The Wipers Times was a largely satiric British newspaper famously published in the trenches during the First World War on a printing press that had been “liberated” from the ruins of a French town. It was by the infantry and for the infantry, and much of it was marked by a very dark streak of humor indeed.
Nevertheless, there were contributions that were amazingly sad and touching, too. The poem “To My Chum”, written by an infantry private of the Sherwood Foresters who had lost his friend, is impossible to read without at least a twinge of sorrow. I say this charitably — for my own part, at least, I can barely get through it at all without tearing up.
To My Chum
No more we’ll share the same old barn
The same old dug-out, same old yarn,
No more a tin of bully share
Nor split our rum by a star-shell’s glare
So long old lad.
What times we’ve had, both good and bad,
We’ve shared what shelter could be had,
The same crump-hole when the whizz-bangs shrieked,
The same old billet that always leaked,
And now – you’ve “stopped one”.
We’d weathered the storms two winters long
We’d managed to grin when all went wrong,
Because together we fought and fed,
Our hearts were light; but now – you’re dead
And I am mateless.
Well, old lad, here’s peace to you,
And for me, well, there’s my job to do,
For you and the others who are at rest
Assured may be that we’ll do our best
Just one more cross by a strafed roadside,
With its G.R.C., and a name for guide,
But it’s only myself who has lost a friend,
And though I may fight through to the end,
No dug-out or billet will be the same,
All pals can only be pals in name,
But we’ll all carry on till the end of the game
Because you lie there.
His wild heart beats with painful sobs,
His strin’d hands clench an ice-cold rifle,
His aching jaws grip a hot parch’d tongue,
His wide eyes search unconsciously.
He cannot shriek.
Dribbles down his shapeless jacket.
I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.
This is the happy warrior,
This is he…
A century later, the Imagist poet Herbert Read wrote a bitterly ironic reply to Wordsworth that has been deservedly praised. Read’s poem, “The Happy Warrior” contracts the reality of fear directly against the literary myth of Wordsworth’s “Character pf the Happy Warrior.” This prototype of what “every man in arms should wish to be” is governed by reason, and even in “the head of conflict” he controls and subdues those necessary companions of the soldier, pain and fear. “This is the happy warrior” it concludes; “this is he/ Whom every man in arms should wish to be.”
Read shows instead a man driven by fear far beyond the reach of reason: “I saw him stab, and stab again. A well-killed Boche.” To reinforce his point, Read ends his poem with Wordsworth’s own words- “This is the Happy Warrior,/ This is he.”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs And towards our distant rest began to trudge. Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time; But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in, And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin; If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, — My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory, The old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.