I was moved by pictures of yesterday's 'WE ARE HERE' Somme commemoration. More than 1,500 men appeared in WW1 uniforms in cities around the country. These 'ghost-soldiers' stood around silently in groups and if passing commuters or shoppers tried to talk to them, they handed out a small printed card with the name of a soldier who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It looked powerful on You-Tube clips so what must it have been like to witness it live? Since the 'life' of these dead soldiers was the point. From time to time they broke into a popular song from the WW1 trenches: 'We're here because ... we're here because ... we're here because we're here ...' The circularity of the song's lyrics, sung to the tune of Auld Lang's Syne, captures both the weary stoicism of front-line soldiers and the senselessness of the carnage that followed.
Many of these visitations occurred at railway stations, so associated with the transport of troops in 1914-18. Two years ago, I was leading a residential workshop to help members of the public find a way to write letters to the Unknown Soldier of Paddington Station. The Tommy on the plinth was one of 20,000 railworkers who lost their lives in the war. The letter campaign was an initiative launched by 14-18 NOW and supported by Writing East Midlands. Inevitably, it drew in writers who had very personal family histories from that period. And we began on day one of the week's course with the sounds of Paddington Railway station. For myself, this soundscape triggered a poem that, like yesterday's enactment, blurred the boundaries between then and now.
Eyes half-closed, he hears
the pulse of place as a full-tilt stream
that familiar suppressed roar:
a piston's disconnect, whoofs of steam
those far-off whistles piercing
Paddington's glass-domed roof.
And then it's a day at the Somme
the Corporal's whistle insisting on 'NOW!'
A row of Tommies stumble to the top:
one man hesitating, is too slow,
his puteed legs sawing at the mud;
as his head clears the ridge
he slithers back, rifle abandoned
face-down in the trench.
And they are already gone, his comrades
over a weed-straggled field
vanished into shellfire and rain.
Those ruddy whistles – and right on time
the slamming of doors like the rat-a-tat
of machine gun fire; echoing calls,
the distant halloa of a guard
or a Pal down the Line:
boot-falls clattering on duckboard
commuters, day-trippers, the lost patrol
looking for a funk-hole:
a child crying Mumm-eee, lads
on the wire, the tink of mobile phones
metallic clinks high in the eaves
where nesting birds hide.
A tannoy announces a platform change
signal for this marching tide of feet
to work, to war, to the last troop train:
those bleeding whistles again.
Pistons and engines, now as then
sounding their Misere Mei
rising like Brunel's cast-iron girders.
Fractured light in the end-screen's filigree
curling like Tommy's last ciggie:
and after the battlefield, smoke
writhing between the splintered trees.
He listens and remembers it all
the boy on Platform One.