A Dead Boche
by Robert Graves (pub 1916)
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
This is the most famous of Graves’ war poems and expresses the revulsion and fury and helpless compassion he feels at what the war has reduced men to.
It is the word ‘spectacled’ that makes this a great poem rather than a good one. It reminds the reader of the person that soldier was – an ordinary, vulnerable man who belonged in some quiet German village somewhere before he was swept up into this conflict and ended up in this wood. Those spectacles belonged open on a book, or on a bedside table, not here as part of this obscene sight.
From the point of view of the Oratorio, this is one of our three points of reference; the second wood; the shattered wood of sacrifice and bloody slaughter.
Graves describes this visit to Mametz wood in Goodbye to all that:
He was in the wood looking for German greatcoats among the dead to help keep his own troops warm in the bivouac at night.
It was a task that clearly upset him.