Monday, 10 May 2021

A poem by WW1 soldier poet Robert Nichols (1893 - 1944) suggested for us by AC Benus

These poems have been suggested for us by AC Benus, author of “The Thousandth Regiment: A Translation of and Commentary on Hans Ehrenbaum-Degele’s War Poems” by AC Benus (AC Benus, San Francisco, 2020) includes original poems  ISBN: 978-1657220584

Robert Nichols – THE soldier poet during WW1 - features in an earlier post

AC Benus says: “As early as 1918 Nichols felt it necessary to refute the critics' assertion that he was pro-war and that his work glorified the military. It's interesting to know that in English circles as soon as 1918 there was a concern that much of the published poetry of the War had been of the armchair variety and much too gungho. It's surprising to learn Nichols got swept up in such accusations, because as the 1915 poem "The Chink" shows, he voiced early and vivid horror with the war.


WEEPING, I listen and I wait, 

The night grows long, the night grows late. 

Still gird the guns. But now a pause 

And lo ! a chink of night withdraws 

And strange and distant, thin and high, 

I hear the lost and human cry. 

The victors and victorious slain, 

The vanquished and their dead again 

Sing : ' We have slain a Foeman tall, 

Death the dreadest Foe of all. 

For bound with our own bloodied bands

One is given in our hands, 

And the steel that slit our side

Has his red hands crucified, 

We have made a gain of loss, 

Giant War hangs on his cross. 

Nothing fair has man assayed 

But by loss his gain was made. 

Giant War is dead, but still 

Live more giants that do ill.

There must have been confusion (or critic-directed dilution) that some of the narrative poems I've read from him end on notes on praising the people willing to give their life for a cause without stating that the cause itself was not tied up into larger motivations of empire, etc. Anyway, Nichols can speak well for himself. See the Introduction here:


Before, before he was aware

The 'Verey' light had risen ... on the air

It hung glistering. . . . 

                              And he could not stay his hand 

From moving to the barbed wire's broken strand. 

A rifle cracked. 

                      He fell. 

Night waned. He was alone. A heavy shell 

Whispered itself passing high, high overhead. 

His wound was wet to his hand : for still it bled 

On to the glimmering ground. 

Then with a slow, vain smile his wound he bound, 

Knowing, of course, he'd not see home again 

Home whose thought he put away.

                                                 His men 

Whispered: "Where's Mister Gates?" "Out on the wire." 

"I'll get him," said one. . . . 

                                     Dawn blinked, and the fire

Of the Germans heaved up and down the line. 

"Stand to!" 

             Too late! "I'll get him." "O the swine! 

When we might get him in yet safe and whole!" 

" Corporal didn't see 'un fall out on patrol, 

Or he'd 'a got 'un." "Sssh!"

                                 "No talking there."

A whisper: " 'A went down at the last flare." 

Meanwhile the Maxims toc-toc-tocked; their swish

Of bullets told death lurked against the wish. 

No hope for him!

                     His corporal, as one shamed, 

Vainly and helplessly his ill-luck blamed. 

* * * * * 

Then Gates slowly saw the morn 

Break in a rosy peace through the lone thorn 

By which he lay, and felt the dawn-wind pass 

Whispering through the pallid, stalky grass 

Of No-Man's Land. . . . 

And the tears came 

Scaldingly sweet, more lovely than a flame. 

He closed his eyes : he thought of home 

And grit his teeth. He knew no help could 

come. . . . 

* * * * *

The silent sun over the earth held sway, 

Occasional rifles cracked and far away

A heedless speck, a 'plane, slid on alone, 

Like a fly traversing a cliff of stone. 

" I must get back," said Gates aloud, and heaved

At his body. But it lay bereaved 

Of any power. He could not wait till night . . . 

And he lay still. Blood swam across his sight. 

Then with a groan: 

" No luck ever ! Well, I must die alone." 

Occasional rifles cracked. A cloud that shone, 

Gold-rimmed, blackened the sun and then was gone. . . . 

The sun still smiled. The grass sang in its play. 

Someone whistled : " Over the hills and far away."

Gates watched silently the swift, swift sun 

Burning his life before it was begun. . . . 

Suddenly he heard Corporal Timmins' voice:

"Now then, 

'Urry up with that tea."

                   "Hi Ginger !" " Bill!" His men! 

Timmins and Jones and Wilkinson (the ' bard '), 

And Hughes and Simpson. It was hard 

Not to see them: Wilkinson, stubby, grim, 

With his "No, sir," "Yes, sir," and the slim

Simpson: " Indeed, sir ?" (while it seemed he winked

Because his smiling left eye always blinked) 

And Corporal Timmins, straight and blonde and wise, 

With his quiet-scanning, level, hazel eyes; 

And all the others . . . tunics that didn't fit ... 

A dozen different sorts of eyes. O it 

Was hard to lie there ! Yet he must. But no: 

" I've got to die. I'll get to them. I'll go." 

Inch by inch he fought, breathless ;md mute, 

Dragging his carcase like a famished brute. . . . 

His head was hammering, and his eyes were dim; 

A bloody sweat seemed to ooze out of him 

And freeze along his spine. . . . Then he'd lie still

Before another effort of his will 

Took him one nearer yard. 

* * * * *

                                 The parapet was reached. 

He could not rise to it. A lookout screeched: 

"Mr. Gates!" 

                   Three figures in one breath 

Leaped up. Two figures fell in toppling death; 

And Gates was lifted in. "Who's hit?" said he. 

"Timmins and Jones." "Why did they that for me?

I'm gone already!" Gently they laid him prone 

And silently watched. 

                         He twitched. They heard him moan 

"Why for me?" His eyes roamed round, and none replied. 

"I see it was alone I should have died." 

They shook their heads. Then, "Is the doctor here?"

"He's coming, sir; he's hurryin', no fear." 

"No good. . . . 

                   Lift me." They lifted him. 

He smiled and held his arms out to the dim, 

And in a moment passed beyond their ken, 

Hearing him whisper, "O my men, my men!" 

Robert Nichols


Autumn, 1915. 

From “The assault and other war poems from "Ardours and endurance"” by Nichols, Robert Malise Bowyer, 1893-1944 (Chatto & Windus, London, 1918)