This piece by the colourful Vernon Scannell (1922-2007), based on a personal experience of the poet in Normandy where he served with the Gordon Highlanders, is perhaps one of the more memorable poems to come out of the Second World War, the compassionate eloquence of its conclusion underpinned by the realism of the preceding detail.
The Walking Wounded
A mammoth morning moved grey flanks and groaned.
In the rusty hedges pale rags of mist hung;
The gruel of mud and leaves in the mauled lane
Smelled sweet, like blood. Birds had died or flown
Their green and silent antics sprouting now
With branches of leafed steel, hiding round eyes
And ripe grenades ready to drop and burst.
In the ditch at the cross-roads the fallen rider lay
Hugging his dead machine and did not stir
At crunch of mortar, tantrum of a Bren
Answering a Spandau’s manic jabber.
Then into sight the ambulances came,
Stumbling and churning past the broken farm,
The amputated sign-post and smashed trees,
Slow waggonloads of bandaged cries, square trucks
That rolled on ominous wheels, vehicles
Made mythopoeic by their mortal freight
And crimson crosses on the dirty white.
This grave procession passed, though, for a while,
The grinding of their engines could be heard,
A dark noise on the pallor of the morning,
Dark as dried blood; and then it faded, died.
The road was empty, but it seemed to wait—
Like a stage that knows its cast is in the wings—
For a different traffic to appear.
The mist still hung in snags from dripping thorns;
Absent-minded guns still sighed and thumped,
And then they came, the walking wounded,
Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained,
Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
Their heads were weighted down by last night’s lead,
And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks;
Others wore rough dressings, splints and slings;
A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
Not one had suffered from a lethal hurt,
They were not magnified by noble wounds,
There was no splendor in that company.
And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
In the heart’s throat a sour sadness stirs;
Imagination pauses and returns
To see them walking still, but multiplied
In thousands now. And when heroic corpses
Turn slowly in their decorated sleep
And every ambulance has disappeared
The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,
And when recalled they must bear arms again.