William the Conqueror’s fleet – of perhaps
five hundred long boats – assembled
in the Bay of the Somme. ‘History’
more or less rhymes with ‘irony’. The river
flowed through the flat bottomed chalky valley
steadily then and the years of the battle.
As the world has warmed, the water table
has risen, creating fens and marshes –
calm, bosky stretches catching the empty sky.
Numbers, for the most part, are abstract, even
of the British dead and wounded that first day –
slightly less than fifty eight thousand,
the population of present day
Aldershot, Bebington, Tunbridge Wells.
What is concrete is that those undernourished
young British men (my age or less when I
first read about them) climbed the ladders
up the trench walls, crossed no-man’s-land, marched
in lock step to death each carrying –
in addition to their Lee-Enfield rifle –
an entrenching tool, two gas helmets,
two grenades, two sandbags, two hundred
and twenty rounds of ammunition,
a pair of wire cutters, and extra rations
of corned beef, condensed milk and hard tack.
Innumerable raindrops still course beneath
the unanswered roll-calls of cemeteries
whose white grave markers parade in lock step,
a permanent muster of ignorant,
frail, oblivious boys.