A Rag-Tag Song
It was the good old-fashioned plain stuff
warmed up and ladled out. We got stew,
a mess of baked beans. We got plum duff
with no custard. We never got trifle.
Issued with kit and caboodle, a toothbrush,
we were taught how to use a rifle
and boarded the troop train for the front.
We were a small cog in a very big wheel,
a million men joined up as a motley throng,
a motley crew – fathers, brothers, sons –
who went away singing this soldier's song,
went over the top to do some scrapping.
It didn't matter where we went, what we saw
on the voyage out. We were caught napping,
caught with our pale arses in the air
over them bloody latrines in a shitty ditch.
We embarked on an old Thames pleasure boat.
It was the last time I saw home,
landing near midnight and given rations,
yards of French bread. Lovely country passing,
all the rivers sparkling in the sun, some
whose names we couldn't get our tongues around.
It was a right lark. The old barbed wire
and the German barbed wire entwined, the duckboards
laid down and the trenches propped up
and snatches of the German tongue on the wind.
We took it in our stride. We were young.
Sooner or later we were going to get the chop.
Quick march boys! Kit, toothbrush, and buttons
catching the sun. It was a rum plum duff
and no shirking, no larking, sticking to your guns,
standing in three feet of mud that stuck
to the roof of your mouth. Some ducking
for cover, some of us along for the ride
embarking on the old pleasure boat
on the outgoing tide with salt on the tongue,
a spice of danger, a sight I shall never forget.
In the good-sized villages we could get
Woodbines, Players, swop our cigarettes
for their French wine in a kind of entente cordiale.
I'll take some of yours and you take some of mine,
I'll trade you tit for tat, their horse meat
for our dead horses. Bone and gristle
in a mess tin stew, lick and spittle on the buttons.
It didn't matter tuppence. Everything was flung at us,
tommy guns and old bazookas, teeth and tongue,
whatever came down the line with a fine whistle.
It was a bayonet up your bum or a bum on a bayonet,
the wheels and cogs all rolled in one.
We got trench foot and horse manure,
whatever they slung at us. Sooner or later
we'd cop it and make it back home for sure
on the old pleasure boat, sooner or later down tools.
as the noise rose to a crescendo never heard before.
The Germans came over the line. They were just boys
like us, upping their ages, acting like fools
away from the slaughter and the floundering horses.
It was a sight I shall never forget all my long days.
We had an idea they were glad to be captured.
It was a rum plum duff and no custard.
It was Woodbines and Fritz, teeth and gristle.
It was tongues all tongue-tied with mud.
It was spit and buttons in a mess tin stew.
This poem makes use of snatches of recorded speech from the documentary film They Shall Not Grow Old.
Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland was described in the TLS as “Brilliant. Thoroughly absorbing.” Rooney has published three books of poetry. A bilingual selection appeared from Wolfbach (Zurich) titled Angelandet / Landing Craft in 2017. He lives in Basel, Switzerland.