Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A fatal romance

La Belle Dame sans Merci by JW Waterhouse
A wandering knight, an enchanted forest, and a cold night sleeping under the stars: in his poem “Bivouacs,” Gilbert Waterhouse of the Essex Regiment uses the language of a medieval quest to describe The Great War. 

This blog has featured other poems that recognize moments of beauty in battle:  Leslie Coulson’s “The Rainbow” argues that even in a trench “the stars are beautiful still”; Carola Oman’s “In the Ypres Sector” marvels that soldiers “have left beauty here in everything,” while Richard Aldington’s “Soliloquy II” finds that even the dead are “More beautiful than one can tell.”

But Gilbert Waterhouse’s “Bivouacs” recalls Romantic poet John Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci”; the poem uses the song-like rhythms and repetition of a ballad as it transforms war into a mysterious journey toward the unknown.


In Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood,
The nightingales sang all night,
The stars were tangled in the trees
And marvellous intricacies
Of leaf and branch and song and light
Made magic stir in Somecourt Wood.

Nightfall, Zillebeke - Paul Nash
In Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood,
We slithered in a foot of mire,
The moisture squelching in our boots;
We stumbled over tangled roots,
And ruts and stakes and hidden wire,
Till marvellous intricacies
Of human speech, in divers keys,
Made ebb and flow thro’ Somecourt Wood.

In Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood,
We bivouacked and slept the night,
The nightingales sang the same
As they had sung before we came.
‘Mid leaf and branch and song and light
And falling dew and watching star.
And all the million things which are
About us and above us took
No more regard of us than
We take in some small midge’s span

Of life, albeit our gunfire shook
The very air in Somecourt Wood.

In Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood,
I rose while all the others slept,
I seized a star-beam and I crept
Along it and more far along
Till I arrived where throbbing song
Of star and bird and wind and rain
Were one – then I came back again –

But gathered ere I came the dust
Of many stars, and if you must
Know what I wanted with it, hear,
I keep it as a souvenir,
Of that same night in Somecourt Wood.
In Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood,
The cuckoo wakened me at dawn.
The man beside me muttered, “Hell!”

But half a dozen larks as well
Sang in the blue – the curtain drawn

Across where all the stars had been
Was interlaced with tender green,
The birds sang, and I said that if
One didn’t wake so cold and stiff
It would be grand in Somecourt Wood.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And then the man beside me spoke,
But what he said about it broke
The magic spell in Somecourt Wood.
                        --Gilbert Waterhouse

The poem opens in the magical forest of Somecourt Wood, where “stars were tangled in the trees,” and the leaves and branches are shot through with song and light.  The second and third stanzas complicate the vision: the song and light are actually the shot and shell falling into a forest of blasted trees, tangled wire, and mud.

But the soldier in this narrative deliberately separates himself from the war and from his company. Like the falling dew and watching star that take no notice of the fighting, he rises as other men sleep.  Seizing a star beam, he climbs along it until he arrives at a place where “star and bird and wind and rain” mingle into oneness.  There, he gathers up a handful of “the dust/ Of many stars” as a remembrance of his mystical journey and returns to camp. 

In the cold of the dawn as the men awaken from their uncomfortable night without shelter, the soldier who has dreamily detached himself from the war persists in his re-visioning of experience at the Front.  He chants the name of the wood as a charm (“in Somecourt Wood, in Somecourt Wood), and as he listens to the morning calls of the cuckoo and lark, he remarks that if it weren’t for the chill and stiffness of his own body, “It would be grand in Somecourt Wood.”

Gilbert Waterhouse
But as with so many enchantments, the magic fades. A nearby soldier mutters “Hell” and makes comments that dispel any charmed vision of the bivouac camp.  The poem doesn’t tell us what the other soldier says: perhaps he rails against the enemy’s artillery fire, complains of the filth and mud, or curses the slim odds of surviving the coming attack.

The specifics do not matter. The spell has been broken, and the brutality of the conflict reasserts itself.  Accounts of the First World War include many examples of soldiers fantasizing themselves elsewhere to cope with realities that were too horrific to contemplate. In Charles CD Roberts’ poem “Going Over,” a soldier mentally escapes from the barrage and broken parapet, hearing only “a girl’s voice in the night,” seeing only “a garden of lilacs, a-flower in the dusk.” 

Like the wandering knight in Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” the soldier in Gilbert Waterhouse’s “Bivouacs” wakes from his dream and finds himself desolate “on the cold hill’s side.” In both poems, soldier and knight lose their illusions and must confront their final journey into the unknown.  War is the seductress without mercy who lures men to their doom, reducing them to pale skeletons whose “starved lips with horrid warning” foretell inevitable death and whose bones are scattered across No Man’s Land. 

Waterhouse's grave at Serre Rd 2
©Louise Heren
Tragically, Waterhouse himself became one of the lost in No Man's Land. He was last seen at about 9:30 am on the first day of the battle of the Somme as he led his men in the attack on Serre.  It is almost certain that Waterhouse died of his wounds sometime during that awful day, but as the Germans held the ground where he lay, his body was not recovered until the summer of 1917. His story and his family’s suffering is not unique: in his regiment alone on July 1st, 1916, 22 of the 24 officers and 414 of the 606 men of other ranks were killed or wounded.  No magical thinking could prevent the loss.


  1. From another soldier of the Great War, who was also at the Somme:

    "Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo's hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Duath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had
    been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master's, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo's side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep."

  2. Ah -- this is special, Tom. Just two weeks ago, we visited the graves of two of Tolkien's close friends: Gilson and Smith. It was a very sobering experience -- achingly beautiful.