First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Night March


Evening: beneath tall poplar trees We soldiers eat and smoke and sprawl, Write letters home, enjoy our ease, When suddenly comes a ringing call.

'Fall in!' A stir, and up we jump, Fold the love letter, drain the cup, We toss away the Woodbine stump, Snatch at the pack and jerk it up.

Soon with a roaring song we start, Clattering along a cobbled road, The foot beats quickly like the heart, And shoulders laugh beneath their load.

Where are we marching? No one knows, Why are we marching? No one cares. For every man follows his nose, Towards the gay West where sunset flares.

An hour's march: we halt: forward again, Wheeling down a small road through trees. Curses and stumbling: puddled rain Shines dimly, splashes feet and knees.

Silence, disquiet: from those trees Far off a spirit of evil howls. 'Down to the Somme' wail the banshees With the long mournful voice of owls.

The trees are sleeping, their souls gone, But in this time of slumbrous trance Old demons of the night take on Their windy foliage, shudder and dance.

Out now: the land is bare and wide, A grey sky presses overhead. Down to the Somme! In fields beside Our tramping column march the dead.

Our comrades who at Festubert And Loos and Ypres lost their lives, In dawn attacks, in noonday glare, On dark patrols from sudden knives.

Like us they carry packs, they march In fours, they sling their rifles too, But long ago they've passed the arch Of death where we must yet pass through.

Seven miles: we halt awhile, then on! I curse beneath my burdening pack Like Sinbad when with sigh and groan He bore the old man on his back.

A big moon shines across the road, Ten miles: we halt: now on again Drowsily marching; the sharp goad Blunts to a dumb and sullen pain.

A man falls out: we others go Ungrudging on, but our quick pace Full of hope once, grows dull, and slow: No talk: nowhere a smiling face.

Above us glares the unwinking moon, Beside us march the silent dead: My train of thought runs mazy, soon Curious fragments crowd my head.

I puzzle old things learned at school, Half riddles, answerless, yet intense, A date, an algebraic rule, A bar of music with no sense.

We win the fifteenth mile by strength 'Halt!' the men fall, and where they fall, Sleep. 'On!' the road uncoils its length; Hamlets and towns we pass them all.

False dawn declares night nearly gone: We win the twentieth mile by theft. We're charmed together, hounded on, By the strong beat of left, right, left.

Pale skies and hunger: drizzled rain: The men with stout hearts help the weak, Add a new rifle to their pain Of shoulder, stride on, never speak.

We win the twenty-third by pride: My neighbour's face is chalky white. Red dawn: a mocking voice inside 'New every morning', 'Fight the good fight'.

Now at the top of a rounded hill We see brick buildings and church spires. Nearer they loom and nearer, till We know the billet of our desires.

Here the march ends, somehow we know. The step quickens, the rifles rise To attention: up the hill we go Shamming new vigour for French eyes.

So now most cheerily we step down The street, scarcely withholding tears Of weariness: so stir the town With all the triumph of Fusiliers.

Breakfast to cook, billets to find, Scrub up and wash (down comes the rain), And the dark thought in every mind 'To-night they'll march us on again.'

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