Saturday, 6 February 2016


published 1918

Canto IV

"I daresay you've read all about
The life we live ' out there,'
Yet floods of words could never tell
The horrors of the Flanders Hell
We Tommies daily bear. . . .
Where ghastly death leaps like a thug
From land, and sky, and air.

" Yet some of us, though often stalked
By the scythed Reaper grim,
Are lucky dogs—if luck it be —
And give the slip to him ! Think! After three years' constant war,
I'm sound in wind and limb.

" Some in the firing-line have scarce
A twenty-four hours' run,
Oft by my side pals have been killed,
Who've never seen a Hun;
It's passing strange how I've escaped.
And back to dear old Blighty scraped.
To see the blessed sun.

" But luck, or chance, or Providence,
Call it whate'er you will,
Some lives are charmed and some are doomed,
Each fated to fulfil
The working out of destiny.
Whether for good or ill.

" And he whose time has not yet struck
To voyage to the West,
Is saved in 'queer' mysterious ways,
That never pause or rest:
Perhaps the angels who once stood
With Daniel in his pit of blood
Help some poor Tommies to make good,
And shield their naked breast.

"At Mons I saw or, thought I saw,
Ghost bowmen fringe the height,
Smiting with arrow and with sword
The foe in deadly fight:
Our quivering, thin-drawn khaki line
Should have been snapt like burning twine
Before the Prussian might.

"What power upheld our wearied hands
When we their swift march stayed?
Perhaps the angel of the Lord
Stood in their path with outdrawn sword,
And their proud hearts dismayed:
By parsons I have heard it said,
Horses and chariots oft were spread
In days of old around the head,
To give the righteous aid:
Is it imagination vain
To say it might occur again.
For Freedom's Own Brigade?

"Think you I'm 'queer' to talk like this,
Or that the notion's 'odd'?
It's a 'queer' country I've been through,
And 'queer' things happen out there, too—
That Mystery Land of Nod!
I only wish to show to you
We gamblers, swearers, drinkers, who
Are dubbed by saints a 'Godless crew,'
Oft think such 'queer' things may be true!
When lonely on the sod,

We lie beneath the star-lit sky,
Seeing the bursting shells sag by,
Or hear the Maxim bullets fly,
It makes one think of God.

"This much I know, I've met the foe
In many corners tight,
I've bombed and sniped, old scores out-wiped
To glut my appetite
In Vengeance for some comrade slain,
Yet, reckless, 'mid death's hurtling rain,
I've been top-dog all right.

"My conscience never once has twinged
For all the Huns done in,
When it's war to the knife, to save one life
Would be a deadly sin;
My soul is white, my hands are clean,
In spite of blood-streams spilt between,
For I've fought for Britain's free-demesne,
And always fought to win.

"I tell you this to let you know,
My senses are not daunted
By Memory's grinning death's-head sere,
With bony arms out-flaunted. . . .
'Tis something else that saps my mind —
A Prussian ghost that treads behind
My soul and mocks—would I were blind,
For by it I am haunted.

"And this is how it came about:
One dripping, autumn eve,
About a week before the scrap
That sent me here on 'leave,'
Graced with this ruby ribbon, and
This bar upon my sleeve,,

"We got an order to mop-up
The rival German shop,
All gay festooned with barbed-wire.
And Maxims that spit death and fire,
With ne'er a blessed stop;
We knew we had a toughish job,
Their trenches and dug-outs to swab.
When we went o'er the 'top.'

"We knew that Fritz had burrowed deep,
in funk-holes tar away,
To 'scape the heavy guns that played
The devil's holiday,
Only to bob into their lines,
Like puppets in a play.

"It's not a pleasant, picnic spree.
To clamber o'er the trench,
And wade through rotting No Man's Land,
Where traps and poison stench
Lurk to maroon the Tommy's life. . . .
I've seen the stoutest blench;

"For fear will clutch the strong man's heart
At times, whoe'er he be;
Pale cheeks do not always denote
A craven pedigree:
Sure! Every man who mounts the top'
Deserves the king's V.C

"There were no chicken hearts that day,
When we went streaming o'er
Into the German lines and wiped
Out many a bitter score;
And when we'd smashed the Hun redoubt.
The boys dug in, . . . but I went out,
Their dug-outs to explore.

"These you must know are crissed and crossed,
Worse than a Hampton maze.
And cunning holes are hidden there.
To spy upon one's ways. . . .
You've to be mighty careful lest
A sniper ends your days.

I'd wary pricked a zigzagged course.
For half an hour or more.
When round a corner my eyes fell,
Full twenty yards before,
Upon a Prussian just emerged,
From out his dug-out door.

My eyes caught his as his caught mine,
Both taken by surprise,
He did not shoot, ... no more did I,
That each had comrades close at hand,
Whom Shots would Signalise.

"For some few silent moments we
Read deep the other's soul,
Where, mirrored, flashed a nation's hate —
True atoms of the whole —
And 1 knew that One of us must die,
For I heard the weaver his shuttle ply,
Weaving death's aureole.

