It’s sometime in the 1920s and life in Scotland is going on just as normal – then something trips a memory, and it’s back ten years to the War… This is the scenario which is played out in our latest poem commemorating the Battle of the Somme, as poet JB Salmond recounts how his wartime memories would return to him during a mundane bus ride. He reflects on his comrades who lost their lives in the Battle of Flers-Courcelett, which was fought during the Somme 100 years this month.
The Forfar Bus
On the Forfar ‘bus in a morn of spring,
A nipping wind and the frost’s sharp sting;
And I can’t tell why, but you want to sing
If your heart’s like the heart o’ me.
The folks in the ‘bus, they stretch their legs,
And talk of the fall in the price of eggs,
Of milk by the pint, and butter in kegs,
With – “drop in some day to your tea.”
And my mind goes back to the days that were –
Days of turmoil and days of stir,
And a ‘bus from Albert to Pozieres,
And fellows that rode with me.
We cursed the night, and we cursed the wet;
We envied the luck of the men we met
Coming out of the trenches at Courcelette –
A hell of a place to be.
The Forfar ‘bus brought me back once more
As the clock of the Pillars was striking four;
Though the wind may blow and the rain may pour,
There’s a chair and a fire for me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But the lads that jumped off at the duckboard track –
(Cold was the night, and heavy the pack) –
They didn’t join on when the ‘bus went back –
And they’ll never come in for their tea.
by JB Salmond
About J.B. Salmond
J.B. Salmond was a journalist, on the staff of the Dundee Advertiser in the 1920s, and later editor for many years of The Scots Magazine. But in 1916 he had been a 2nd Lieutenant in the 7th Black Watch, which took part in the attack on Beaumont Hamel, so his experience of the war was at first hand, and he must have lost many comrades. The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which is remembered in this poem, was part of the larger Somme offensive and took place in the middle of September 100 years ago.
Salmond’s poems looking back to the First World War are few, but they are all, whether in Scots or English, spoken from the heart, and from the point of view of the ordinary soldier. He had a knack for voicing what must have been in the thoughts of so many, both during the war and retrospectively, and presumably, for describing what must have been happening to former serving men up and down the country: – a sudden jolt of memory, and it’s back to the front, back to the trenches or to the silent patrol on dark seas. These might have been men who talked very little of their experiences, who might not have had an audience for their reminiscences or who tried to forget. But the war would forever intrude on their daily lives, and the memories could be triggered by something as mundane as a bus journey. Salmond was a popular writer, and his touch in ‘The Forfar Bus’ is sure. That understated ‘never come in for their tea’ speaks to the ordinary Scottish reader as much as any highly-wrought phrase, and goes straight to the heart.
Read more about J.B. Salmond here.