by Robert Graves
Evening: beneath tall poplar trees
We soldiers eat and smoke and sprawl,
Write letters home, enjoy our ease,
When suddenly comes a ringing call.
‘Fall in!’ A stir, and up we jump,
Fold the love letter, drain the cup,
We toss away the Woodbine stump,
Snatch at the pack and jerk it up.
Soon with a roaring song we start,
Clattering along a cobbled road,
The foot beats quickly like the heart,
And shoulders laugh beneath their load.
Where are we marching? No one knows,
Why are we marching? No one cares.
For every man follows his nose,
Towards the gay West where sunset flares.
An hour’s march: we halt: forward again,
Wheeling down a small road through trees.
Curses and stumbling: puddled rain
Shines dimly, splashes feet and knees.
Silence, disquiet: from those trees
Far off a spirit of evil howls.
‘Down to the Somme’ wail the banshees
With the long mournful voice of owls.
The trees are sleeping, their souls gone,
But in this time of slumbrous trance
Old demons of the night take on
Their windy foliage, shudder and dance.
Out now: the land is bare and wide,
A grey sky presses overhead.
Down to the Somme! In fields beside
Our tramping column march the dead.
Our comrades who at Festubert
And Loos and Ypres lost their lives,
In dawn attacks, in noonday glare,
On dark patrols from sudden knives.
Like us they carry packs, they march
In fours, they sling their rifles too,
But long ago they’ve passed the arch
Of death where we must yet pass through.
Seven miles: we halt awhile, then on!
I curse beneath my burdening pack
Like Sinbad when with sigh and groan
He bore the old man on his back.
A big moon shines across the road,
Ten miles: we halt: now on again
Drowsily marching; the sharp goad
Blunts to a dumb and sullen pain.
A man falls out: we others go
Ungrudging on, but our quick pace
Full of hope once, grows dull, and slow:
No talk: nowhere a smiling face.
Above us glares the unwinking moon,
Beside us march the silent dead:
My train of thought runs mazy, soon
Curious fragments crowd my head.
I puzzle old things learned at school,
Half riddles, answerless, yet intense,
A date, an algebraic rule,
A bar of music with no sense.
We win the fifteenth mile by strength
‘Halt!’ the men fall, and where they fall,
Sleep. ‘On!’ the road uncoils its length;
Hamlets and towns we pass them all.
False dawn declares night nearly gone:
We win the twentieth mile by theft.
We’re charmed together, hounded on,
By the strong beat of left, right, left.
Pale skies and hunger: drizzled rain:
The men with stout hearts help the weak,
Add a new rifle to their pain
Of shoulder, stride on, never speak.
We win the twenty-third by pride:
My neighbour’s face is chalky white.
Red dawn: a mocking voice inside
‘New every morning’, ‘Fight the good fight’.
Now at the top of a rounded hill
We see brick buildings and church spires.
Nearer they loom and nearer, till
We know the billet of our desires.
Here the march ends, somehow we know.
The step quickens, the rifles rise
To attention: up the hill we go
Shamming new vigour for French eyes.
So now most cheerily we step down
The street, scarcely withholding tears
Of weariness: so stir the town
With all the triumph of Fusiliers.
Breakfast to cook, billets to find,
Scrub up and wash (down comes the rain),
And the dark thought in every mind
‘To-night they’ll march us on again.’
Night March was the perfect poem to take us from the looming threat of the war in Section one to the Somme.
Jools has used the music brilliantly here to capture the actual and psychological journey of the soldiers.
As I have already mentioned, we saw the entry into the war partly as a rite of passage from innocent romanticism to harsh experience, which must have been undergone by all soldiers, especially those who, like Graves, enlisted straight from school.
The music at the beginning of the march has deliberate echoes of Lillibolero; its jauntiness and swinging rhythm brings to mind the fife and drum of romantic images of soldiers adventuring into foreign wars, and also underscores the camaraderie and fun of marching cheerfully off into the unknown.
As the darkness deepens and they find themselves marching through the haunted, banshee- wailing wood, the echoes of the owls of Outlaws return with their unsettling cadences and their uneasiness and fear gradually build, until exhausted, they find themselves in a nightmare landscape where the dead march beside them through the silent trees.
By the time they arrive at the town where they are to rest for a short while, the knowledge that they will be moved on again outweighs any sense of adventure or relief.
Now they know where they are going.