" I think, too, in his soul, he heard
The Valkyrie Maidens cry. . . .
We both cast one last upward look
At the slow darkening sky.
From that deep, narrow, muddy trench
Where one was doomed to lie.

Wrapped in a marbled dreamless sleep . . .
A clod of human clay, . . .
A subject of that world o'er which
The conqueror worm holds sway;
Thus while defiance lashed each face,
Thought leaped on thought—a wild mill-race —
In turgid disarray.

"Moved by a common impulse, we
Slow to each Other drew,
Creeping along the walls of clay,
Through pools of muddy glue,
Which sucked the feet from purpose fleet;
One slip not only meant defeat,
Up went your number, too.

"He was a big and lusty chap,
Though bitter, would be clean.
Of rather handsome mien.
And when we raised our bayonet points,
Sharpened by hatred keen,
I felt that ne'ertheless the fight.
Though bitter, would be clean.

"A Prussian Hun, he'd been well trained.
And knew the soldier's trade,
He scornful tossed a half-salute.
As tho' upon parade,
In pity for the life he'd take
Swift with his bayonet blade.

"No eyes watched that Homeric strife.
Save 'twere some fairy gnome,
Unlike the gladiatorial fights
Of Coliseumed Rome,
No plaudits at our nerves were flung, . . .
Round us the pall of silence hung.
Yet, while our bayonets hissed and swung,
I often thought of home.

He nearly got me straight away,
For, With a lungmg thrust,
He slipped within my guard a stroke
I failed to parry—just
As I slipped carelessly aside —
But for that lucky half-a-stride
I had been a lump of dust.

"For half an hour, or may be more,
Our blades made rmgs oi steel,
Around each other's vitals till
One's senses 'gan to reel —
Breath came in gasps, eyes grew blood-dim,
And weakness seized on mind and limb,
Which neither could conceal.

"A burst of dexterous feints and stabs
Foretold the final note
Had all but struck—expiring strength
Flared to full height. He smote,
A long, last blow for precious life, . . .
It missed me, and my bayonet knife,
Pierced his thick-knotted throat.

"And pinned him sideways to the wall
The fight was lost and won:
No more would his fast-glazing eyes
See the slow-dying sun:
No surgeon's skill could piece again
That ragged, open jugular vein,
Through which the life blood run.

I Wrenched the bavonet out, he slid
Down with a gurgling moan,
His nerveless fingers clutching air.
As though they would postpone
The hovering death-vulture-guest
From settling in his coffin nest.
Till, thrusting one hand in his breast,
He gasped, and died alone.

"I searched him and discovered that
No common man was he,
His papers proved him close allied
To Hunnish Royalty:
In prooi oi his proud war career
I found a ripping souvenir,
Which filled my heart with glee.
For those breast-hidden fingers clasped
An Iron Cross which he held fast,
As though to guard it to the last—
'Twas of the First Degree.

"That was my own peculiar prize.
By every sacred right,
I'd won it naked breast to breast.
In fair and open fight.
And in my pocket it has lain
Since that dark, drizzly night.

" When I reported the affair
They sent a squad of men
To fetch him in
A funeral — swank — and when
The war is o'er his bones will lie,
I guess, beneath his father's sky,
In Prussia once again.

That night our company was relieved.
And we, in muddy pride.
Swung to rest-quarters through a wrecked
And moon-lit country-side;
But as I trudged I felt a shape
Of horror—like some devil-ape—
Pace silent by my side.

"'A Morbid fancy,' muttered I,
'From which I must be shorn,
'Twill fade away at break of day,
Like bubble dreams sun-born.'
Yet, as I strove to quiet rejoice,
I thought I heard a ghostly voice
Chuckle in mocking scorn.

" We barracked in a village barn,
Littered with peat and moss.
Dog-tired I flung myself, full-pack,
To have a quiet 'doss,'
And Morpheus rocked me on his arm,
Sealed all my senses with his charm,
Till, roused from sleep with rude alarm,
I heard a wild screech, threatening harm,
'Give me my Iron Cross.'

"And there I saw that cursed Hun,
With clutching palm out-flaunted.
His eyes glowed red like coals of Hell,
And all my senses daunted,
'By God,' I cried, 'The Great Divide
Hath spued thy spectre forth to glide
Around me, and I'm haunted.'

"And ever since he's dogged my steps,
night and day. By midnight and broad day,
His presence wraps me like a cloud,
Which, foetid, breathes dismay,
And oft I glimpse him as he stood,
Before that dread affray;

" Sometimes I see a twitching palm
Waiting to clutch its prey;
Sometimes I hear the dull refrain
Of his weird virelay. . . .
'Give me my Cross — my Iron Cross-
Give me my Cross, I say.'

"I feel! I see! I hear! I know!
That he has come to Stay!
Vendetta'd I! He's played the spy,
On all these revels gay;
And like a mendicant he waits
To glut revenge with winged hates,
And will not go away.

