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POETRY OF WW1: REMEMBERING THE SOMME

This fortnight’s Somme poem is a short yet effective depiction of the grief felt by those in tight-knit rural communities. In just twelve lines,  Charles Murray echoes the pain and anguish they would have experienced as their young men disappeared and news of their fates trickled slowly back home.

If you are unfamiliar with the Scots language, you can look up individual words using the online Dictionary of the Scots Language.

 When Will the War Be By?

‘This year, neist year, sometime, never,’
   A lanely lass, bringing hame the kye,
  Pu’s at a floo’er wi’ a weary sigh,
An’ laich, laich, she is coontin’ ever
 ‘This year, neist year, sometime, never,
  When will the war be by?’

‘Weel, wounded, missin’, deid,’
   Is there nae news o’ oor lads ava’
  Are they hale an’ fere that are hine awa’?
A lass raxed oot for the list, to read –
 ‘Weel, wounded, missin’, deid ‘
  An’ the war was by for twa.

1916

by Charles Murray

About Charles Murray

It would be hard to find a more succinct poem about loss and grief in war-time than Charles Murray’s ‘When Will the War Be By?’. In twelve short, understated lines, Murray sets the picture of a rural population afflicted by the disappearance of its young men, struggling to manage the farms and cope with worry and the anguish of separation. He shows us how news reached the isolated communities, with lists detailing the fate of local men – wounded, missing, dead – tacked up in the post office or village hall. He gets into the lonely heart of a young girl, missing her lover away at the war, wearily driving the cattle and pulling petals off a flower, in the old way of divining ‘he loves me, he loves me not’, but with a rather more sombre purpose. Then, with six words – ‘the war was by for twa’ – we see that two lives are over: the young soldier’s, and his sweetheart’s. In that couple is embodied all the broken hearts and broken lives of the war.

Charles Murray was a very successful poet who had the ability to write about things that mattered in a way that appealed to a huge range of readers. His poetry is perennially popular, and his deftness with his mother tongue, the Scots of the North-East, belies a working life spent in South Africa. In A Sough o’ War, published in 1917, he skilfully explored the country folk’s varying attitudes to the war, from patriotic to cynical, but always with pride and a fervent ‘haste-ye-back’.   Murray had served in the Boer War and was too old for active service in the First World War, but poetry by non-combatants is just as much ‘war poetry’ as that written by those on the battlefield, since no-one was immune from the effects of the conflict, and the story of those left behind to grieve and get by completes the picture of a world at war.

For more about this poet see here.