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POETRY OF WW1: REMEMBERING THE SOMME

The latest in our series of poems commemorating the Somme describes how weary soldiers would drag themselves to their living quarters after a spell at the front line.

Though many found comfort in the billets, which were luxury compared to the trenches, John Peterson paints a different picture of the near-derelict chateau he found himself in at the Somme, describing the dark and haunting atmosphere that followed the men back from the battlefield.

Billets

From out the reeling night the old chateau
Rears up to meet a straggling file of men,
Muddy and sore; who filled with thankfulness,
Plod up the pond’rous stair in heavy pain,
Weary and numbed, and sodden with rain.

Then snuggle down to sweet oblivion;
In chinks aglow, the guttering candle-ends
Flicker against the gaunt, grey, dripping beams
And flare to humid, rough-hewn rafters, hung
With muddy trappings. Rifles feebly flung

Against the walls; and here and there about –
Helmets, and bandoliers and bayonets,
Box-respirators dropped amongst the straw:
So, reeking damp, still, motionless, they lie
As dead, a few who fought and did not die.

by John Peterson

When we look at photographs taken of soldiers at the front during the First World War, often they are of the men ‘at rest’ – away from the fighting. This is obviously because it was easier for the man with the camera, but also because most time spent on active service was not in fact spent in the front trench. A short spell at the front line alternated with a period in the support lines, and longer periods in billets. It has been estimated that an infantryman could spend up to half of his time in billets, so it is no surprise that they were so important, and featured so frequently in film, photographs, letters and poetry.  They were ‘home’.

The billets varied wildly, from an intact, fully-furnished villa to a bombed out farm house, to the near-derelict chateau Jack Peterson found himself in. Any kind of structure was preferable to bivouacking in tents, and whether they were partly open to the sky or dry and cosy, it must have been heaven to men who hadn’t been able to dry their feet for a week. Black Watch sergeant Joseph Lee wrote:

A roof that hardly holds the rain
Walls shaking to the hurricane;
Great doors upon their hinges creaking;
Great rats upon the rafters squeaking –
A midden in the courtyard reeking –
Yet oft I’ve sheltered, snug and warm,
Within that friendly old French farm!

And Charles Scott Moncrieff echoes the sentiment in his poem ‘Back in Billets’:

You may speak of the Ritz or the Curzon (Mayfair)
And maintain that they keep you in luxury there:
If you’ve laid for six weeks on a water-logged plain,
Here’s the acme of comfort, in billets again. 

In contrast, Jack Peterson’s poem is heavy with the dark atmosphere of the Somme, where men who have so far escaped death drag themselves, exhausted, to whatever rest and shelter is afforded them, and with straw and candles, make a refuge under the rafters.

Read more about Jack Peterson here.