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The Gunner’s Story

10 December 2011 Comments

When the shells are bursting round,
Making craters in the ground,
And the rifle fire’s something awful cruel;
When the wounded fall an’ die,
And you ‘ear a horse’s cry.
Or the shriek of a shrapnel-rended mule;
When you ‘ear them in the night,
(My Gawd it makes yer fight!)
An’ yer thinks of them poor souls a going ‘ome;
When you ‘ear the sergeant shout
Get your respirators out!
Then yer looks an’ sees a cloud of something white.

The gas is coming on.
An’ yer knows before it’s gone,
That the ‘orse wots with yer now won’t be by then;
Yer loves ‘im like yer wife,
An’ yer wants to save ‘is life.
But there ain’t no respirators, not for them.
I was standing by his side
On the night me old ‘orse died,
An’ I shan’t forget ‘is looks towards the last!
‘e was choking mighty bad
An’ ‘is eyes was looking mad.
An’ I seed that ‘e was dying — dying fast.

I’m a gun- team driver now,
An* I want to tell yer ‘ow
Me ‘orses works when they’re put to the test;
They’ve a lot of work to do,
An’ it’s them wot gets us through!
For they strains their blooming ‘earts out when they’re pressed.
We was galloping like ‘ell,
When a bullet ‘it old Nell!
I could see the blood a streamin’ down her face.
It ‘ad got ‘er in the ‘ead.
But she stuck to it and led
‘Till we comes to action right ‘an’ then she fell.

I ‘adn’t time to choose,
I *ad to cut ‘er loose
For she’d done all she could do afore a gun!
When I looks at ‘er again
She was out of all ‘er pain.
An’ I ‘opes ‘er soul ‘ll rest for wot she done!
If it ‘adn’t been for Nell
We should all ‘ave bin in ‘ell
For we only got in action just in time!
Ain’t it once occurred to you
Wot the ‘orses there go through?
They ‘elps to win our fights an’ does it fine.

When ‘is blood ‘is flowing ‘ot
From a wound what ‘e’s just got
An’ ‘is breath is coming ‘ard, ‘an’ short, ‘an thin,
‘e can see the men about,
Getting water dealed out,
But not a drop is brought to comfort ‘im;
Tho’ ‘is tongue is parched an’ dry,
‘e can see the water by.
But ‘is wound won’t let ‘im go an’ get a drink.
‘is wounds are left to bleed,
An’ he can’t tell us ‘is need.
So ‘e’s just got ter bear ‘is pain — an’ think.

There are ‘eroes big an’ small
But the biggest of them all
Is the ‘orse wot lays a dying on the ground.
‘e doesn’t cause no wars
An’ ‘e’s only fighting yours,
An’ ‘e gives ‘is life for you without a sound.
‘e doesn’t get no pay,
Just some oats an’ p’r'aps some ‘ay.
If ‘e’s killed no-one thinks a bit of ‘im
‘e’s just as brave an’ good
As any man wot ever stood.
But there’s a mighty little thought or ‘elp for ‘im.

——————

This is by Annette Joyce and was published in A Book of Poems for the Blue Cross Fund (1917), which was published to help raise funds to provide veterinary attention for horses wounded on the war front.

If I am remembering my literary history correctly, WWI was a major turning point for poets writing about war. On the one hand, you had a large contingent of writers following in established traditions: poems glorifying war, immortalizing the romantic side of victory (and defeat) on the front, and calling upon new recruits to join the fight. On the other hand, you had what became known as the “war poets” (Owen, Sassoon, etc), writing poems that showed the stark reality and horrors of life on the front. The contention between the two points of view was an open one, with Owen (for example) writing “Dulce et Decorum Est” in direct response to Jessie Pope (a more traditional/romantic writer).

The interesting thing about the Blue Cross Fund book is that the poets were caught in that same struggle in virtually every poem. Each individual poet had to find a way to reconcile the need to raise funds for the horses (and so espouse a romantic view that would inspire people to donate) while acknowledging the brutal reality of life on the front that made the funds necessary.

You can see that battle in this poem: the bleak allusion to the way horses died from gas, with no hope for them whatsoever, contrasted with the story of Nell, whose presence on the front was both necessary and, ultimately, heroic.

It occurs on a larger scale through the book, as well, with some poets leaning far more towards a traditional romantic approach and others, like Joyce here, leaning to a harsher, more realistic depiction of the front and the lives (and deaths) of the horses who served there.

I just find it fascinating that an anthology of poems about horses would capture a larger literary shift so well.

In a manner of speaking—don’t get me wrong here, because the poems in the volume are awful. Really, really awful. They clearly weren’t chosen for technical ability, or no one would have selected “The Horse” for inclusion. (It ends: “They have Hospitals for them — Ambulance too — / These most humane Workers, who wear a ‘Cross Blue?’” And I’m not missing anything. That’s a complete sentence. Or question. The poet doesn’t seem to be too sure of which it is, but then, the poet doesn’t seem too sure of the name of the org they are fundraising for, since they inverted “Blue Cross.” Oh, I know; anything in the name of rhyme, right? This isn’t even the worst example, unfortunately.) Some of the poems make my eyes bleed. And the poems do tend to fall more towards the romantic view than the pragmatic one, but that’s understandable: this was a fundraiser, remember.

But still—they aren’t all horrific. Some are just bad. And they are historically interesting.

If you want to read it, the book is available (free!) on Archive.org: Link

There are about sixty poems in the book. I have been working through them for over a year (look, I mean it when I say they are really bad—sometimes I need a month or so to recover before I can read more. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.). But if you’re interested, take a look.

Tagged: Annette Joyce, Book of Poems for the Blue Cross Fund by Smith-Dorrien, Books & Reading, Dulce et Decorum Est by Owen, Gunners Story by Joyce, Horse by Anonymous, Horses, Jessie Pope, Olive Smith-Dorrien, Poetry, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen

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