WW100 – New Zealand's First World War Centenary Programme ran from 2014 to 2019

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Poet Laureate's response to the First World War centenary

These poems were written at a suggestion from WW100 New Zealand that as Poet Laureate I might contribute to the commemoration of a century passing since New Zealand’s involvement in World War I. My response was to take the persona of Catullus (one I have used before in my poetry), unwilling to celebrate death in battle as Horace does (‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’), but able to honour and bid his brother farewell (‘frater ave atque vale’) with typical Catullan irony, noting the lack of ‘glory’, the sadness, ugliness and waste of war, while acknowledging that it sometimes brought out strength, courage and brotherhood. I finished the sequence with an acknowledgement of my great uncle, 12/3015 Private Owen Vincent Freeman, 1st Battalion Auckland Infantry Regiment, killed in action, the Somme, 16th May 1916 and buried in Cité Bonjean Military Cemetery, Armentières, France.

C.K. Stead

C.K. Stead photograph courtesy of Francesco Guidicini.


One hundred years ago
we were at war
and the Ministry wants from Catullus

‘Why me?’ he protests.
‘I can give you only
“Brother, hail and farewell!”

For “How right and proper it is
to die for one’s country”
you need a civil servant –

Horace for example.’




Remember Katherine’s
Beauchamp brother
the one she called Bogey
killed teaching bombing
in Plugstreet Wood
on the Belgian border
that set her writing
memorials and laments.

‘Blown to bits’ she told a friend.
‘My brother – blown to bits.’




Paddy was the doctor’s dog
and died of shrapnel wounds
in the same cause
and for the same reason
the soldiers died.

What was it again?




There were wildflowers
among the shimmering
                             fly-blown dead
and he wrote about them.

He thought his men should fear him
and wanted glory.

Yes they took Chunuk Bair
and lost it
and would be remembered for that.

But he hadn’t foreseen the love
                   he would feel for them
and that nothing would be worth so much
as this brotherhood in death.



The bayonet

Practice had been
                  on a sack-full of straw
in out and on
                   stomping on the face.

But this was a man
and the blade stuck
                      deep in his rib-cage
dragging me forward
                                      as he fell.

I had to plant a boot on his chest
to yank it free.
                     His eyes were open
but glazing over
                                    like a fish
just pulled from the sea.

‘Sorry’ I said, and on
                                not stopping
to stomp on the face.



The Ministry wants one on

‘The contribution of women’
so Catullus records
that Clodia gave white feathers
to cowards
and lived to shed
                   tears for them.

‘Feathers and tears’
says Catullus.

Feathers and tears.’



The deserter

Last words of the one
who had to die at dawn
in an orchard in France:
‘Are you there, padre?’ –
and the padre was there
though not close enough
to hold his hand.

        The last things
he likely saw
were the apples
in green grass
and the five man squad
rifles ready.



Quiet there!

That noisy boy
in No Man’s Land
whose actions rhymed
crying and dying –
the Sergeant wanted to shoot him
to shut him up
but couldn’t risk the shot.

The lad fell silent
at 2 a.m.

            By noon
we could smell him and soon
could hear between bomb blasts
the flies
         that sang in his ears.



The C.O. at Ypres

     hung on a willow pole
        by wrists and ankles
in freezing snow
  the hours passed in pain
       and passed beyond it
for Archie Baxter
                          his will
hardly human
         who would not fight
         nor serve in any way –

a sort of scarecrow,
a kind of Christ.




The Ministry
       suggests for subject
‘the forgotten war
                   in Sinai’
which Catullus



Jack Lee, D.C.M.

It was the detonations
                                         and worse
the spaces between
                                kept him awake
when weariness put his mates to sleep.

Death would be better than this
          but at night in No Man’s Land
                               repairing the wire
he dived to avoid it until
a shell shredded his arm.

                                     Then a coolness
came upon him
                     and he did everything
                                to save the life
which in battle
he’d been ready to squander.

Gallantry was the word they used
for the daring, the sheer dash
                  of his exploits under fire.
He called it madness.



R. S. A.

And Catullus dreaming
                   finds himself
       among these cheerful old men
with memories they repeat only
       one to another
                   like unlikely stories
hard even for themselves
                   to credit or believe.




was the endless rain
                    the ever and always mud
the dying and the dead.

                                            It was
sleeping upright on the fire-step
because the trench was flooded
                          and at daybreak
walking into the fire,
                               our own shells
  that were to clear a path ahead
falling short;

and then the snipers
                                picking us off
as we ducked between shell-holes

      brains blasted, lungs blistered…                   

                   It was the endless rain
the ever and always mud
the dying and the dead
and the pain.



The Somme

My brother is a number
and so is my cousin
and my cousin’s cousin
and so now am I
one of a number.

Twenty thousand on the first day
and overall
                   on both sides
a million –
                   one million

We are the dead
whose glory they say
will live in stone
and outlast brass.




Mud and blood
so much of it
but don’t forget
(Catullus insists)
the boozing and singing,
the brotherhood,
and those easeful epiphanies
in the brothels of Bruges.

Tell the Ministry
it was a man’s war.
To men most of the pride,
to men all of the shame,
and to Owen Vincent Freeman
a grave in Armentières
and a bronze plaque saying
‘He died for Freedom and Honour.’

Download the full suite of poems (Word document, 37 KB)