Five poems about life in Essex in World War One, one for each year of the war. Commissioned by The Last Poppy Project.
August Bank Holiday, Essex, 1914
To Essex then, one hundred years ago
to sun-scorched, dusty fields and parched stream beds.
Where windfall codlings pock the russet earth,
September’s fruits come early, and to waste.
At Boreham Reverend Yonge mops cobs of sweat
and begs his guv’nor for a dose of rain
as horticultural ladies trim their blooms,
they nip and bud and dream of red rosettes.
Down Thaxted way, the labourers are striking
it’s coming up for forty wage-less days.
They roam the country lanes in search of scabs,
as Pankhurst comes, the red flag on her car.
The trains are packed from third right through to first,
the coastal steamers coat the blue sky white
as Essex leaves her heartlands for her shore.
From Romford, Dagenham and Tilbury
near forty-thousand, swap the clock for sand.
The boarding houses with their lists of rules
and fearsome landladies are full, although
it’s quieter than last year. They know why.
A storm is building in the stifling air:
in Chelmsford they can talk of nothing else,
the newsagents are desperate for vendors,
the tittle-tattle’s milled right through the night.
Until on Tuesday, everybody knows.
In Southend hundreds gather at the Standard
to read the words they posted in the window.
The tiny wives, umbrellaed by their men.
We’re twenty-one today, we’ll make the Kaiser pay
The regulars demob down Mersea Road
while Reverend Yonge in Boreham writes in black:
Bella horrida bella… smite, hell, ruin.
VAD Hospital, Saffron Walden, 1915
The ancient oak on Freshwell Street
is jaundiced in the Autumn sun
as Clementina clips her way to work.
A window pane plays mirror to
the mid-blue of her uniform
and though she’s late, she stops stock-still and stares.
The red-cross on the armband,
the starched white of the hat,
black boots that pinch, the bag balm on her palms.
Pulled-in, pinned back, with pale-blue eyes
it takes the girl a breathless beat
to realise it’s her who’s staring back.
It’s Clem. Our Clem. The messy-haired
adventurer and story queen,
pied piper to her brothers, lost in June.
But no one’s called her Clem for months,
those summers seems an age ago.
They linger like a half-remembered tune.
The chance to go and do her bit
had won against her life at home
she’d kissed her mum and hugged the boys to bits.
But as she pitted guilt against
adventure with the VAD
she never stopped to think what it might do.
And now she knows: this woman here
will never lead a squawking gang
of children through the Essex water fields.
And as the thought occurs to her
it darts across the pale blue eyes,
she blinks the thing away and turns for work.
Zeppelin Attack, Braintree, 1916
Doris and her sister Maggie
shook awake by mum one night
as starlight shows a large dark shape
in deathly, whirring flight.
The oilcloth of the bedroom floor
is icy underneath their feet,
they struggle with the steamed-up sash
and peer out on the street.
As overhead a Kapitan
unsure above this foreign land
turns the zeppelin’s engines off
to better understand
exactly where his airship is
and as he does St Michael’s bell
tolls and tells this Kapitan
what Doris knows too well.
He’s cleared the patchwork Essex fields,
dirt farmyards and the gladed copse,
he’s reached the jostled terraces
and little shuttered shops,
the churches and the railway line
where sloes and dark, fat blackberries grow,
where thatched roof pubs and gothic schools
are all the young girls know.
He’s likely near enough to Crittall’s
where in peace time men annealed
those futuristic window frames
in toughened Essex steel;
where now their women heat and cool
the liquid fire for darker ends,
the grim, efficient work of war.
He gives the order, sends
a thousand screaming kilos down
upon the brisk Spring Essex night
a silent rip through country air
and then the sky turns white.
Memory’s a funny thing
and later, when she wrote it down
Doris was unable to
recall the burning town.
The oilcloth and the sash stayed with her
and the news the morning after
a tiny girl was crushed and killed
by chimney brick and rafter.
But mostly Doris thought about
her kind old dad away at war
the picture of him coming home
was what she chose to store.
So handsome in his postman’s blue
much better than the army green
he never smacked or chided them
or told them what he’d seen.
Mrs Godley’s War, 1917
Meet Mrs Godley, well to-do
Victorian in sober blue
and not content to chat and sit
No, Mrs Godley does her bit.
Or tries to, but it’s rather hard
her Peter joined the Old Boy’s Guard
her Jack went off to man a tank
but no one wants her in the ranks.
It seems a woman’s work in war
is more of what it was before:
ironing, cooking, washing, scrubbing
while men all give the Bosch a drubbing.
A zestful woman in a time
where bus drivers were old and blind
before they ever wore a dress.
No voice in church, committee-less
and wasted, really, like her friends.
So at her threadbare tether’s end
our Mrs Godley takes a stand
and grasps the war with eager hands.
Full-bodied like a vintage port
she scours the streets of Dovercourt
with firm resolve and hawk-like eyes
in search of snooping German spies.
And who’s this here? Suspicious pair
all nordic hue and flaxen hair,
peculiar manner, funny hats
no Englishman would dress like that!
You there boy, now are you willing?
Help your country! Earn a shilling!
Good lad. Operation Rhine:
go ask that brace of chaps the time.
She sends him with a zealous push
then darts behind a nearby bush
to listen as they answer him
and when they do the news is grim!
A stuttered mess of Zees and Vees
so Mrs Godley’s out the trees
flag wagging her white parasol
to fetch a military patrol.
Here they come now, almost quickly
(asthmatic, flat-feet, over fifty)
whistles blowing, touch of flap
inexpertly they seize chaps.
But later down the local nick
our heroine is feeling sick:
Belgians, Madam, no need for fuss,
best leave the espionage to us.
Your efforts might be better spent
on errands of a gentler bent.
So Mrs Godley set off home
embarrassed, patronised, alone
to measure out her life in jams
and wait for tragic telegrams.
The Kings Head, Harwich, 1918
On Market Street near Harwich dock
the shore-leave sailors stop the clock
and fill their throats with yards of beer
as if the final days were here.
Debouched and broached, The King’s Head groans
with battered thick-slurred baritones
as fear is scrubbed with boozy prayer
in gas-lit, blue-tinged, smokey air.
And can you blame these sozzled kids
for wanting some escape from it?
Tomorrow they haul anchor then
they sail away from homes and friends.
From Danbury; from Peasenhall;
from Edmonton; from Coggeshall;
from terraces up pot-holed lanes
from hamlets never touched by trains
from farmhouse, workhouse, market hill
from trading streets that chirp and till
from nooks that never make a noise
apprentices and grocer’s boys
step up and say that they are keen
despite the fact that they’ve all seen
the letters home, the telegrams,
and fresh-faced widows pushing prams.
They’ve watched their brothers not return
they’ve heard of how their young lungs burned
with gas in reeking sodden ruts
and now they feel it in their guts.
The churn of dark uncertain days
they gulp it down, the newly brave
play brutes and beasts until they’re sore
and summon what it takes to leave for war.