"It is a dreadful thing to know
One ne'er can be alone.
To feel the tread of ghostly dead,
To hear a haunting tone;
Think you this spell of blackest Hell
Can e'er be overthrown?

"This is the secret of the Cross,
robbing brain,
I shall go raving mad."
In lurid colours clad,
That swings in dread above my head,
And makes me wistful sad;
How can I longer stand the strain?
My mind's diseased and sick with pain,
If naught can cure my throbbing brain,
I shall go raving mad."

He ceased and sat as one forlorn, . . .
Lucifer-proud in might, . . .
He had told his tale like one returned
From the Pit of Dreadful Night;
Spun from Gethsemanes of pain,
His auric-robe bore the brand of Cain,
And he felt, though innocent, the stain
That jarred upon the sight.

And silence brooded for a space
About us! What could I
Say to a Hero who had proved
How easy 'twere to die ?
And then I gathered up my thoughts.
To make a brief reply.

"Our fathers, when a chief was slain,
Built a huge, funeral pyre,
To burn to ashes bones and flesh,
Weapons and goods entire;
Sometimes his servants and his wives
Graced that unholy fire.

"They did it thinking that the things
That minstered to him
Comfort and strength in this rude world
Would help his soul to swim
To heights, still close-companionshipped.
In under-worlds ghost-dim.

"They thought, too, that his cherished spoils—
Trophies of war and chase—
If not destroyed would form a chain
To bind him to the place,
And that his spirit ay would haunt
His kin with foul grimace.

"That ancient rite survives to-day:
The warriot's dog and horse
follow the coffin to the grave
Behind their master's course—
A relic grim of years long sped,
When men by childish fears were led
o seek protection from the dead,
Their vengeance or remorse.

"0ur modern culture Justly sneers
At guesses so uncouth,
Yet in those far-off magic tales
Of the world's early youth
May lie, fast-prisoned, secret laws
And germs of hidden truth.

"Your body may be over-worn,
Your eye-balls out of tune,
But there may be a spirit-world
Of rascal, sage, buffoon,
That interpenetrates our sphere,
Whose threshold-dwellers oft draw near,
To strike the inner eye and ear,
Like your dead Hun dragoon.

"If this be so, the Cross you hold.
To him an idol-proud.
May, bridge-like, link his soul to yours,
O'er which he treads to shroud
Your mind in gloom, , . . o'er which he mocks,
And shouts his menace loud.

"Wouldst thou be free in mind again,
To guard 'gainst further loss, —
"Then sell, or pawn, or give the thing,-
Regarding it as dross....
Or, better still, for good or ill.
Destroy the blasted Cross.

" That's what I'd do if I were you,
A simple thing soon done.
And you will be, I'm certain, free
From that ghost-haunting Hun:
The shadows from your mind will fall;
Cankered no more your mind with gall,
You'll hear the singing-birds' sweet call,
And see the rising sun."

He rose and jerked at his khaki coat,
Stained by the Flanders sea,
And his eyes gleamed red as he tossed his head,
" I'll none of it," said he;
" To yield to fear that souvenir,
I never will agree.

"I've never played coward yet, my friend,
Nor once struck craven note.
And damned if I will be frightened by
The Cross that doth o'er me float;
And I'll catch that vanishing Hun and wind
My fingers round his throat.

"I won that Cross with pitted life,
In open, knightly fight,
And what I've won I'll hold till death's
Unconquerable might
Makes me disgorge not only 'It'
But all my heart's delight. . . ."
With that he strode across the floor,
And opened wide my office door.
And passed into the night.


From page 31 to 46

In the preface of the 52 page Ballard, Alfred Dodd, the author states, " The Ballad of the Iron Cross " is based, in its essentials, on actual fact narrated to me by a soldier who had won the V.C,"

Is it myth?

Mention of Mons would suggest the soldier was an "Old Contemptible" and if so he is likely to have been in one of the following regiments.

8th Bn. Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)

1st Bn. Coldstream Guards

2nd Bn. Essex Regiment

1st Bn. Gordon Highlanders

1st/8th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers

1st Bn. Leicestershire Regiment

1st Bn. Lincolnshire Regiment

"B" Coy. 2nd/5th Bn. Manchester Regiment

1st Bn. Northumberland Fusiliers

4th Bn. Middlesex Regiment

59th Field Coy. Royal Engineers

5th. (Royal Irish) Lancers

45th Bty. Royal Field Artillery

4th Bn. Royal Fusiliers

2nd Bn. Royal Irish Regiment

2nd Bn. Royal Irish Rifles

13th Bn. Royal Scots

10th Bn. Royal Warwickshire Regiment

2nd/6th Bn. South Staffordshire Regiment

8th Bn. Queen's Own (Royal West Kent Regiment)

11th Bn. Queen's (Royal West Surrey Regiment)

1st/5th Bn. West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales's Own)

1st Bn. Wiltshire Regiment

2nd Bn. Worcestershire Regiment

Follow the link for a more comprehensive list of the Order of battle at Mons

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