That dawn I rose in haste, outstripped the sun,
And faced my duty in the clinging dark.
A friend, whose Spring of Life had yet to run,
Lay tombless where a shell had found its mark.
The stars shone brighter for the frosty night.
Grimly the air gripped limb and thought and heart.
I saw the ghostly horse in glimmering light
Awaiting me, impatient for the start.
I mounted; rode eight silent miles, intent
On my appointed task. Too well I knew
The Valley Desolate, the gusty vent
By devastation winnowed through and through.
Reluctant night still held us to her breast:
Our steps struck lonely echoes on the way.
Whilst War uneasy stirred in troubled rest
The last dark moments shivered into day.
A stumbling horse’s hoof lit sparks of fire,
Wild clattering upon the smitten flint.
Into the cheerless East dawn clambered higher,
Faintly our helmets caught the answering glint.
Then startled clamour shook the skirts of Night.
With whirr of unseen wings low overhead
Flew monstrous shapes. Around us tongues of light
Spat venom, cruelly-
Six miles achieved I left both horse and man,
And trod a dubious path, acutely lone,
That once through summer-
There was not left a stone upon a stone.
O kindly Sun! to spin a web of mist
In mercy silvering out the tortured vale.
Yet through the folds I saw pale flashes twist
And twitch into great gaps the texture frail.
Each forward step more direful grew the sound.
One track in that impalpable morass
Gave access, where each swift succeeding round
Fell aureoled by its exploding mass.
Scarce time to flee ungainly through the mud,
Through gun positions battered to the mould
And buried ammunition, and the blood
Of mouthing men and horses, scarcely cold.
And ever shells in chorus through the air
Like savage harpies rushed upon their prey,
And splashed into long-
They scourged again the uncomplaining clay.
At last, with progress slow, I passed the scream
Of wingèd death, and gained a shattered combe,
Whose gentle beauty, transient as a dream,
Had sunk to the corruption of the tomb.
Amid the wreck I found a battery.
The Major, fretting at my long delay,
Gave greeting brief (War knows no flattery).
And Gunner Bean and I went on our way.
With beating hearts we passed along the track
Picked out by corpses flung on either side.
The mist rolled slowly up behind my back,
And bared the slopes where countless heroes died.
Beyond the valley where the front lines ran
Neat farms still stood, and harvests in the field,
And towers of churches, safe beyond the ban
Of death by bosky verdure half-
But here luxuriated Death at will,
Rending with horrid grasp the ordered tilth,
And poured libation grim, insatiate still,
And seethed with human blood and nameless filth.
Stark skeletons of what once trees had been
No longer murmured low with tremulous breath.
Grey Silence stalked uncanny through the scene,
As if to whisper were to summon Death.
Where once a thronged highway, broad and straight,
Had marshalled venturers from every clime,
Bound for yon Cloth Hall through the Menin Gate,
Beside the belfry, clothed with pealing chime:
Now lay a tiny stretch of lonely stones.
Now muttered orders passed, broke, changed to groans,
Died in the gun’s insatiable roar.
Amid new craters, steep and rank and wide,
I sought my friend, fear edging my distress;
O’erpassed him, turned, retraced my steps, espied
His body flung in piteous helplessness.
His tense limbs mingled with the soaking clay;
A pool of water haloed his young head.
Before his feet his faithful servant lay,
Unfailing in his trust or live or dead.
A dozen rapid rounds tore shrieking by,
Not more than twice some men with hasty stride
Passed to and fro: nor stayed they to descry
What made a chaplain in that spot abide.
The violet fluttering of my tiny stole
In hasty obsequies of Holy Church,
Gave presage for the safety of that soul.
Doubly rewarded was our weary search!
We buried him; where else but where he died?
No other sanctuary so glorious
As this grim hold, where Youth and manly pride
His resting place we builded clean and dry;
Set up a Cross to mark his lonely bed.
However swiftly sped the passer-
He’d know the cause for which that blood was shed.
Dull with fatigue, up the long trail we went.
Like baffled Furies splinters that had missed
An aeroplane clanged by with venom spent.
Untired the rasping shells shrill screamed and hissed.
Slow toiled our limbs up the unending track,
With singing hearts as we drew nearer home.
Relieved, his grateful friends received us back;
Unresting thence, at Duty’s call, to roam.