I’ve been following the First World War coverage in various reports: written, on telly and on the wireless.
It seems there’s a lot of revisionist history-making going on and a debate seems to be opening up between the ‘Blackadder’ version of what the war was about and a more hawkish interpretation that talks of the defence of nationhood and honour.
When I was a teenager, I was given a book called Men who March Away, an anthology of First World War poetry first published in the 1960s. It’s a deeply affecting book and one I have carried from house move to house move over 40 years. I have often quoted from it, particularly a couple of lines from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem The General.
“He’s a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.”
I think those few lines say so much about what happens in wars and how it’s always the ordinary men, manipulated as much by their “own side” as “the enemy” who come to bear the brunt of it.
When I was about seven, my aunt Alice gave me a soldier’s diary: it was one carried by my great-great uncle at Passchendale. There’s hardly any writing in it, just the occasional note about when he managed to take a bath.
I also have a few photos of this uncle, one of three brothers, all killed, the only sons of my great-great grandfather, a coal haulier from Glass Houghton. But the thing I treasure most that tells me more about that bloody conflict is a postcard with a poem typed on it that was written by a man called Arthur “Fatty” Millard, a Featherstone miner who found himself in the Munster Fusiliers at Gallipoli.
Mr Millard was the father of “Sooner” Millard, an old mate of mine. One day we were in the Top House at Featherstone and for some reason Sooner decided he would perform his dad’s poem between mouthfuls of Tetley bitter. He did it from memory in a tap room full of noise and the clack of pool balls.
By the time he finished, you could have heard a pin drop and all the lads gathered there cheered him on. It was a very moving moment. I don’t think the poem has ever been published, so here it is, in its entirety for the first time.
The Landing at Suvla Bay
By Private Arthur Millard
It was on the sixth of August, one bright and sunny day
We landed at the Dardenelles, some thousand miles away
We knew not what before us lie, but we heard the shot and shell
And many who man who lived that day will live no more to tell.
It was a bright and glorious day which I never shall forget,
When the Dublins and the Munsters went through the valley of death.
It was death by fire and water when leaving the River Clyde,
But the gallant sons of Erin’s Isle the enemy defied.
We stormed the right, took trenches one by one,
We forced the height of Chocolate Hill and captured many a gun.
A blood red day was passing, but to the trenches still we clung.
Sure, I can’t explain to you the thrill, but we made those Turkish run.
The Turks came down that night boys, to try and make us go,
But they found out to their sorrow, that we were far superior foe,
We made them do the Turkey trot across their homeland plain,
We gave them gip and then a dip and drove them home again.
I raise this glass filled to the brim, of good old Irish stout.
And drink the health of the boys that live, who fought and knew no fear;
And when I hear the sound of guns and the clamour of war and din,
I will never forget the Gallipoli lads and the struggle I was in.
So, all those who thought First War poetry was only written by posh well-educated public schoolboys can think again.
Ordinary working class heroes from round here were writing it, too, and while it might not be Sassoon, Owen or Rosenberg, it was from a man who was there.