Canto 36: The Great War

The wars of people will be more terrible than kings

Winston Churchill


 

Assassin!

The Crown Prince peers out from the motorcade,
His House of Hapsburg gorging on conquest,
Whose tall, broad-chested soldiers on parade,
Hold back the Slavic peasantry oppress’d;
Soft eyelids close,
Flora fills his vision,
Song-maiden sniffs her rose in her secret garden…

…She laughs & they laugh together,
Rows of roses grow & bud,
Redd’ning fields stretching forever
In a wave transform to wood,
Flaming crosses in the heather,
Names crudely ink’d in blood –
An orphan girl chokes on her rose & dies,
Snakes slithing from the sockets of her eyes.

Stagling slips from silent shadows,
His stern lips firmly curl’d,
The hammer blows, the bullet glows,
A blast of black doom hurl’d,
A shot to slay an Arch Duke, heard in echoes round the world!

Sarajevo
June 28th
1914


 

Imperial Decree

There was a sense of something in the air,
Of great events & him stood at their heart,
Aye, he could feel the fever everywhere,
Tho’ from that spirit stood his soul apart,
Was this the stage?
When long-felt destiny
Could burst upon the age in perfect clarity?

The Odeonsplatz, glorious,
Cheers at the declaration,
Upon all sides the envious
Surround our precious nation,
But we shall be victorious!”
Roaring congregation
Sway’d with sheer bliss, up went a thousand hats
As if the daytime sky flew thick with bats.

Young Adolf Hitler, dour-faced, short,
Falls gloating to his knees
In spacious thought, this day long-sought,
“The world has heard my pleas,”
Beside him stood a woman gazing on him with unease.

Munich
August 1st
1914


 

War! War! War!

“Will you provide Germany’s armed forces
A safe, unhinder’d pasage thro’ Belgium,
You are either with us, or against us!”
King Albert puts down the ultimatum
With solemn sigh,
Then scatches with his pen
Composing the reply, the death-warrants of men.

Leige falls within the day, waylaid
Britains feels the fall its own,
“Never shall we unsheathe the blade
Of a sword not lightly drawn,”
The speaker cries, those first steps made
To reclaim Albert’s throne,
Pledging to fight, with the Parisienne,
For the rights of a small, friendly nation.

Ecstasy splurging thro the host,
Filling Trafalgar Square,
Pillar & post they’ll meet them most,
Those Germans far from fair,
“By Christmas Day we’ll win the war!” bombasted everywhere.

London
August 5th
1914


 

Outbreak

From sylvan pool uprose the brooding Tsar,
Old gen’rals waiting silent on the rise –
Trusting his cousins not to start a war,
How casual the call to ‘Mobilise!’
But one word flies
From the Romanov serve,
Der Kaiser soon replies, seduced by conflict’s verve.

Thus a moment’ry decision
The world with War’s rug smothers,
Epic duel of heave & vision,
Cruel dread of doting mothers,
Crude destroyer of religion,
& bandsman of brothers,
Shambles of glory, honour, passion, pride,
But days of shame as Hell’s highway grows wide.

Born of the bed-soil of Jena,
Fed on the dirt & blood,
Our Max Stemmler aims his Mauser
At movements in the wood…
A shot! A scream! A murd’rous gleam, War’s truth now understood.

Europa
August 20th
1914


 

The March to War

Families saw their loved ones to the train
“Auflung nach Berlin!” daub’d by Galahad,
How many Captain Scotts by future slain?
Is this love that they have soon to be had?
“Paddy don’t go!
I’ve an ache in mi bones!”
The carriages start slow, shrill hoots drown Freda’s moans.

Russia march’d thro Eastern Prussia,
There the Vistula to glean,
& she march’d into Galicia,
Gymnastirka olive green,
Where bayonets of Austria,
Defiant, mass’d & mean,
Sunglint tarnish’d by allegro drumming,
“Cossacks! Cossacks! the Cossacks are coming!”

Born of the bed soil of Jena,
Fed on the dirt & blood,
Mild Max Stemmler aims his Mauser
At movements in the wood,
A shot! A scream! the murd’rous gleam, war’s truth now understood.

Europe
August 20th
1914


 

Tannenburg

The Russian Bear has scented Konigsberg,
Herr Ludendorrf promptly commanded East,
At Hanover collected Hindenburg,
Two titans bound to halt Muscovy’s beast;
Oer Sauerkraut
The instancy discuss’d,
Leaving them with no doubt, “Attack! Attack we must!”

As when the blessed Saladin
Defied his land’s invader
& offer’d battle at Hattyn
To the sacred Knights Templar
The Germans drew that Slav host in,
Encircled in terror…
As once again the Prussian lancer nears.
Shell after shell reduce stout men to tears.

“Niet! Niet!” the fibre fades,
Hopelessly surrounded
From ghoulish glades pour pale parades,
Shapkaless, exhausted…
Ancyent, angry Teutonic shades harass the surrender’d.

Eastern Prussia
August 31st
1914


 

Battle of the Marne

Such bitter seed sewn by the Prussian deed
What little need incites nations to war
As once more into Flanders fields they feed
Waggons & steeds & men marching foot raw;
The Wehrmacht scent
Parisian perfume,
How proudly brave men went toward the front’s dull boom.

As when Afghani toss’d Redcoats
In tatters down the Khyber,
Or Hannibal saw his stout boats
Destroy’d upon the Tiber,
The French, free from defence & forts,
Show the famous fibre
That threw back the invader in ‘Thirteen…
This century no Fontainbleus are seen.

Grey gen’ralry ride stallions
To heights o’erlooking Meaux,
Like Rome’s legions battalions
Are order’d to withdraw
From the avengant Gaul… Moltke says, “We have lost the war!”

France
October
1914


 

Seizure of the Seas

Hostilities commence upon the waves,
Hochsenflotte christening the contest,
But before Coronel could claim her graves
The fleet is order’d South by South-Sou’ West;
Dolphins in train
Yon dusky Spain they blow,
Aim’d at the sailor’s bane… Tierra del Fuego.

Grey wolves round Cape Horn near & Norse,
Helmsman the gallant Von Spee,
Lying in wait a vengant force
Rais’d anchor at Port Stanley
& sights the foe! sets fighting course!
The battle-scarr’d foe flee,
Scatter’d amid grey-beards wide & rolling,
Stern, Starboard, Port & Bow shellfire falling.

The Gneisenau, Von Spee’s Scharnhost,
The Nurnburg & Leipzig
Forming the toast of Churchill’s boast,
His sailors dance a jig…
While England free to roam the waves the foe is forced to dig.

The British Ocean
December 8th
1914


 

First Christmas

Wars of manoeuvre on their last legs stand,
Warm maxims smoking by a mass graveside,
Stalemate from the North Sea to Switzerland,
Swathes of trench-works sundering countryside;
One freezing night
Der Wehrmacht think of home,
O blaze of lantern light! O twinkling tannenbaum!

Sweet sung, “Stille nacht, heilige nacht…”
Was the Hun’s opening shell,
“Lads! Lads! we’re not being attack’d!”
Tommy hums The First Noel,
Before too long the truce had track’d
All thro the trenches hell,
Over the top & into No Mans Land
Men went to shake another human hand.

As dawn broke over ghastly ground
The love of life outpour’d,
A football found, quick kickaround,
A goal or six are scored…
Shrill whistles drift the soldiers back – where they’d play’d snow had thaw’d.

The Western Front
December 25th
1914

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