Last weekend, with a centenary Remembrance Sunday coming up, I went to an exhibition of World War I memorabilia in a local village. It is interesting to me how it is this war more than World War II that still haunts my generation, just as it haunted my parents’ generation, yet it is easy to see why, reading those stoically cheerful yet yearning letters, preserved by careful hands for a century now, and seeing the photographs of all the keen-eyed young men, smart in their uniforms, who wrote them and never came back to their upland villages among the trees. I am indebted to the poet Sean Haldane for drawing my attention to this piece by Eleanor Marian Dundas Allen (1892-1953), written in 1917, a few days after hearing that her fiancé, Arthur Tylston Greg, had been killed in an air battle over France. He was 22 years old.
The Wind on the Downs
I like to think of you as brown and tall,
As strong and living as you used to be,
In khaki tunic, Sam Brown belt and all,
And standing there and laughing down at me.
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,
Because I can no longer see your face,
You have not died, it is not true, instead
You seek adventure in some other place.
That you are round about me, I believe;
I hear you laughing as you used to do,
Yet loving all the things I think of you;
And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?
You follow and are watchful where I go;
How should you leave me, having loved me so?
We walked along the tow-path, you and I,
Beside the sluggish-moving, still canal;
It seemed impossible that you should die;
I think of you the same and always shall.
We thought of many things and spoke of few,
And life lay all uncertainly before,
And now I walk alone and think of you,
And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.
Over the railway line, across the grass,
While up above the golden wings are spread,
Flying, ever flying overhead,
Here still I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate.