‘New Army Education’

I learned to wash in shell-holes, and to shave myself in tea,
While the fragments of a mirror did a balance on my knee.
I learned to dodge the whizz-bangs and the flying lumps of lead,
And to keep a foot of earth between the snipers and my head.
I learned to keep my haversack well-filled with buckshee food,
To take my army issue and to pinch what else I could.
I learned to cook machonochie with candle-ends and string,
With four-by-two and sardine-oil, and any old darned thing.
I learned to use my bayonet according as you please,
For a bread-kinife or a chopper, or a prong for toasting cheese.
I learned to gather souvenirs that home I hoped to send,
And hump them round for months and months, and dump them in the end.
I never used to grumble after breakfast in the line
That the eggs were cooked too lightly or the bacon cut too fine.
I never told a sergeant just exactly what i thought.
I never did a pack-drill, for I never quite got caught.
I never stopped a whizz-bang, though I’ve stopped a lot of mud;
But the one that Fritz sent over with my name on was a dud.

I found this poem in a 1939 magazine called ‘The Great War…I Was There: Undying memories of 1914-1918.‘ it is attributed to Anon.

It is not to be found in the respectable anthologies edited by Tim Kendall or Jon Stallworthy, or in Hibberd and Onions’s more varied The Winter of the World, or even in Vivien Noakes’s Voices of Silence, which includes a fair amount of popular poetry. The magazine’s note says it was ‘found by an officer “somewhere in France”‘.

I found the magazine on a bric-a-brac stall in Huddersfield market on Saturday. It is a symptom of the renewed interest in the First War as the Second was looming. Its speciality is (reprinted) accounts of wartime exploits and experiences, and the plentiful photos are, I think, recycled from War Illustrated from the same publishers. It does not, however, reprint the bellicose line-drawings that were a feature of the earlier paper. In this issue, there are articles on Toc H, dogs used as messengers, and Henry Williamson’s return to Ypres.

The tone is elegiac, perhaps because this is the last issue of the magazine. A notice on the front explains:

In view of the outbreak of the European War subscribers to ‘I was There’ will not be surprised to learn that the publishers have decided not to proceed with the issue of the proposed new series.

Instead they announce a coming ‘picture record of the renewed conflict of the nations forced upon the world by German Aggression’. In other words, they have embarked on a new series of The War Illustrated,

The selection of poetry is mostly elegiac too. It’s interesting to see what they chose. Owen and Sassoon, the kings of ther modern war poetry canon are there, with ‘The Send-Off’ and ‘Aftermath’ repectively’ and Rupert Brooke is there with ‘The Dead’. McRae and Binyon are predictably there with their greatest hits, and there is other stuff, too. For example, ‘The Day’ by Henry Chappell, which is a fairly awful bit of hUn-bashing (‘Monster, who asked God’s aid Divine,/ Then strewed his seas withthe ghastly mine/ Not all the waters of all the Rhine/ Can wash thy foul hands clean.’) There are some pieces from Punch, too, and the poem I started with.

A bit of Googling suggests that it is part of a much longer poem: ‘Any Soldier to his Son’, and the name of George Willis is suggested as the author. Vivian Noake’s anthology has a poem attributed to Willis, ‘To My Mate’, which is in the same metre as this one. It is a lovely poem about his friendship with a Bible-bashing comrade, and has the same evocation of detail:

I see you sternly frowning with my glasses on your nose,
While you proved from Revelation when the war was bound to close.
Till you smelt the old pot cooking and your brows relaxed their frown,
And you sat and purred with pleasure as you spooned the custard down.

What else can I find out about George Willis? I’m working on it.

3 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted October 9, 2022 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    ‘Any Soldier to his Son’ it is. You’ll find it and another poem here: https://allpoetry.com/George-Willis
    There’s a book with that title, pub. by George Allen & Unwin 1919
    and A Ballad of Four Brothers [and other poems] George Allen & Unwin 1924

    There’s also The Philosophy of Speech.
    George WILLIS, Writer of Verse.
    London : G. Allen & Unwin, 1919
    which sounds rather different! All in BL

    • Posted October 9, 2022 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. ‘The Philosophy of Speech’ sounds intriguing. I’ll add it to my overlong list.

  2. Anonymous
    Posted October 12, 2022 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    The Philosophy of Speech is on Internet Archive.


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