In this fortnight’s Somme centenary commemoration poem, Hamish Mann revisits horrible remnants of previous battles on the same territory. In brutal yet honest wording, Mann depicts the horror of the physical reality and presence of death in the battlefields.
The Shell Hole
In the Shell Hole he lies, this German soldier of a year ago;
But he is not as then, accoutred, well, and eager for the foe
He hoped so soon, so utterly, to crush. His muddy skull
Lies near the mangled remnants of his corpse – war’s furies thus annul
The pomp and pageantry that were its own. White rigid bones
Gape through the nauseous chaos of his clothes; the cruel stones
Hold fast the letter he was wont to clasp close to his am’rous breast.
Here, ‘neath the stark, keen stars, where is no peace, no joy, nor any rest,
He lies. There, to the right, his boot, gashed by the great shell’s fiendish whim,
Retains – O horrid spectacle! – the fleshless stump that was his limb!
Vile rats and mice, and flies and lice and ghastly things that carrion know
Have made a travesty of Death of him who lived a year ago.
France, 10th September, 1916
by Hamish Mann
About Hamish Mann
The subject of this blog a fortnight ago was a poet preoccupied by death, with a poem featuring more abstract thoughts on the subject; now ‘The Shell Hole’ by Hamish Mann gives us a lurid picture of the physical manifestation of death. Although every effort was made by each side to collect and bury their dead, all too frequently it was impossible and the bodies rotted where they lay. This poem demonstrates how so often on the Western Front the same ground was fought over again, and a corpse which was fresh when battle raged there originally is still in situ when the action returns a year later.
Hamish Mann had only arrived in France in August 1916; in this poem we are seeing the true realities of war through the horrified eyes of one who is fresh to it all. Twenty years old, his war experience up until then had been volunteering at Craigleith Military Hospital in Edinburgh, prior to his year’s training. The ghastly, half-rotted corpse is not just disgusting, the shock of it also wipes out – annuls – any martial glamour that might have lingered in the fancy of so recent a recruit. But he is not yet so hardened by the sight that he does not imagine the love-letter carried by this unknown German buried beneath the corpse.
Mann’s poetry is disarmingly honest. In it we can read all the emotions likely to have been felt by any rookie soldier on the battlefield. He gives us horror, yes, but in other poems he refreshingly admits that the war is bringing him alive, is giving him a chance to taste of life, to test himself, though at the same time reckoning on the high likelihood of his death. He did survive the Somme, but died seven months later at Arras.
For more about this poet, see Scottish Poetry Library.