stirring strains of his dear Wagner
Lull him to a good hours rest,
Whirrs time by… train reaches bunker,
His bomb-proof Felsennest…
Praying before purpuric bloodshed starts,
“O God of Battles steel my soldier’s hearts!”

Facing the tranquil occident,
Rommel reclines with wines,
Cool, calm, content; his regiment
Should thunder thro’ the lines,
Flicking thro’ Sun Tzu, Von Clauswic & Charles DeGaulle’s opines.

Germany
May 10th
1940


 

Invasion

Under the white flag as he advanced
They say he stood bravely, never winced
As the first bullet pierced his lungs
Ruthven Todd

Aft shouts of war the shafts begin to fly,
No longer men must idle day-long days,
The sun was barely half-an-hour high
& all the Lowland Borders were ablaze;
Wilhemina
Rushes across the sea,
The crooked Swastika denuding majesty.

Rules rewrit for modern warfare;
First possess total surprise,
Then wholly dominate the air;
Thro’ th’Ardennes a phalanx flies,
Cheval-de-frise embatter’d bare
Beneath the Stuka skies,
‘Rev–Rev–Rev,’ three lines of polish’d Panzer,
Wait as if with Nelson off Trafalgar.

King Leopold laments the end
Of proud neutrality,
Forced to defend, his German ‘friend’
Is ravaging freely –
Men learn from history they’ve nothing learn’d from history.

Brussels
May 10th
1940


 

Britain Stirs

German Arms form an arm-like corridor,
Fist punching up thro’ Flanders to the coast,
Not wheel’d to Paris, as lost Bismarck’s War,
Tho’ given up is Galleini’s ghost;
Spirit thought fled
Seizes the Cinque ports,
The ghoul-songs of the dead blew thro’ abandon’d forts.

Adm’ral Ramsey climb’d Henry’s keep,
With a Nelsonian stance,
Gazes across the hoary deep
To the distant dark of France,
Where brave embattl’d Britons heap
Slim chips upon one chance…
Slipping back to Blighty via Dunkerque…
It’s crazy, but I’ve got to make it work!”

For once the British do not reel
Before the German gale,
From Grand Fort Phillipe, down to Lille,
Let fresh defence prevail,
From now each deep, bloodletted inch be fought for tooth & nail.

France
May 27th
1940


 

Dunkerque

Panic grips the fabl’d British army,
Her soldiers splinter’d into shatter’d shards,
Her wounded bench’d to face the enemy,
Her bodies rotting, her ordnance scrap-yards;
But for one lot,
Led by Ervine Andrews,
Whose pure Parthian shot let loose tho’ they must lose.

In soft barnthatch did Tommy ‘ide,
Wi’ captain & five more men,
Beneath them fifteen Germans died
(& they’d do ‘em all again),
Two poor survivors fled outside
Raw-scalp’d by Billy’s bren;
“Let’s scarper boys!” young lads fleshly blooded
Wade thro’ Flanders wide fields freshly flooded.

By dune collars up piles the kit,
“Lads, looks just like Lytham!”
A Messerschmit swoops down, to spit
Death’s teeth, O hangman’s drum,
Then inland hangs… they brush off sand, “Yer don’t get them on prom!”

Malo-les-Bains
May 30th
1940


 

Air Support

At Dunkirk I
Rolled in the shallows, and the living trod
Aross me for a bridge
Sidney Keyes

As chaplain preach’d to them on bended knee,
His prayers tumbl’d out from parching lips;
Men-laden craft crept slowly out to sea,
In hopeful silence bobb’d those lidded ships;
Firm officers
Check’d chaos with their guns,
“Form a queue you blighters, I’ll shoot each swine that runs!”

Shark’s Head in swinking triumph rolls,
Its jubilant pilot gloats
At two rickety, wooden moles,
Those pathetic little boats,
Those cold, exhausted, starving souls,
Grasping for filth that floats;
“How long until Der Fuhrer will prevail?”
He spies a goofy bird upon his tail…

…The labours late-night of boffins
This new ‘Spitfire’ deploys,
Messerschmitt spins… wings dorsal fins…
Pack’d beaches burst in noise;
“‘’Bout bleedin’ time!” screams Tommy, “three cheers for the Brylcreem Boys!”

Malo-les-bains
May 31st
1940


 

The French at the Evacuation

Only Lille deserves the honour of France,
Endures a losing battle to the end,
La Garde in front of La Belle Alliance
Would have been glad to frame these soldats ‘friend’;
Full fierce they fought
Like rigid rocks of Rome,
& ev’ry second bought some son sends safely home.

After many an adventure
Two poilus find safety’s grace,
Howling bagpipes call to muster
Bearded dregs of English race,
Out of copious wine cellar,
Fell some drunken disgrace;
Together they all stagger thro’ the night,
The last few boats for Dover to alight.

Boarding the pack’d Saint Helier
Henri slips, then falls &
Screams out, “Pierre!” soon oil-slick hair
& lone, ring-finger’d hand
Are gone, leaving no trace but shallow footsteps in the sand.

Dunkerque
June 2nd
1940


 

Echoes of Defeat

One dissarrange’d sending of French soldiers,
Stretches to breaking point both boat & crew,
Alas, as rear guard reaches the beaches,
Crass shrieks of British perfidy ensue;
They’d fought to save
Those footsteps in the sand,
Them gone across the wave, gone to the promis’d land.

“…the odious apparatus
Of the Nazi privateers
We shall fight on fields & beaches,
Offer I: blood, sweat & tears,
If the empire of the English
Should last a thousand years,
Then let men say this was her finest hour!”
Churchill’s balsam plants Pendragon power.

The floating corpse of poor LeGrand
Wash’d up close by Calais,
Above, huge band of gen’rals stand,
Bedeck’d in sylvan grey,
Viewing those cliffs… pecking the waves, an eagle surfing spray.

France
June 4th
1940


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